Living on the Edge

Touloum. Farchana. Kounoungou. The names of these towns in eastern Chad, when pronounced syllable by syllable by the local natives, evoke, as they have told me on a number of occasions, a sense of pride and history. But for almost a year now these towns have given their names to huge refugee camps for thousands of Sudanese—Touloum alone has over 16,000 inhabitants—who have fled their country. In mid-2003 marginalized groups in Darfur, a region of western Sudan, took up arms against the oppressive government in Khartoum. In turn, the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, responded with brutal force to quell this uprising, both by employing roaming bands of militia, called in Arabic janjaweed (roughly translated “evil horsemen”), who have killed boys and men, raped women and destroyed towns and villages along the way, and also by using crude but effective aerial bombardments. In addition, the government, located in the north of the country, wants to keep Sudan under strict Islamic control by coercing the Christians and animists in the south, an area with huge oil reserves, to accept its will. Continuing discussions, particularly between President Omar al-Bashir and John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, have failed to produce peaceful results.

For people of my generation, the refugee camps in Chad easily call to mind other types of camps, such as the extermination camps of World War II, where Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and Catholic priests who opposed the Nazi regime were tortured and dehumanized and millions were put to death. These camps in Chad, however, have an altogether different purpose: to provide shelter and medical attention; to feed and educate the young and those who do not know how to read or write; and to offer myriad forms of human support. Thus these camps should be considered villages where traumatized individuals and families can stay and cope with the exigencies of everyday life until at some moment, maybe in two or three years, they are able to return to their homeland in relative peace and security. One simple way to test the present level of fear among the Sudanese in these camps is simply to look into the eyes of the children. Their eyes always tell the truth.


Among the almost dozen refugee camps near this section of the Sudanese border, Touloum, Farchana and Kounoungou have been entrusted, with the approval of the Chadian government, to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, who, in turn, has asked Secours Catholique et Développement, a partner of Catholic Relief Services (Secadev), to oversee their management. For its part, Secadev, one of approximately 25 nongovernmental organizations (other N.G.O.’s include Care International, Doctors Without Borders, Norwegian Christian Aid, Oxfam and World Vision) has requested that the Jesuit Refugee Service (J.R.S.) organize and run schools in these particular camps. The lines of cooperation are clear, though it takes time and endless meetings to figure out how they should work in practice.

From a dispassionate, schematic point of view, these humanitarian organizations, thanks to years of remarkable experience, should function at near-maximum efficiency. But this is not always the case. Flow charts cannot always take account of trucks breaking down, gangsters coming out of nowhere at night, material arriving late or not at all, personnel being replaced, often on short notice, and the constant lack of electricity—and thus communication—in many sectors. I am still amazed at how often we have to stop to rouse two or three camels from their sandy napping area. And with the advent of the dry season in this part of the already arid Sahel, the Chadian landscape makes incessant demands that easily alter one’s mindscape.

Whenever I approach these three camps with my Jesuit confrères, Philippe Marbaix, a Belgian with experience helping refugees in Burundi, and Gianfranco Iacuzzi, an Italian who has worked among the poor and the handicapped in Albania, I am reminded of American Civil War photos of military encampments taken by Matthew Brady—rows and rows and rows of small dirty brown tents. At that point I begin to make strictly imaginary calculations about the quantity of foodstuffs and water needed just to sustain the people in these camps, not to mention the logistical support needed to insure that life can have some semblance of a human context. I can only marvel that anything at all constructive ever takes place.

So far the task of the three of us has been to serve as a joint superintendent of schools in these three camps. For countless hours we have sat (in lotus-position, somewhat awkward for me at least) in makeshift shelters or tents talking in French, Chadian and Sudanese Arabic, and English (educated Sudanese can converse a bit in English) with the directors of these three schools and the faculty they have assembled. In the camps we are usually assisted by a multilingual translator—a process that sometimes slows down and adds a note of confusion to what otherwise should be a normal conversation.

In our discussions, we have reached out to the parents of the school children in the camps in order to include them in the running of their schools. According to calculations we made in early October, we have an enrollment of more than 6,800 students, and thus need somewhere in the vicinity of 125 classrooms for these schools (in morning and afternoon sessions), mats so that students do not have to sit on packed sand, a sufficient number of the Arabic textbooks that are part of the traditional Sudanese (but not Chadian) school program, chairs and desks for the teachers, notebooks and pencils for the students, and blackboards for each classroom. And that is just the beginning.

Our J.R.S. team, working within Secadev, has no school materials of its own, and we rely on the generosity of our N.G.O. partners. To date, some items have been made available; others, such as tents we desperately hoped to use for classrooms, will not, alas, be put at our disposition in time for the official opening of the three schools, though we are grateful for the ones we have received. The important thing is to continue the work before us as best we can.

Yes, we do the best we can, as Jesuits trying to discern how our thoughts and actions should be directed toward the greater glory of God here in this small corner of Chad, where thousands of Sudanese await the chance to pursue, as I believe it is their God-given right, faith-filled lives in a more just society.

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