Remembering why

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Africa » Chad » East
November 1st 2011
Published: March 19th 2012
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Missions to Iriba, Guereda, Farchana, and Gore

So since I last wrote you far too long ago, I’ve visited nearly all of our field offices—of which we have 10! (And no—being in N’Djamena does not count as living “in the field.” Try implying that and you might get punched by someone who actually does!) We have seven offices in the desert in eastern Chad dealing with refugees from Darfur and internally displaced Chadians, and 3 in the south dealing with refugees from Central African Republic. While I love the fact that, being based in the capital city, I cover the entire Chad operation and can get a glimpse of the situation in all the different camps, I do often feel like a tourist. I visit camps and field offices for a week or two at most, trying to get a feel for the main challenges and getting to know the staff—and probably spend a maximum of 2-3 days in any camp. Each day I have a packed schedule of meetings with governmental authorities, refugee leaders, women’s groups, and refugee volunteer workers—knowing I’ll probably never meet them again, because I have another 19 camps to visit during my term here and perpetually refreshed piles of work waiting for me back in the office in N’Djamena.

Though I sometimes feel like my visits to the camps are superficial, one recent trip not only gave me a chance to imagine, for one day, that I was back in the field, but enabled me to get involved in an individual case that reminded why I began working in the humanitarian field in the first place. While doing a routine “tourist” visit of a camp in eastern Chad—visiting schools and classes (to make sure kids are actually in school and teachers are actually teaching them), women’s community centers (to see if women are actually using the peanut butter- and pasta-making machines we bought to promote income generation), and other essential monitoring activities, my field office colleague suggested we visit a survivor of forced marriage who had agreed to meet with me. It was a sunny, warm day and we made our way down the sand path through a neighborhood of one-story mud-brick walled compounds, a growing number of little children following behind us, giggling. It was almost possible to forget for a second where we were going.

My colleague stopped a doorway in a long, mud-brick wall, and asked whether we could enter, through our interpreter, a refugee who volunteers to work on sexual violence issues with the humanitarian agencies in the camp. Thankfully, the husband of the girl we were visiting was not home, and she assured us that we could speak with no risk to her (or to us). We entered the house where she was being held, against her will, by the husband her parents had sold her to, and sat on a mat in a shaded niche inside the courtyard of the home to talk. She was 18; one day a few months prior, she had been walking through the camp where she lived with her parents when she was suddenly kidnapped by two men in a pick-up truck, and taken to a different camp. She was told that her parents had promised her to one of the men’s parents, years ago. And according to common tradition in the region, she was never informed of the marriage, until the traumatic moment when she was kidnapped by strange men and transported in the night, far from her family, friends, and community.

Unfortunately, forced marriage is a very widespread practice in the region, and not punishable by law. So, as sad as this girl’s story was, there wasn’t much we could do, other than try to facilitate negotiations between her family and her husband. This rarely succeeds, because years prior, when the marriage was negotiated, the husband’s family paid her family a dowry, as a guarantee for the marriage. For her to renounce the marriage now would mean her family having to reimburse the dowry, which can represent a very large sum in this region. And this is money probably long spent. Not to mention the shame she would be perceived as having brought on her family, and the punishment she might receive if she went home.

As we were talking to the girl, the awful reality that there was probably nothing we could do for her began weighing on me; this, coupled with her quiet sobs, took me beyond the bounds of professionalism and I felt tears beginning to stream out of my eyes. It was a brutal helplessness. I asked the girl what life had been like for her since she was brought to live with this man she was forced to call a husband. She stated that he beat her daily, and sometimes made her stand for hours on end as punishment for any of various trespasses or impertinencies he accused of. Including, leaving the house, not cooking dinner to his satisfaction, or crying. I asked her if he had injured her; she said yes. After asking my colleague, who was male, to leave the courtyard, the refugee volunteer assisted her to remove her shirt to reveal a series of open wounds on her back, where her husband had beaten her with a whip. I immediately asked if she had been to a doctor; she said her husband refused to let her leave the house for any reason.

I suddenly had a glimmer of hope; here was physical evidence of coups et blessures volontaires, or physical assault, which is punishable under Chadian law—I began thinking, maybe there is a way to get her out of here. What happens if I try to get her out of here? We’re in the middle of the camp, with no car. Only radios. If her husband comes home and finds us talking to her, she will have hell to pay; if we’re spotted walking with her in
Woman replastering her wallsWoman replastering her wallsWoman replastering her walls

Yes, this is actually considered women's work. (As is basically everything unless it involves getting to decide how to spend money.)
the camp, her husband and all of his males relatives might obstruct us. (And all male refugees carry knives.) Even if we manage to get her out, where can she go? There are no domestic violence shelters in eastern Chad. Her family lives hundreds of kilometers away (and will they even let her come back?). My mind was rushing madly to figure this situation out as quickly as possible in a way that would enable us to take her with us and get her out if this man’s house. I quickly conferred with my colleague, and the camp manager, a government officer who was familiar with the case and the context of community relations in the camp. He stated that we would set off a major controversy if we took her, but he agreed that she was in need of medical care. We radioed our driver and told him to immediately get to the nearest pick-up point. From there, we went to the local security office to inform them of the situation and engage their support.

Within a couple of minutes of arriving at the security office, located just outside the camp, a small mob of at least 40 men was forming outside. The security officer insisted that we had to first discuss the situation with the husband, to inform him of the situation. He and his relatives made many arguments why the girl should stay—none of which persuaded the security officer, thankfully. We finally took the girl to the nearest town, which had a basic health center where she could be treated for the wounds on her back. During her treatment she would stay with local female security officers, who are trained in handling cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Together we took photos of her wounds, as evidence for any criminal case against her husband. (Knowing, of course, that the chances the case would ever go to a court, or result in punishment, were essentially nil.) As soon as we got back to the office, my field colleagues and I began strategizing on what could be done to prevent her going back to her husband. I was leaving the field to return to N’Djamena the following day; I felt like I needed to stay, to see this case through… But it’s not my job (this time, anyway) and I had to hand it over
Inside refugee family sleeping roomInside refugee family sleeping roomInside refugee family sleeping room

Again this is in a fairly well-to-do household.
and let it go.

I flew back to N’Djamena wondering constantly what was happening to the girl now, had her parents in the other camp been contacted, what would (could?) be done to pacify her husband, and with a tinge of fear that we might have done the wrong thing. Cases like this happen every day, and girls endure… Less than 10% of SGBV cases reported in the refugee camps involve forced marriage, though most marriages are forced. It’s such an accepted part of the culture that women and girls do not report it as a problem. Many women and girls are forced into marriage, but are able to tolerate it. That’s what made this case different, and that’s what made it imperative to act: this girl sought us out, and told us that she could not bear to live with this man, in this situation. Despite the awfulness of the story, I landed in N’Djamena thinking, “This is why I came to Chad.” It was the first time I had had that thought since I started working here. I felt a refreshed commitment, and it felt great. I went to dinner that night with my friends and had a late night playing “Jungle Speed,” a wacky French card game. Chad ain’t all that bad 😉.

Next up: my emergency training in Norway, followed by my emergency deployment to the Ethiopia-Somalia border!

Note: the photos were taken in many camps in eastern and southern Chad during various field missions. And p.s. I know it's been woefully long since my last entry...I blame Chad! The internet here is terrible. Publishing this has been an ongoing effort for a few days. But I am going to try and be a bit more regular about this from now on. Fasnacht resolution!

Additional photos below
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Women making solar cookersWomen making solar cookers
Women making solar cookers

As part of an income-generating program, women are provided materials to make "solar cookers" which reduce dependence on depleted natural resources like firewood.
Me and a friend in a camp near IribaMe and a friend in a camp near Iriba
Me and a friend in a camp near Iriba

She actually works out in the field...very tough life.
Group of kidsGroup of kids
Group of kids

They just gathered around us as we were waiting for a meeting to start in a community center in the camp. So cute and eager to engage.
Talking with the kidsTalking with the kids
Talking with the kids

Some of them speak English.
"Marabou" board"Marabou" board
"Marabou" board

A marabou is a traditional/spiritual healer. They use these wooden boards with inscriptions for teaching.
Kids riding donkeysKids riding donkeys
Kids riding donkeys

Another very typical sight
Flying in the jumpseat!Flying in the jumpseat!
Flying in the jumpseat!

Got some pretty amazing views getting to ride in the jumpseat of this plane to Abeche.
View from plane to AbecheView from plane to Abeche
View from plane to Abeche

(Taken from the cockpit!)

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