In my attempt to share the stories of individuals in a way that depicts truth, dignity, and humanity, I have very cautiously walked a fine line – intending to strike a balance between facts, truth, and emotion.
Here is my confession: In pursuing honest storytelling with such strong conviction, and out of the fear of warping a story so that it appears more emotional, painful, or heartbreaking than it really is, I have erred on the side of unemotional and detached.
I strongly believe that being given the platform to literally be a voice on behalf another human being is not a role to be taken lightly.
Let me be straight – I’m here to say that this is not easy, and it should never be easy. I willingly carry the burden of the power of words – words that can depict someone as hopeless, weak, and helpless or hopeful, skillful, and able. I’m here to let you know that I’m committed to using my words in a way that is honest and with purpose. I am honored to be a voice for the voiceless and even more honored that you support me in doing so.
Phew, with that being said… Yesterday I traveled to a village called Tessou (by the way, I’m in Eastern Chad). It would be a disservice to tell the story of the people of Tessou without evoking strong emotions (it was here that my convictions were shaken).
“We would rather die here than in the camps.”
After driving two hours on bumpy, muddy dirt roads (you’ve heard that one before, right?), my colleagues and I arrived to find the people of Tessou in disarray. Surrounded by jagged hills, Tessou sits in a flat, open, and seemingly endlessly arid stretch of land – vulnerable to, well, most everything. In fact, the night before our visit, a massive storm came through and completely flattened the grass fences and huts that make up the village. We arrived to toppled thatch roofs and fences turned to mats.
Heartbreaking as this initially was, upon sitting and sharing with the people I quickly realized that this was a minor incident in comparison to the tragedies this community has endured.
Since 2004, the Janjaweed (armed militia rebels, originating in Sudan) have attacked Tessou three times (most recently in 2009); each time killing, raping, stealing, and burning people, animals, and property. [More to come on the history of conflict in Chad in the following posts.] After the first attack on Tessou, the survivors were forced to flee for their lives – carrying only the clothes on their backs and hiding in the bush for weeks. Eventually they made their way to Gassire IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp in Goz Beida (a full day’s journey away), where they have remained for the past 10 years.
Though the camp provides its residents with safety, clean water, and education, it allows no space for personal farming; in other words, the IDPs cannot grow food for themselves. Their lives in the camp are not self-sustaining.
In 2011, the Chadian government announced “A Year of Return” for all IDPs – encouraging that they move back to their villages and that all NGOs halt their enabling operations within the camps. Without personal land for cultivation, or NGO food distributions, the IDPs remaining in Gassire faced a threatening food shortage.
For the past ten years, eager to farm and re-claim their wrongfully stolen land, the people of Tessou have attempted to resettle multiple times. But resettling is a process: first the men travel to the village to do a survey, sleeping in the bush overnight and keeping watch for intruders. The men then go back to the camps and inform their family whether or not it is safe to make the move; if proven safe, families pack up the little they have and prepare for a full day journey (most likely on donkey). Most families arrive home to nothing, sleeping under trees for up to weeks until grass-woven shelters are built. More likely than not, there is no nearby water source (or the nearest source, which is not clean, is over an hour away) and whatever food they have has been brought with them from the camps.
Tragically, there has been no solid re-establishment in Tessou as the Janjaweed have continued to kill, destroy, and preserve an environment of fear and vulnerability.
Now, a few years post the 2009 attack (four people were killed), Tessou is starting from scratch. Though they were once pastoralists, their main source of income, all of their livestock were stolen by the Janjaweed. People are returning from Gassire completely empty-handed. In order to survive, Tessou residents are working to compensate their income via farming. Unfortunately, Eastern Chad’s environment is incredibly harsh and the rains only come a few months out of each year – often so forcefully that they lead to flooding (similarly to the conditions in South Sudan). [If it means anything, the average temperature in Chad is 83 degrees Farenheit.]
A large number of people killed and many still remaining in the IDP camp, Tessou is less than half the size it once was.
When talking with Abdel, an elderly man born and raised in Tessou (He claims 55 years old. I’d respectfully beg to differ.), I asked him about his hopes for the future of his village. He repeatedly told me,
“I pray that Tessou will one day be large as it was before. I hope that one day I will be able to build a home so that my family will join me from the camps.” [Abdel has been trying to build a home for his family for the past four years. Each time he has come close to finishing, the Janjaweed have returned and he has had to run back to the camps. This man does not give up.]
For now, the people of Tessou sleep under fragile grass huts. They are constantly sick from the water that they travel for hours each day to gather. They have no schools; in fact, no one knows how to read or write. Their livestock are few (read: three animals in the entire village). And they still live in fear that the Janjaweed may come again.
[It is so easy for me to say the word ‘fear’ without understanding its full depth. In the context of Tessou, the word fear stems from losing as many as 40 of your family members; from seeing your father shot in front of you; from hiding in the bush; from watching your mother being beaten; from seeing your neighbor’s family killed and their home burned. This is a fear that still, 10 years later, permeates your every waking moment. According to Amereran, when I asked her if she still lives in fear, she smirked and said, “Of course I am afraid. I never stop thinking about the attacks. I cannot forget them. How can you forget seeing dead people laying all over the ground.” This is fear I will, hopefully, never fully understand.]
Yet, the people of Tessou are hopeful and courageous. They are genuinely happy to be back on their land (many born and raised here).They acknowledge that, “This life is not easy, but one day we will have our village back…It is better to die here than in the camps.” – Amereran.
I am still not entirely sure how to process all that I saw and heard throughout my day spent in Tessou. The lives and stories of the people are so detached from anything I’ve ever personally experienced that my mind categorizes them as somehow ‘unreal’ (and there are too many other villages in Chad and Sudan who share these same experiences). I am haunted by, and will never forget, the stories and events from Tessou.
What encourages me is that the people of Tessou are capable. They are strong, skilled individuals who, given the proper resources, will rebuild their village in a heartbeat. I am beyond excited that Tessou has been chosen by World Concern as a potential village of partnership through our One Village Transformed(OVT) Program. On the needy scale, this village is breaking the weight capacities.
“We hope to see our village as it once was.”
This is my appeal. In the coming months, I will be posting a series of detailed stories about the people of Chad, World Concern’s work, and how you can partner with this work. Please, take time to consider supporting World Concern as we partner with unjustly underprivileged individuals to reach their fullest capacity.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is my second appeal. Please hold me accountable to sharing the upcoming stories in a way that can only be described as just, truthful, and dignified.
If not, I may have to inundate you with more bi-monthly confessions. 🙂