Sharing a bowl of light-brown water and some strips of mango, that appear to have been drying in the infamously harsh Chadian sun for endless hours, Achta carefully situates herself under a dilapidated wooden shelter. Even in times of difficulty, the tradition of Chadian hospitality remains.
Alone on the compound, Achta explains that five of her children are currently out farming, three live outside of the village, and four have passed away. Whoa.
As she talks, tears softly stream from Achta’s eyes and roll down her previously upturned cheeks.
“I was born in N’djamena. I was married in N’djamena. Four of my children died in N’djamena. Then the Janjaweed came and we lost everything we owned.”
Situated miles from any sort of permanent infrastructure (namely schools, hospitals, clean water sources, and markets), the people of N’djamena have spent most of their lives toiling to meet, what many would consider, basic human needs: potable water, food, shelter, and health. Unfortunately, for the people of N’djamena, the process of obtaining such things is not so basic.
Due to a large wadi, a riverbed that contains copious amounts of water only during times of heavy rain, positioned at the village’s entrance, N’djamena sits on fertile soil. For the purpose of collecting water for cooking, cleaning, and farming, N’djamena would appear to be in an ideal location. Here’s the significant downside – the wadi’s water is far from clean.
With a disheartened look across her face, Achta quietly says, “I have never known the reason why my children died. The hospital is a two-day journey by donkey. By the time we got to the hospital, they were already too sick. Maybe they died because of the dirty water, but I do not know.”
Appearing to still be processing all that has happened in her life, Achta proceeds to explain that by the time the Janjaweed, a local militant group, came to her village, she was still healing from the death of her four children, “It was too hard as a mother to see your children dying.”
The Janjaweed, a nomadic militant Arab group known for their merciless killing, burning, and looting of villages across Sudan and Eastern Chad, invaded N’djamena village in 2007, killing 20 people and leaving the village emptied and flattened.
According to Achta, “When they came, we ran from our village. But every village that we went to turned us away. We eventually ended up in Gassire camp.”
A two-hour plus drive outside of N’djamena, Gassire has served as an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp for thousands of Chadians over the last ten years.
Achta, her husband, and her eight children remained in Gassire for six long years, returning to N’djamena only months ago.
As reported by Achta, and a large majority of the thousands of other Chadians forced to inhabit the camp, “In Gassire we had no food. We could not farm our own land.”
When asked why she would rather return to her destroyed homeland than live in a secure place with clean water access, Achta promptly responded, “We would rather die in our own lands than in the camps.” This was not the first time I had heard this remark.
Afraid that it would be so, upon returning from Gassire to N’djamena, Achta discovered that everything she had ever owned or worked for had been demolished or stolen – homes, livestock, goods, tools.
Exhibiting profound strength and tenacity, Achta and her family were slowly able to rebuild their home. They are now farming their own land and, along with other returnees, praying for a bountiful harvest season.
Though the population of N’djamena is less than half the size that it once was, families continue to return as they grow weary of the IDP camps and learn of the village’s restored safety.
In an attempt to create a sense of normalcy as she settles back into life in the village, Achta dreams of furthering her five children’s educations. Because there is no school within walking distance, she plans to send her children all the way back to Gassire, unable to fully separate them from the life they tried to leave behind.
In Eastern Chad, Achta’s story is not uncommon. Thousands of others are currently in the process of returning to their villages – where land, property, and life has been unfairly taken and destroyed.
Later touring around her newly restored compound, I grab Achta’s hand. Moved by her resilience, I tell her she is very strong. Despite her evident circumstances, laughter proceeds to emanate from Achta’s radiant face.
Acknowledging N’djamena’s restoration, Achta is able to picture a future transformed.