Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 14 August 2004

A disaster waiting to happen


By Mark Zeitoun, The International Herald Tribune

BREJING REFUGEE CAMP, August 14, 2004 — Chad I’m working in the biggest and, at the moment, the worst-off refugee camp in Eastern Chad. When Brejing Camp was started up on June 4, there were 4,000 people here. By July 4, there were at least 28,000. While conflict continues in Darfur, western Sudan, Brejing’s population carries on rising. Currently there are more than 36,000 people in the camp.

Conditions here are appalling. Many of the refugee families don’t even have proper shelter. They’ve pulled together shelters out of twigs and plastic bags, which are wholly inadequate now that the violent rainy season is upon us.

Every few days enormous storms kick up huge clouds of dust in a sudden darkening of the sky. The temperature drops, the wind picks up and suddenly it’s all over us. The image that sticks in my mind is of refugee families trying to prepare food on hundreds of tiny fires when suddenly embers fly everywhere and their makeshift shelters just blow away.

The dust is followed by great squalls of rain that last for hours. Families huddling in the open cover their babies with rice sacks to try to keep them dry. At daybreak, with the clouds gone and the sun out, the women and men hold their heads high, reclaiming their stoic dignity after such humiliation. These kind and generous people scrape together fires again, then call us over to have tea.

Brejing Camp is a disaster waiting to happen. We’re racing against time to try to prevent a major outbreak of disease. There are only five wells for the whole camp - all highly contaminated - and less than 200 latrines. It’s another of life’s bitter ironies that the rain makes it harder for people here to get clean water to drink. The ground is covered with human and animal waste and the rotting carcasses of donkeys, cows and goats. The rains are washing waste into the water sources, causing diarrhea and greatly increasing the risk of a cholera outbreak.

I am here to implement Oxfam’s response to the dire water situation - an emergency safe-water system. We’re going all out, pumping water from the contaminated wells into special storage tanks where it is chlorinated and then distributed. Everyone involved has in mind the nightmare scenario of a potential cholera epidemic. We’ve seen in other crises how it rips through overcrowded refugee camps. If someone catches it in the morning, they can be dead by nightfall. It spreads like wildfire.

Largely for political and racial reasons, there is not the usual gaggle of nongovernment organizations ready to dole out humanitarian assistance. Médecins Sans Frontières is running a health center, CARE is managing the camp. But the lack of interest in the situation here translates into a lack of the resources we need to respond properly.

Our third planeload of equipment has just arrived in Chad’s capital, N’djamena, 1,000 kilometers away (600 miles), but it’s going to be weeks before it arrives at the camp, given the distance, the poor roads and the debilitating wadis - dry river beds that heavy rain soon turns into torrents that can become impassable for days.

At the center of Brejing Camp my staff is caught up in a violent incident. The tension in the camp has mounted over the last few days. with many people not the receiving food or tents they deserve. There are myriad power struggles between the refugees and the local communities, and among the refugees themselves. One aid worker is taken for a spy by an angry mob, and rocks and knives fly. My staff is lucky to escape with their lives.

Unable to work in such a climate, we are forced to pull out of the camp for two days. Local authorities then order all humanitarian assistance to cease during negotiations between host and guest nations. It is several days before calm is restored and we regain access to the camp.

Conditions have worsened during our absence. The latrines are not being used, animal carcasses abound, the water is filthy. It’s back to the race against disaster.

Well-targeted humanitarian assistance could stave off a disaster here, but the situation is slipping out of control. The world needs to wake up and pay attention to these neglected people. Our governments must press for a political solution to the conflict while greatly and rapidly increasing their levels of humanitarian assistance. Empty symbolic gestures are not enough.

Mark Zeitoun is a water engineer for Oxfam.

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