Last night I sat in my tent (which I share with seven other expats) and cried. I cried because it was the 3rd thunderstorm since I arrived in the town of Tissi three weeks ago and most of the 50,000 refugees and returnees who are camped out in and around Tissi (along a 60 km stretch of Chad-Sudan border) still do not have plastic sheeting, let alone tents, to protect them from the rain.
The town of Tissi – it feels more like an outpost – is at the southeastern most tip of Chad and borders Sudan and the Central African Republic. For several years, due to security concerns, this part of Chad was a “no-go zone” for UN agencies and humanitarian actors. As a result, local people were left to fend for themselves. Until MSF arrived here in early April to provide emergency and primary health care, there was no functioning health centre and the locals either went to “doctors choukou” (men who claim to have medical training and sell medications in the market) or to a nearby health centre in Darfur.
Over the past few months, the escalation of an inter-ethnic conflict in Darfur has resulted in a steady exodus of Sudanese, Chadians and Central Africans from Darfur to Tissi. None of the sites where people are camped out have been officially designated as refugee or IDP camps and to date, they have received minimal assistance.
I am in Tissi to assess the situation from a humanitarian perspective and I have visited with the refugees and returnees at the sites at which our MSF team is providing care. For the most part, aside from the UN agencies that have come to do head counts and to try to persuade them to relocate farther from the border, no one has come to see them, let alone help them. The people I met were eager to share their stories with me and though I made no promises to them, I do feel a responsibility to make sure their voices are heard.
Their main worries have to do with basic human needs – shelter, food and water. At present, they are crammed into small straw huts or huts that are a mix of straw, empty grain sacs and old plastic sheeting. These shelters provide some protection from the dust and heat (temperatures during the day climb above 50°C degrees, 122°F) but not from the rain. Those who arrived last are living under trees and have no protection from the dust, heat or rain. They are running out of food and it is hard to find water. Because there are no latrines, they defecate in the open, and they understand this puts them at increased risk of disease now that the rainy season has started.
On a lighter note, they are also upset about the poor network coverage in Tissi. The other day we passed by a young man, his arms outstretched in the air, standing on top of the rotor of a downed Chadian army helicopter (a relic of conflicts past). We thought he was praying until he flashed his mobile phone at us and explained that he was trying to see if he could still connect to his Sudanese mobile phone provider.
Stepping back into seriousness, the refugees and returnees in Tissi are quietly deteriorating. In part – and this is my personal view – it is because the humanitarian community as a whole has been slow to respond. And with the rainy season, our options are limited. Soon, wadis (spontaneous rivers) will form, making it difficult for vehicles to access sites and to bring people and supplies in (or out). There is an airstrip near Tissi but it is half finished and has already started to sink. Unless it is reinforced, even the smallest of planes won’t be able to land.
I’m leaving Tissi tomorrow and returning in a few weeks. I’m hopeful that by then, the situation will be better not worse.