The Sea of Sticks and Plastic

I have developed a bad habit of downplaying shocking situations. We all do it- think of the homeless people you step over in your home cities. Remember when murder or gang related crime was a big enough deal to make headlines?

I have developed a bad habit of downplaying shocking situations. We all do it- think of the homeless people you step over in your home cities. Remember when murder or gang related crime was a big enough deal to make headlines? Healthcare professionals also become desensitized to illness, suffering and neglect. But every once in a while, something triggers reminders that some situations should not be acceptable.

In the town of Seleia, the internally displaced people (IDP) are set in a “rural” manner – the families appear to have the space, some resources, and usually a few relatives who are happy to support them. In El Genena, the IDP population has a much more urban feeling: Less land, more formalized assistance, and politics. Regardless of my anticipated pity, I rather enjoyed visiting the camps around El Genena.

The first camp I visited was in an old school compound. Small dwellings resembling the forts I would build when I was a small boy. These huts were lined side-by-side, it was difficult to tell where one living space ended and the other began. It seemed impossible to guess how many people lived in each area… It was just a sea of sticks, plastic, grass and other modest building material. Hidden in between some areas were livestock such as cows, horses, donkeys, goats and dogs. Then I got a little lost in the maze, so I tried to look like I had a plan of direction. There were a group of about 10 children following me, making it more and more difficult for me to fade into the environment – I was embarrassed. One little boy held my hand and told me a very exciting story in Arabic (I have no idea what he said, but he spoke with a lot of expression). The adults would look at my scenario and laugh. With every dead end I encountered, I was greeted with a family who would say: “Fautall” (Sit and be welcome). The community I had originally thought of having nothing was hosting me as a guest- offering me tea, beans and bread. The corky yet innovative layout and material, reminded me of the children’s summer camps I worked for. Perhaps stripping away the materialism of life gives people a sense of belonging and “self”. There were programs for elders, schools for children and even a market crowed into the camp with the 700 families. It was little city in a city.

A few MSF employees live in the camps surrounding El Genena. One of the guards is fluent in English. He arrives to work in a slick suit, full of energy and enthusiasm. It is difficult to believe that he lives in a hut made of sticks and grass. I think I mentioned him in my last entry his IDP story. It is complicated for people in the western world to understand the resiliency of people who still function after traveling for days as their community members drop dead in transit. It is even more surprising that his story is not unique, but is one variation of the many people who have been displaced. IDP camps are not as cheerful as they appear. Perhaps people like me prematurely dismiss situations as being miserable, just because people appear to be making the best of a bad situation.

The day after my introduction to the El Genena IDP camps, MSF received information that there had been a fire in the very camp I visited. The fire killed 2 children and one adult. Six people were sent to the hospital injured, and 150 families who had “nothing”, now had less. We spent the early morning loading up the MSF truck with non-food items (NFI) for the residents. MSF hired some extra help for the intervention. One of the workers was also one of residents at the camp, he was crying but still worked just as hard.

The site at the camp was sick. Women stood with their children on their mat size lot with tears in their eyes staring in shock. Everything was flattened and reduced to ashes; Cattle were charred solid like iron sculptures. People were digging through the ashes of their food rations attempting to get a meal. Before the fire, people were already at the end of their line when it comes to attaining resources- the fire could not have chosen a more vulnerable group. Perhaps only the members of the camp can appreciate the difficulty in collecting the items they require to survive. To a westerner these belongings have little significance and would be garbage waiting beside the Nissan to be delivered to the curbside for disposal. It was apparent that the grief went far beyond the lost of material items.

MSF networked with a few other organizations in a meeting in the center of the disaster. We stood in the center of the field of ashes and discussed planning, roles, and resources. We were all distracted by the despair around us. MSF was proud to report at the meeting that we already had a truck packed and ready for NFI distribution. MSF’s independence can be quite effective when it comes to avoiding politics and just focusing on the issue at hand.

Later in the afternoon we distributed: Mats, blankets, water cans, plastic sheeting, soap, cooking material, and BP5 nutritional supplement. During the distribution some community members walked in with trays of food for people in side the walls of the camp. The El Genena officials had a dedicated presence to this population – they were concerned about food and shelter were delivered in a timely manner. The distribution continued through the afternoon: a man called the families one by one, yelling though a megaphone labeled food along the side. Some families received the bulky rations with lots of carrying hands, but some women had no one but toddlers and/or newborns to help them out. I helped a few women carry the material to the lot of ashes where they had been living. Though grateful, there was not much interaction.

As the distribution finished, I commented on the worker who had been crying at the beginning of the day: “he looks like he’s feeling better”. It was then; one of my co-workers told me that it was his 2 children who had died in the fire. Putting a face to the story reminded me that the few deaths reported were too many.

The day ended a little more optimistic. When the plastic fence was put away the children shifted around the empty boxes. It took one crafty little boy to pull at a box, for a swarm of little ones to start grabbing and running. Some adults tried to gain some control over the situation but that just started quicker movements and giggling. When the dust settled there were some disappointed kids left with nothing but the pile of paper product monographs. My already exhausted heart went out to them… so I lead them in a paper air plain making seminar as my coworkers cleaned up. Yes, I got out of work and had fun. The IDP kids were approaching me from all directions with paper asking advice on their paper air plane technique. I was a camp counselor of a different kind. The kids I usually work with in Canada consider themselves poor if they do not have an up to date entertainment/video game system, these kids considered themselves rich for getting 2 cardboard boxes.

Since my first visit to the IDP camps, I have made semi regular visits to the camps around El Genena. It is difficult to leave the camps without seeing, hearing or being involved in a situation that begs the answers for lists of questions.

More Information : 13 February 2008 – Darfur : Aerial bombings and attacks lead thousands of civilians to flee to Chad