This week I was browsing through photos and documents from 2006-2008, when our staff was assessing the needs of families in Chad in the wake of the Darfur war. Wow. The situation was grim. According to these documents, in 2007 there were about 230,000 Sudanese refugees in Chad, and 180,000 displaced Chadians.
We were planning a response in camps near Goz Beida, a town that previously supported a population of 5,000. By 2008, there were an additional 60,000 displaced people living there. Imagine if your hometown of 5,000 suddenly had 60,000 traumatized, homeless, and desperately needy visitors.
These families—what was left of them—had survived horrific violence. Armed militia on horseback (called Janjaweed), had lit their grass homes on fire, destroyed their villages, and killed everyone in their path. Only those who hid in the bush survived.
One of those who survived was a woman we’ll call Hawa. I discovered her story amidst pages of data collected by our staff. One way we determine how to help is by talking directly with families—hearing their stories. Hawa was eager to tell hers, and other women gathered around as she spoke, nodding their heads that their stories matched.
Hawa lived in a village of about 2,000 people, their houses scattered along the edge of a seasonal river. In the short rainy season, they cultivated grain, harvesting enough to feed themselves throughout the rest of the year, plus a bit to sell.
During the dry season, they dug wells in the dry river bed and grew vegetables to sell in the local market, or to dry for eating. Each family had about 60 animals that provided them with gallons of milk.
The girls fetched water while the boys looked after the animals, attending the local school when their chores were done. There were occasional droughts when times were tough, but they lived a full life and seldom went hungry…
Then one day, without notice, men mounted on horses and camels surrounded the village, encircling it, running around the perimeter of the houses, shooting into the air. Women scrambled, terrified, to collect their children. A few of the riders charged into the village, killing 40 of the men, setting the thatch roofs of the houses on fire.
In the chaos, the women ran with their children to hide beyond the riverbed. For hours the attackers systematically pillaged the village, taking anything of value that had survived and loading them up on the large train of camels they’d brought along for that purpose. They killed anyone they found remaining in the village, carrying away 3 women they captured alive.
The attackers even poked around in the ground to find their grain stores. The excess they could not carry away, they burned to make sure that no one could come back to live in this village.
After hiding for a couple of days, a few of their number returned to the village to see what they could salvage, to bury the dead and to find missing members of their families. Hawa held a scarred cooking pot. From all her possessions, it was the only thing she’d managed to save. But she had all of her children together and was grateful for this. She didn’t know where her husband was…
She sought safety amongst the tens of thousands of others in Goz Beida. Now she had only a grass hut, a crusty cooking pot, a cotton cloth to cover her children at night and a few kilograms of grain to feed her children. No milk, no vegetables, no oil or even salt. When she’d first arrived, she’d been lucky enough to receive a bag of grain as food aid, but she’d had to sell about half to buy some basics like a spoon, salt for the food, dried okra and soap.
Not willing to simply watch her children starve, she braved the threat of rape to collect firewood to sell in the hopes of earning maybe 25 or 30 cents which she would use to buy food. This takes time and plenty of stamina, but must be done in addition to the eight hours each day she spent collecting water. Even then, it is only enough for drinking, cooking and washing their faces.
Hawa had lost so much, but she retained her dignity and her will to fight for the survival of her family.
Around the time Hawa arrived in the camp, World Concern began providing emergency assistance there. Knowing that this kind of aid is temporary, we developed ways to help families become self-sufficient, mostly through cash for work, savings groups, and small business development.
The land had been depleted of trees for firewood, so when it rained, the water ran down hill, flooding certain areas, and leaving other places desolate and useless. Nothing was growing.
We began paying people cash to build rock lines that would cause rainwater to soak into the ground and allow plant life to grow again. At first glance, the work appeared tedious and pointless. But families could use the cash they earned to buy food or supplies. And the lush, green growth that emerged after it rained proved this system worked. Families began the long process of recovery.
I came across a statement in one of the reports written during this time that caught my attention. It said, “World Concern is committed to being a long term presence in the area.”
We’ve kept this commitment. We’re still there, five years later. Some of the camps have closed. Others turned into towns. Our focus in Chad has changed as people’s needs have changed.
I remember, about three years ago, asking the staff member who interviewed Hawa what the solution was—what these families really needed most.
She responded, “What they need is to go home.”
For the past year and a half, this is exactly what’s been happening. Families are returning to their villages—or the areas where their villages once existed—and they’re rebuilding their lives from nothing.
Once again, we started by assessing needs when several hundred families returned to the tiny village of Harako, about 40 miles from Goz Beida. A few grass huts were built as shelter, but fields for farming were overgrown with brush. The families had no tools to clear the fields or plant crops, and the planting season was near. Their only source of water was a muddy hole they dug in the sand.
Through One Village Transformed, and with the support of donors and groups like Westminster Presbyterian Church, things look very different in Harako today. Families received farming tools, seeds, and training to plant crops—and their first harvest provided enough to get them through the dry season. A well was dug, gushing forth thousands of gallons of fresh, clean water. And residents worked tirelessly, baking bricks to build the first classroom for their new school, which is scheduled to be completed this month.
Everywhere you look in Harako, lives are being transformed. Out of the ashes, families are rebuilding what they never thought they’d have again … homes, crops, schools, wells.
In a way, things have come full-circle from the horrible tragedy that swept through Eastern Chad a few years ago. Full circle, from disaster to resilience. And restoration of what was lost.
These families are going home. And we’re going with them. Join us, and witness the transformation.