Wednesday morning, the wee hours–a combination of jet lag, heat, and donkeys is keeping me awake after a short exhausted “nap” between 10:30 and 11:30. The donkeys of Chad seem to enjoy the night, and they want you to know about it. We arrived in one piece Sunday evening, met our other colleague at Novotel, and spent Monday securing official travel papers for areas in the east of the country and meeting with UNHCR officials. A 2-hour flight east on a South African-run World Food Program charter, an hour ride by land cruiser, and we made it to Amelyouna, operations center for Gaga, a camp of about 14,000 Darfur refugees. Our work begins.
Amelyouna is an oasis of sorts (along the wade, the dry river bed that fills in the three rainy months), a hamlet situated around large mango trees that became a humanitarian outpost with the arrival of refugees. Now women sell buckets of mangoes to various aid workers along side the road, and youre just about as likely to meet someone from New York as someone from N’Djamena. One of my colleagues bumped into a guy who used to live in her building in Brooklyn who owes her money, and this without even leaving our compound. Interesting work is happening here. One group from the US, 24 Hours for Darfur, is undertaking a huge survey of justice and reconciliation attitudes among the refugees. I had a quick glance at their protocol, met several of their 30-odd interviewers–they seem to have found the best of the best as far as staff goes. The best interpreter from our project in 2007 is on their staff (it was good to catch up with him). They will be moving on to a Bredjing the same time as we are, so we will see their work progress.
Refugee camp life itself does not seem to have changed. Perhaps I heard more problems with obtaining water, but it is hard to say from a focus group. Our purpose is not to delineate the problems in the camps (these are well-known: lack of water, firewood, security, the basic needs), but rather to see if there are those who are more likely to be at risk for problems than others. A thankless task, really: everyone is at risk for quite a few problems, and to figure out who is at more risk feels like an exercise in within-group variability (i.e., within refugees) captured at the expense of ignoring between-group variability (i.e., between refugees and those who are not refugees). Does it really help to know that women without husbands are doing a little bit worse than women with husbands if both sets of women can’t get enough water for their children? But, after one day of work, I still believe that we may find some within-group differences that say something beyond this; or perhaps we will find that some differences we assumed would be present are not as salient as we thought. Today, for instance, I asked a group of Zaghawa, the minority ethnic group in the camp, if they felt they received fewer goods than the Masalit, the majority. They were emphatic that they did get a raw deal, but that it was no more raw a deal than all refugees got, regardless of ethnicity. Some humanitarian workers have reported ethnic tension, but it seems that this group of refugees did not find it to their disadvantage. But then again, it may be again that a little ethnic tension is relatively nothing next to the strain of living with next to nothing.