I had just changed after my bucket shower following a beautiful long walk through the rock hills surrounding Hadjer Hadid, and found Jonathan from 24 Hours for Darfur on his satellite phone walking towards me. He pointed to the phone. His colleague Ben, whom we had met in N’Djamena at UNHCR and then again in Amelyouna, wanted to relay instructions from the Chief of Mission of our host organization in Abeche: Be at the Hadjer Hadid airstrip at 9 tomorrow morning, in the green land cruiser. The pilots will call on the radio around 9:15 to ask if the airstrip is clear of goats, and may touch down and then immediately take off in order to test the runway. Please be in the car with the driver, as the pilots speak English only. Your departure time is about 10:15.
This morning we drove out to the airstrip. In addition to metal pole (where a windsock should be) with a yellow cement base, Hadjer Hadid International also has a four-foot high, whitewashed building with no roof and a stencil “Latrine de l’Aerodrome.” I used it. As everyone can see your head and shoulders, it’s a little disconcerting. We kept the goats and stray cattle off the airstrip as best we could by throwing the little rocks lying around at random in the dirt. I’m a lousy throw, but they moved off. The plane showed up around 9:45, made a pass, a false landing, and then came in smoothly. Two large blond Americans climbed out, first a man and then a woman. The Chadian driver who accompanied us was shocked at the second, “al banat!” The male pilot was from Texas (I didn’t catch the woman’s home state), and both were friendly as you’d expect our folks to be (at least those not from New York). Although I may sound silly saying it, there’s something utterly relaxing about meeting two strangers about whom you can assume all sorts of things relative to everyone else you’ve met in the previous week; it’s the familiarity of co-nationals, even if you might have very little in common with them in your own country. My three colleagues followed our compatriots into the Otter 12-seater for the 25 minute flight.
We arrived in Abeche, and were greeted by an upbeat crowd. Our driver confirmed that the rebels had left the area. “Ils ont parti. A la prochaine! A 2010!” The last few years rebel incursions into Chad form Sudan have been reliable annual events in the run-up to the rainy season. In the rainy season, which lasts about three months and begins in earnest at the end of June, moving large number of vehicles is impractical as the rains creates multiple rivers in beds that are dry as bone throughout the rest of the year – wadees. It also creates a humanitarian aid mess. All sorts of goods get held up at the banks of the swollen wadees. During my first trip in 2006, even Sanjay Gupta of CNN got waylaid, unable to visit a psychosocial program in the camps.
For the refugees in eastern Chad, wadees are a secondary source of water, and associated stress. Children in our interviews cited wadees as places connected to the camps where they were afraid, as several drown there every year. For women and girls, collecting the silty water from the wadee (there is often water if you dig in the dray season) was seen as an option if they don’t get to the water pump early enough in the morning, or if they get in an argument about their place in line. But they also recognized that wadee water was not as clean as the filtered water provided by camp administration, and some report that it may be a source of sickness among their children. Of course, many locals, not privy to the limited services available to refugees, have only the wadee as an option.