Some things do change, in the Chad refugee camps

“Life has changed much around here,” says Fatima with a proud twinkle in her eyes as she walks around the Djabal refugee camp in Eastern Chad. The site is located just a few dozen kilometers from the border with the Sudanese region of Darfur, which she and her family fled three years ago. Here Fatima and the rest of the refugees have begun to take control of their lives.

As a result Djabal is clean and orderly and Fatima has developed the confidence of an active woman who works for her community and earns a little money for her children. Outside the camp, however, violence continues to be an everpresent threat.

“Before there was rubbish everywhere and you would find animal carcasses all over the place,” explains Fatima. “The latrines were dirty and the place was swarmed with flies. The risk of disease was very high.”

The transformation was brought about by her and 14 other refugees who were trained by Oxfam to promote hygiene. They have managed to consign the dangers that existed before to history and make sure there is no repeat of the hepatitis E epidemic that hit this camp and its neighbour Goz Amer two years ago causing 30 deaths and around 1,000 infections.

As Dieudonne Mayamba, coordinator of Oxfam's public health programs in this camp, points out, it is very difficult to change the way of thinking of a people who have for much too long expected NGOs to do things for them. “When we arrived in February we spoke to representatives of the refugees and we asked them a question: ”˜Why do you think someone from outside should come to clean up what you have made dirty?',” he explains. Making them understand that the camp is theirs is the only way to make the work that has to be done here long-lasting, and to make sure things keep working when the NGOs are no longer around.

It is also a question of dignity, of having a voice, of being active and overcoming dependency. All of these things help make the tough conditions of the camp easier to bear.

 Pablo Tosco/ Oxfam“We met with the undas (traditional chiefs) and with the area heads of the camp,” explains Dieudonne. “We identified problems and solutions and we began working with the hygiene promoters. We made sure there were an equal number of men and women and that all the ethnicities present in the camp - mostly Masalit, Fur and Dadjo ”“ were represented. By approaching things in such a way we made sure the message got through to everyone. They asked us for shovels, picks, bins and other materials to do the cleaning. Together we decided that it would be necessary to dig ditches for the rubbish and we also agreed hygiene standards for common areas like the latrines and the taps where drinking water is collected.”

The task was herculean because there were just 10 people to rally 15,000, the total number of refugees in the camp. Fatima doesn't seem to have had many problems, however. “For us it was easy to convince the rest of the refugees because we are also refugees and we live there,” she says with great confidence.

Fatima's being one of the promoters has changed not only the camp but also some aspects of her life. She reveals that for the first time since she left school she has worked with men and earned money for herself. She receives a temporary wage which compensates her for the full-time dedication she has given to convincing her neighbors of the importance of keeping the camp clean. To her husband “this doesn't seem bad as the money goes to clothing her children”.

But although life within the camp has changed, the situation outside remains the same. One Saturday morning, while Fatima told us of her achievements, the sound of heavy fighting to the south, on the other side of the hills, interrupted our conversation. It was difficult to know what exactly happened, as the news are always confusing in the first few hours, but both the humanitarian organizations and the refugees themselves have been on high alert for weeks now. There are ethnic confrontations in the area and the situation within Chad is unstable to say the least. Rebel groups and the government exchange fire in increasingly serious clashes.

When the situation calms and we meet Fatima again a few hours later, she confesses that she no longer feels as safe in the camp as she did before. “Things like what we heard this morning make me feel very afraid,” she says with a nervous smile. She was one of the first to arrive here in search of protection when the conflict in Darfur first blew up. She only hoped that the story would not be repeated in Chad.

There are 218,000 other refugees who feel the same way, along with tens of thousands of Chadians who live in the region. For them, having to struggle to survive on a day-to-day basis is more than enough. They don't want to have to face more war than that.

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