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Chad Broken by Strain of Suffering

Sudanese Refugees Seeking Aid Find Only Shared Misery

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 11, 2004; Page A01

BAMENA, Chad -- Standing in a line waiting for water, in the middle of the central African desert, in one of the poorest countries on Earth, two women -- a Chadian peasant and a Sudanese refugee -- became good friends.

It was 8:30 in the morning when they met. For Hamisa Ibrahim, 31, the line that had taken 20 minutes each day since she was a girl now took half the day. Instead of a dozen local women, there were more than 200, most of them unfamiliar faces from Sudan.


The well in Bamena, Chad, is crowded with people in search of water for cooking, bathing and livestock. The village, located across the Sudanese border, has 7,700 people and just three wells. (Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)

_____News From Sudan_____
Sudanese Decry U.N. Threat of Sanctions (The Washington Post, Sep 20, 2004)
U.N. Puts Sudan Sanctions Into Play (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)
Death Rates in Darfur Rising, WHO Says (The Washington Post, Sep 15, 2004)
More News from Sudan

For Jamisa Yousife, 30, who arrived from Sudan in January, Ibrahim's well was her only hope. She brought her camel, her goats, her donkey and her groggy, sickly children all in search of water. The women started chatting, and friendship followed.

"Are you feeling well?" Ibrahim asked in Arabic of her friend on a recent morning. Yousife lowered her bright brown eyes, embarrassed about the line of her fellow Sudanese, all collecting water that wasn't theirs.

"You are kind for asking," she responded.

But the kindness of the Chadians is surpassing their means. As thousands more refugees flee war in Sudan, desperately poor villagers in Chad are breaking under the strain of sharing their brittle soil and scarce water with the newcomers. At the well in Bamena, both women -- with their nearly identical first names, ages and dire material prospects -- are nervously watching the arrival of more families with nothing to eat and nowhere to go but here.

Two months ago, the 20-year-old Sudanese civil war seemed nearly over. U.S.-backed peace talks between the Arab-dominated government in the north and African rebel forces in the south were advancing. But fighting in Sudan's western Darfur region has sent a constant flow of refugees across the border into Chad. A total of 130,000 people are estimated to have crossed into Chad since December, with 25,000 arriving in just the past two weeks, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

For the most part, villagers in Chad have empathized with the refugees, citing tribal ties and remembering their own civil strife. At the well, Ibrahim pointed to the rusted tanks, rockets and bullet casings that dot the landscape here like an open-air museum of Chad's 30-year civil war, which ended two years ago.

"We know despair and suffering," she said. "You don't see any schools here. You don't see any health posts.

"We are all suffering in Africa, it's our fate," she said with a shrug.

"You are always caring for me," Yousife said. "I thank you."

"I am trying," Ibrahim responded, while a giant dust storm raised by the hooves of Sudanese livestock -- thousands of cattle, camels, goats and sheep -- approached with a sour smell and the deep sounds of mooing, and descended on her village.

Limitless Solidarity

Colonial powers drew the border in 1956 that separated Chad from Sudan, but tribal ties have been stronger than national identity for those living on either side. Those bonds have saved lives in the months since Sudan's government responded with bombs and militia attacks to an uprising by militants in the Darfur region.

When the fighting started, Mohamed Sandel gathered his eight children, his wife and his aging father, and told them to get ready to flee across the border. His wife collected their mattresses, cooking pots and sacks of sorghum. They moved to his brother-in-law's compound of mud huts in Chad, two miles away. They piled their house inside his. Twenty people slept under the same straw roof under the stars.


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