A Learned Man Searches for Relevance While Languishing in a Chadian Camp

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 22, 2007

GAGA REFUGEE CAMP, Chad Sometimes, the amiable professor feels lost here in this circle of sand and sun and interrupted lives.

Particularly at night, when he's not so busy, Azhari Ali imagines what new economic theories might be afloat around the university where he once studied. He wonders how out-of-date his ideas are, as he is so cut off from the world.

He sits in his tarp-covered hut remembering poets he used to love in school, "like Alexander Pope," he said. "I concentrate on that. Something like, 'the sun will love the flower,' and so on," he said, trying to recall a verse.

To be one of the 2.5 million people driven from the Darfur region of western Sudan is to be many things: a farmer without land, a trader without a business, a mother without children, a teacher without students. And, in Ali's case, a holder of two master's degrees stuck in a void with only the books he brought with him when he ran for his life.

Since he crossed into eastern Chad, leaving behind his wife and family, Ali has read his old, musty copy of "Macbeth" many times, he said. He's memorized the articles and photographs in his treasured, two-year-old copies of Time and the Economist, magazines that have drifted into the camp in the hands of aid workers.

He's read over and over "Bacon's Essays," "World Constitutions," "Micro and Macro Public Finance," "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," "An Approach to English Literature for Students Abroad" and a book a well-wisher gave him called "Life Does Have a Purpose," among others.

He tries to keep his mind sharp by attending whatever workshops aid groups offer. At this point, Ali is an expert on peace education, sanitation systems, certain infectious diseases, Chadian law, international humanitarian law and how to save lives during disasters.

"If I could leave here, I'd want to study for my PhD in economics," Ali said. "But I'm becoming older and older -- now I'm 45."

All of which underscores a profound fact about the conflict in Darfur: It has dragged on for more than four years.

If talks between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels go ahead as planned in October, the two sides will confront a conflict that has hardened and fragmented over time.

Inside the vast refugee camps across Darfur and eastern Chad, people, too, have been transformed in small and large ways. Especially in Darfur, some camps are becoming increasingly violent and militarized, as traditional authority has broken down.

That is not the case here, where life is difficult but mostly prosaic.

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