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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 He wonders how out-of-date his ideas are, as he is so cut off from the world.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.

For Ali, the biggest struggle is not external but internal, to maintain a sense of relevance in a place that feels increasingly tangential as the weeks, months and years wear on.

Fighting between the government, rebels and various militias plaguing eastern Chad has taken place fairly far from this isolated maze of huts and twig fences, two hours from any sizable town. The Darfur rebels, who have come recruiting in other camps, rarely come here.

People are generally healthy, according to the International Medical Corps, a nonprofit organization that runs an orderly, if crowded, clinic. As is the case across eastern Chad, the camp population is growing not because of new refugees, but births, which numbered 70 last month.

Convoys of relief workers arrive every day, as they did about noon one recent Thursday, their Land Cruisers wheeling through in a cloud of dust.

A flock of kids waved frantically, like marooned residents of a remote island, then went back to gathering firewood, hauling water or playing, building facsimiles of their lost homes out of wet sand. It was food distribution day, and women carried huge sacks of flour and beans from the backs of trucks. A few Chadian soldiers were asleep at their post.

Ali, who speaks near-perfect English and has gotten work at the clinic, was under the hot shade of a tarp teaching a class on preventing HIV. Then he attended a meeting about an upcoming vaccination campaign.

When he was finished, another long afternoon sprawled out in front of him.

He is a tall man with bright eyes and a graying beard, and in his dark trousers and slightly wrinkled lilac oxford shirt, he casts a shadow of sophistication. Ali does not come across as a sad person; he has a full, rolling laugh that comes easily, even after he says things that aren't particularly funny, such as, "You feel sometimes you're losing your knowledge here."

"Living here in the camps, there are no reference books," he said, with the laugh. "There are no persons to talk to about theories, to consult, to do research. . . . But you must find out also how to keep learning."

Ali's parents were small traders and farmers, but their son was a student at heart. He attended secondary school in El Fasher, a trading town in Darfur, then got a job with a cement company that eventually took him to Turkey for a training course, then Libya for work.

He saved up his money and was able to attend a university in India -- preferring to avoid Sudanese universities, where courses were often politicized to favor the government. "I went to school and showed I was not subject to any laws," Ali said.

He received master's degrees in economics and political science and stayed abroad, conducting feasibility studies for various companies in Ethiopia. He returned to Darfur in 2002 and, just as the fighting between rebels and government-backed militias was beginning, started working as a private adviser to university students.

Ali soon learned that Sudanese security forces were after him and several colleagues as the government began targeting intellectuals. He quickly packed what was most essential to him: a trunk full of books.

He and two teachers set out in a pickup truck, zigzagging across the region toward Chad. At the border, Ali hired a donkey to haul his trunk across, and he came on foot, carefully blending into the traffic of a market day.

He first registered as a refugee at Farchana camp, north of here. He came to this camp about two years ago, along with 17,000 others transferred from various camps that had grown too large.

The ramshackle tents and tarps that form the familiar image of refugee camps are not prevalent here.

People have built mud-walled, twig-roofed huts that are typical of village life, and many have small vegetable gardens and sorghum plots. Donkeys wander the sandy paths.

Inside Ali's hut, he has covered the mud walls with rose-patterned sheets. He has his trunk in there, a big bag of books, and a table scattered with bug spray, a toothbrush, a small bottle of cologne, a radio and two batteries.

"Thank God for batteries," Ali said, explaining that he tunes in to BBC twice a day.

He gets along pretty well when he's focused on the mission he's given himself here in the camp: to teach people about their legal rights and problems such as tribalism.

He has also learned what he describes as "many mysterious things" from neighbors who came from different regions in Darfur with different traditions and beliefs.

At the same time, Ali said, his old life and aspirations seem more and more distant.

He has had no news in years from his wife, three sisters, five brothers, mother or father. He does not know where they are. He wonders about his old friends, who may not realize why he has lost touch with them.

"I had a close friend from New York," Ali said brightly. "Maryann. She visited in India a few times."

Mostly, Ali passes the time reading and rereading. A month-old Nigerian newspaper recently found its way into the camp, and an instructional book on Swahili, which he is studying.

"Do you think when I finish I'll still be in Chad?" he asked. Then he laughed.

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