Lure of clean water: some displaced Chadians may not return

By Coco McCabe

At a temporary settlement on the outskirts of the town of Goz Beida in eastern Chad, women are washing clothes under the hot sun. Bent at the hips, they wring out their wraps—the light glinting off the water as it streams from their bowls. From the taps nearby, children lug jugs brimming with a fresh supply. There is laughter and talk.

"Life is water," says Oxfam's Brahim Abdel-Madjid. "Without water there is no life at all—enough water, sufficient water, good quality water."

Here at Koloma, that is what Oxfam is helping to supply to some of the 180,000 Chadians chased from their homes by recent waves of violence between rebel forces and government troops. About 7,400 displaced people have settled at Koloma, one of seven sites in and around Goz Beida in which Oxfam is now providing emergency services for a total of 52,000 people.

And for some, the help aid groups have offered, coupled with the advantages of being near a town like Goz Beida with its new hospital, mosque, and market, hold enough promise for a better life that home no longer beckons them.

"Some will not go back—even with security," says Abdel-Madjid, who is the team leader for Oxfam's public health education programs in the Goz Beida area. "Most of the people living in the temporary sites had never traveled to Goz Beida to see that there's a big market. You can trade. You can start a new life."

Clean water is certainly one of the lures—a benefit that has helped to soften the hardships many have experienced as their family members have been killed, their homes ruined, their villages abandoned.

A Gathering of Sushies

In the mottled light inside a mat hut at Koloma, a crowd of women—and a baby or two—has gathered. These are the sushies—the female leaders of their communities. Sitting on the ground, folded in their colorful wraps, they talk about their lives since fleeing their villages and coming to this sandy sprawl of makeshift shelters. Abdel-Madjid translates.

Food is in short supply, they say. And they have no land to farm. To earn money to buy extra food, they gather wood in the bush to sell in the local market.

Many of them have lost everything in the conflict. Fatouma Sosal tells of the four huts that once belonged to her family in Tiero. All of them were burned down. She talks about the millet she used to grow in her fields and her lost self-sufficiency.

Kadjidja Mahamat says the days here at Koloma can be long, filled only with the chores of trying to keep her temporary household in order: cooking food in the morning—if there is food—washing her children's clothes, patching her hut.

But at least there is water—clean and ample—and for that the women are happy.

In their villages, says Abdel-Madjid, families used to drink from the same source in which they bathed and also shared with their animals, which left their droppings nearby. People were sometimes sick and their children would have "blajose," or bloody urine. But with clean water supplied from a large Oxfam storage tank erected at the edge of their settlement—and a new understanding of waterborne diseases and the importance of good hygiene—problems like diarrhea have disappeared.

"A lot of these people are coming from huts in the middle of the desert. They get to Goz Beida and suddenly they get clean water, schools, health care," says Sarah McHattie, an Oxfam program manager. "I don't think we'll see a big return."

The complexities of returning

The question of when—and if—displaced people will return to their villages is a complex one, says Poul Brandrup, Oxfam's country program manager in Chad. There are many factors people weigh in making that decision.

"They need to be convinced that they will be able to re-establish sustainable livelihoods," says Brandrup. "Safety is important. So are primary health services and water. And we are increasingly hearing their strong wish for their children to be able to attend school."

One of the realities is that the temporary settlements in which people can now access those essential services are, in fact, "artificial," says Brandrup. They offer limited possibilities for people to establish and maintain themselves over the long-term. For instance, without Oxfam?s assistance, communities could not sustain the kind of water systems—with deep boreholes and expensive diesel-powered pumps—on which they now rely.

"The displaced understand that it will not be possible for all to stay in the current sites," Brandrup adds. "At the same time, many villages have been destroyed and land taken over by others so return in those cases is no longer an option."

Economic and social development for rural villages may play a key role in some people's willingness to return.

"It is not possible to drill thousands of boreholes to replace the existing water systems," says Brandrup. "But people can learn to develop traditional open wells better and to ensure that water is not contaminated by animals or unsafe practices. This is, in most cases, the way to go when and if the displaced people can return to their villages."

Home is here

Khadidja Saleh has already made up her mind about that—at least for the moment. She doesn't intend to leave Gassire, a settlement for 16,300 displaced people on the other side of Goz Beida.

Not far from the steady thump of an Oxfam generator pumping water for this temporary community, Saleh welcomes visitors into her home. A collection of three huts for her extended family, Saleh's improvised compound is like many crowded onto this dusty patch of earth, cobbled together from branches, plastic sheets, thatch, and grass matting.

The mother of six children, Saleh, her husband, and their family made it here safely after a three-day walk from their village of Fagatar—a place she does not want to go back to.

"Many, many people have been killed and no one took time to bury them," she says through an interpreter. "There will not be peace there."

Instead, she says, she would like to stay here and possibly farm a little plot where she can grow vegetables such as ochra—if she can get some land. It feels safe here, she added. And the water is close by and clean.

In Fagatar, Saleh spent about two hours each day fetching water for her family, lugging it home on the back of a donkey. Here, water taps are a short distance from her home. She and her children visit them four or five times a day, filling a 20-liter jug each time.

Even though there is not enough food for her family to eat here yet, Saleh is confident that the international aid groups that have streamed into the region to help will do just that—make sure that she, and the tens of thousands of other displaced villagers, will have at least the basics for survival.

"Here, the place is safe, so one day the food can come," she says.

But the challenges, including insecurity and lawlessness, that confront aid groups in this poor and remote region are enormous—and the needs of people seemingly without end.

As Saleh's visitors bounced in their truck away from Gassire, they passed a thin and tired-looking woman slapping the rump of donkey, urging it onward with its heavy load of a child and a battered pair of plastic water jugs. From the bottom of one, a steady drip of water caught the light. It drizzled from a rag plugging a hole—an afternoon's labor draining into the dust.

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