Sunday, December 31, 2006

Eid in Abeche

Well, we’re trying to figure out how to get out of Abeche. We’ve gotten the bulk of the footage we intended to get from here, but now we’re back to what seems to be the primary form of recreation for expatriats in the area – waiting for logistics. There’s not really a whole lot to say about us for the time being – we’re tired, grubby, a bit surprised by what we’ve seen, and anxious to get on to the next phase.

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Aside from what you’ll be seeing in terms of photos and film from us, you’ve probably already seen a great deal of material from Africa as it is, so trying to capture some of those elements will be a bit beyond my skill in prose. So, I suppose I can give you a sense of some of the rest of what life in this neck of the woods is all about.

Right now, I am writing by light of kerosene lantern, as electricity at our accommodations has been sporadic. Although Abeche is the capital of the Ouddai province, I’m not entirely sure that electricity is widely available. For the most part, NGO and business compounds appear to have generators, although there are some areas around the market that may have mains electricity. Most of the city also seems to have water, although it is certainly not potable.

There has been some debate over whether or not any of the roads in Abeche or between Abeche and the camp we have visited have ever been paved. Currently, the roads are anything but paved, but from time to time I see surfaces which may either be tightly compacted and weathered clay or the remnants of roads which probably haven’t been paved for nearly half a century. If we had more time and our own transport (rather than getting rides from the NGOs who are actually working here) I would like to get out and examine a stretch of roadway more closely. On the other hand, one can tell that there are sections near the wadis (streambeds that are dry in this season) upon which concrete bridges have been built, although many of those have fallen into disrepair and are no longer passable. By way of contrast, the national capital N’Djamena has, apparently, only one paved road – Charles DeGaulle avenue, while the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, has many paved roads and a fairly large number of stop lights, two of which we saw working.

As far as the security situation goes, the main burst of rebel activity was about a month ago – which precipitated the relocation of many NGO personnel. The NGOs are slowly moving back in to their former facilities, but on whole have been fairly slow in doing so. One of the consequences of the rebel seizure of Abeche about a month ago has been a slightly tenser security environment. Pretty much all of the NGOs are strictly adhering to a dusk to dawn curfew.

When the rebels seized Abeche, they threw open a number of government facilities to the public in a sort of quasi-organized looting, including the Chadian army base here. The rebels did guard the markets to prevent businesses from getting looted. On the other hand, they also threw open the jails and released all of the prisoners. All these factors, combined with a strong uncertainty about whether all of the government soldiers are, in fact, government soldiers, and if so, whether they are under any sort of significant control from their commanders has added a great deal to the level of apprehension felt by the NGO authorities. Still, we haven’t encountered any incidents of significant tension, theft, or overly aggressive citizens of the city, so I suppose that’s all to the good.

On a more practical level, the situation means that getting around – even from one compound to another – after dark is a bit difficult. I gather that before the rebel attack, there were a number of parties, and restaurants that people visited. Since then, the early nights have pretty much squelched all of that.

On a more surprisingly optimistic note, our tours of the camps showed, at least on the surface, an amazing rebound. Given all of the images one sees on TV, I had rather expected the camps to be squalid collections of misery. Rather, they seem to have developed in to temporary cities, with functioning economies. My talks with aid workers have confirmed this, although it is important to keep in mind that this is more of a surface impression that conceals a lot of deeper damage and problems. Today, we spoke to people who have been at the camp for two or more years – and this is the newest of the camps. Once one a refugee enters a camp, even though Chad isn’t directly involved in the Darfur violence, it is difficult to leave. There are, of course, exceptions and so on, but for all intents and purposes, two years in the camp means two years of not being able to leave the camp, save trips to the hospital in cases of grave illness.

For the NGO workers, they regard this as a hardship post. I can understand why one might think so, as it is far away from home and it’s associated comforts, although, essentially, this is a lot like a high grade version of camping, and is at least quite survivable, especially with the advent of better communications and internet access.

Another thing that is beginning to intrigue me is the local microeconomic implications of this whole situation. Locals in Abeche have complained that the NGOs have driven up prices, and tend to hire more of their local staff from southern Chad, as opposed to local hires. But on the other hand, with higher prices, I wonder why supply of goods has not risen accordingly to drive prices back down. Similarly, since any one of the camps in Chad is about half the size of Abeche, I would like to know if the camps can be take a stronger role as settlements, rather than way stations. But this kind of urban planning, development, and economics is beyond my understanding.

Oh, before I forget to mention it, the night sky out here is utterly amazing. So with that, good night.