March 12 2007
Darfur refugees: Children with silent souls
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie visits a refugee camp in Chad
12/03/2007 - Since September 2006, SOS Children's Villages has been helping refugees from Darfur who are now stranded in Chad. At the immense Oure Cassoni refugee camp, where 26,000 people have to live in the harshest conditions in the desert, teams from SOS Children's Villages, led by Yolanda van den Broek, are concentrating on providing support for seriously-traumatised children and women. UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie visited some of them with Yolanda at the end of February.
In Oure Cassoni, just five kilometres from the border with Sudan, the people would struggle to survive if it were not for the aid of NGOs and UN organisations. SOS Children's Villages works closely with the UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee on the ground to find families that have the most urgent need for therapeutic and medical care. The organisations coordinate relief efforts with each another.
At the end of February, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie visited the Oure Cassoni refugee camp to gain a picture of the dramatic situation and make the international community aware of the plight of the people from Darfur. During her two-day visit, she and Yolanda van den Broek also visited three families who are being cared for by SOS Children's Villages. Angelina Jolie was visibly shocked that the people's situation had not really changed since her last visit three years previously. On the other hand, she was touched by their unending hope of returning to Darfur, of peace troops and retribution for the crimes committed. She was also noticeably impressed by the work of the aid organisations, whose staff have in many cases been working on the ground for years and continue to work with determination in such harsh conditions.
The UNHCR has set up twelve camps for more than 230,000 Darfur refugees in Chad; Oure Cassoni is the furthest north. Until SOS Children's Villages began its relief programme in the camp, there was no professional support for traumatised children and mothers there. Most of them had had terrible experiences in their country and when they fled from it, such as little Mahamat*. Yolanda tells us that Mahamat represents thousands of children who have been seriously traumatised and urgently need psychological and medical care, as well as peace and security:
"The war in Darfur is a humanitarian disaster. Many people had to leave their homes after they were plundered and burnt down, women and young girls were raped, livestock was stolen, and people had to flee their homeland with literally nothing. The people from the Zaghawa ethnic group are tough and strong; they do not say much about their feelings. Most men would say that the loss of their homeland hurts them the most, but we can only hazard a guess as to what people have really gone through. I am sure that with time more will be told about what has gone on. We are discovering more and more deep traumas and hearing of increasing cases of shocking experiences. It is hard to select just one case, because there are so many that should be told... but this particularly one touched me.
We were told of a boy who urgently needed our help. We went to his home. It looked like all those elsewhere: a desolate tent with a makeshift wall of clay bricks around it to prevent the tent from being torn out of the ground in a sandstorm. Seven-year-old Mahamat was sitting outside in the sun, naked and all on his own. He was tied to a pole at the ankle with a piece of material. He was kneeling, with his mouth open, his face covered in flies and was hitting himself against the wall with his bare back. As we approached him, he scrambled away as far as the rag of material around his leg would allow.
His mother brought him an old shirt, gave us some tea, and then told us Mahamat's story.
Three years previously, he had been a completely normal healthy boy playing outside, when a plane flew over and dropped a bomb on the neighbour's house. Mahamat panicked and ran away. It wasn't until two days later that someone happened to find him - completely dehydrated - at the edge of the village and took him home to his mother. From that moment onwards, Mahamat stopped speaking. His mother took Mahamat and her other four children and fled to Chad. No one knows where Mahamat's father is - he disappeared four years ago. He's probably dead or with the rebels.
Since coming to the camp, Mahamat has tried to run away and to injure himself. His mother did not know how she could stop him from doing it, so she tied him up. Whilst we sat next to him, he hit the sand around him and avoided any kind of eye contact. After a while, he let me touch him. And when I untied him and tried to walk with him a little way, a smile spread across his face. Mahamat spent three years kneeling down like that, his muscles have shortened, he can hardly walk and he cannot stretch his legs out. His mother tells us that in his early days at the camp Mahamat would tremble violently if there was a sudden noise or if a plane flew overhead. Now, after three years, he's stunned, doesn't engage in contact and lives in a little world of his own.
During our next visit, he wanted physical contact, he held our hands, sat close to me and even looked into my eyes at times. His mother did not try to get any kind of help for Mahamat, simply because there was no form of medical facilities where they lived. She is very relieved that SOS Children's Villages is helping to look after Mahamat. During our first visit he seemed happy to get out of his small prison. We conduct play therapy with him and someone regularly takes a walk with him to strengthen his muscles. I hope that we will be able to give back some confidence to this little boy, a feeling of security... a future. "
*Name was changed due to privacy reasons.