i-ACT’s Gabriel Stuaring, James Thacher and the Little Ripples team are in eastern Chad documenting the stories of Darfuri refugees and opening the first Little Ripples’ center. This trip, i-ACT #16, coincides with the 10th anniversary of the start of the genocide in Darfur and the more recent influx of 300,000 new refugees into the region.
The name Goz Amer roughly means high (Amer) sandy grasslands (Goz). I decided to look that up after telling someone unfamiliar with the refugee camps that I was going to Goz Amer and he said “Which one?” It’s like telling someone in the US that you’re headed to “that high place by a field” or maybe that you’re going to Springfield, without providing the state. It’s a very common name in this region and was likely given to the camp as an afterthought because refugee camps are supposed to be temporary, right? I bring this up because Goz Amer has become a very real place to me and obviously to the 30,000 refugees that live there. After multiple visits the name evokes unique and complex feelings they way “Brooklyn” or “Los Angeles” does. After 10 years the camp has outgrown its name.
We arrived in Kou Kou today, the closest town to Goz Amer, after a bumpy but uneventful drive from Goz Beida. Unlike Djabal, which sits adjacent to a town, Goz Amer requires about a 40 minute drive with an armed convoy. The camp has mushroomed into a sprawling mega-village because it lies next to both a river and a main road to Sudan (it’s actually the closest I’ve ever been to Darfur.) Soon the rains will come and flood the entire area causing the river to spill it’s banks and make the camp inaccessible for a few months. Soulyman, the team captain of Darufur United, claims that the water gets so deep that hippos can be seen near the camp. We’ve yet to confirm that migration with anyone else but I like to imagine it’s true.
Along with the size of the camp comes a much more cosmopolitan feeling. It sounds strange but this is more like a city than a village. There are numbered blocks and streets and each neighborhood has developed it’s own personality. One interesting influence was the way initial food distributions contributed to density. When the camp first formed around 2003-04 the World Food Program (WFP) distributed food to one sector of the camp at a time and would rotate sectors in the same direction each month. The first sector became the most desirable because residents would get rations at the start of the month. This led to a housing boom and it quickly became the most densely packed part of the camp. The WFP has long ago switched to a more varied distribution schedule but that part of camp still feels like a sort of dense downtown neighborhood. I love the way cities echo past events like this no matter how rigid the planning. The straightening of Manhattan’s Broadway was foiled (in part) by a farmer who fought to protect his orchard from the path of the proposed re-alignment.
There is much more to say about Goz Amer but I’ll save that until after we visit tomorrow. The influx of new refugees will change the camp in many unexpected ways and that will be my focus over the next week. It’s rare to witness a place undergo the disheartening transition from temporary emergency settlement to a de facto permanent town. The cynicism of the international community has condemned these people to a purgatory in the desert.
It’s been ten years and the citizens of Goz Amer are still waiting. How will the residents of such a place receive newly displaced people hoping to return home soon?