from the Mirror
By Ros Wynne
Fatima Gamar cradles her son Saleh against the dust, singing to him softly.
At four months old Saleh is one of the newest additions to Gassire, an emergency settlement for Chadians made homeless by war.
"He hates the dust," Fatima says. "It makes his eyes sore." She shrugs, gesturing towards her own thin frame. "And he is hungry."
She pulls her shawl around the sleeping face of her little boy, a baby born dependent on international aid.
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Saleh means "good" or "right". He is a precious gift in a sea of loss for 23-year-old Fatima, whose once happy life has been devastated by war.
Three years ago, her first husband, Issac, was killed in a raid on their village by Janjaweed - the word locals use for Arab militias, which means "devils on horseback".
"He'd gone to the market to buy food," Fatima says. "Armed men killed everybody there and left our three children with no father."
The raiders came again and again, each time killing more people, taking more animals, burning more homes, destroying more crops. Still, Fatima tried to hold her family together. She got married again, to a man from the village. Her second husband went to look for work in one of the nearby towns.
One night, their neighbours were slaughtered in their beds. Fatima and her mother gathered up her three small children. She brought her murdered neighbours' children too.
"Zachariah and Naema," she says.
"I couldn't leave them behind. The Janjaweed were killing children too."
The women and children ran for two weeks, moving from place to place - seven villages in all.
"Eventually we heard there was help at Goz Beida," Fatima says.
"When we arrived we found there were thousands like us already here."
But there has been no word of her husband. "I do not expect to see him again," she says.
Fatima's story is repeated across Eastern Chad in dozens of settlements dotted along the border with Sudan, housing 400,000 destitute people.
Around half have fled across the border from Darfur in Sudan, driven out by the Janjaweed. The other half are Chadians displaced in their own country by repeated outbreaks of fighting between different rebel groups and the government of Chad.
Poverty is written all over the faces of the people in the settlements. It is in the agonisingly thin frames of the elderly, and the blank-faced queues at the feeding points. It is in the eyes of the little girls at the water stations as they wash their family's clothes with the sort of concentration western children reserve for playing with new toys.
Still they are fighting back in the only way they know how - by retaining their humanity.
For both Chadians and Darfuris, charity begins at home.
In nearby Djabal Refugee Camp, home to thousands of families who have escaped persecution in neighbouring Darfur, special groups have formed to take care of the vulnerable.
Takasha Idriss, 18, and her friend Usna Abdullah, 27, are the representatives for their block of huts - taking care of elderly people living on their own, the sick and the disabled.
"At home we would look after our own families, but here people are scattered," Takasha says. "They may not have any friends or relatives there, so we make sure no one is alone."
Takasha takes us on one of her daily home visits to see Gerrada Bakha Abuk, a blind woman in her late seventies. She is desperately frail and her hut has only a bed and plastic pots handed out by the aid agencies. She smiles when she sees Takasha. Without her she would have no way to get food, water or firewood.
In Gassire, where we have come to see Oxfam's humanitarian emergency programme in action, we are met by a delegation of "Soushies" or women elders, each vibrantly dressed in brightly coloured scarves and dresses. "It is hard to remember now how easy our lives once were," says Awiole Abdelkarim, 40. "We had food and water and our families." She and her children walked three days to Gassire after the animals in her village were stolen by Janjaweed and the men killed.
"Now, our children are always hungry, and we have only the clothes we wear," she says. "There is nothing left to be taken from us."
In Sudan, the war is between north and south, Arab and African. In Chad, the divisions are more blurred. The factions join one day and split the next. Bolstered by forces from the French foreign legion, the government clings to control. Chad and Sudan stand accused of arming the rebels in each other's country.
For the people born into this vast battleground, the result is utter devastation - poverty on an unimaginable scale.
Pushed out into the drylands at the bottom of the Sahara, they are reliant on western aid for survival. And even that aid is interrupted by fighting, with charities and NGOs attacked by armed factions.
Many people have been here three, even four years, waiting for peace. "We need soldiers to come from the United Nations," says 35-year-old Soushie elder Noura Idriss. She speaks softly in Arabic.
"We aren't even safe in the camps" says Halime Maloma, 40. "There are only a few policemen and the bad men pursue us even here. We feel scared all the time. We have to travel in groups to the market. One girl was raped fetching firewood."
These are extraordinary women, refusing to become victims of war.
"The Soushies are the ones who hold everything together," says Cecile Quan, Oxfam's Protection Coordinator, who works with the women elders to strengthen families within the settlements close to Goz Beida. Oxfam understands that keeping the community functioning can often be as important as emergency water and sanitation.
When I ask the Soushies what they would choose if they had one wish, Khadija Bourma, 30, speaks for the rest of the Gassire elders.
"I would wish people to understand - if the NGOs leave us we will die."
She covers her face with her hand. "If they understand that then we believe they will help us," she says.
As we leave Djabal, a young boy pushes a piece of paper into my pocket and vanishes into the crowds. We are driving to the airstrip when I find it again, written in neat Biro on a page torn from an exercise book.
"Now you come here to want to know the situation of refugees," the boy has written in a letter of nine neat lines. Unsigned, it contains one simple request.
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