Climate change escalates Darfur crisis
Less rainfall on the fringes of the Sahara Desert is putting more of a strain on resources than ever before.
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At the UNHCR compound near the Darfur border, you find the young and middle-aged, European and African and Chadian. And then there is their chief, Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a Rwandan Tutsi from Kigali. In charge of three camps with a total population of 57,000, Emmanuel is part mayor, part peacemaker, and at the end of the day, a good-time Charlie with an infectious laugh.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Uwurukundo has what many would consider an impossible job. Directly responsible for three camps full of people who have lost so much, and who even now receive precious little – 5 to 10 liters of water a day, on average, a sack of wheat flour every two weeks, a can of cooking oil, a plastic sheet for cover, and blankets. Uwurukundo doesn't often get gushes of gratitude. On the week we were there, he was chased from the camp at Am Nabak after a swarm of angry women began to pelt him and his colleagues with stones for not providing enough plastic sheeting.
What makes a man like this leave a country that itself has emerged from an ethnic genocide only a few years ago to come to a conflict with many of the same characteristics?
"I was in Kigali during the genocide, hiding," he says. His wife and children, his mother-in-law, and sister-in-law still live in Kigali. Everyone else he had ever known and loved was murdered in what must have been the bloodiest month in human history.
"When you are a survivor of something like this, you have two choices," he says. "Either you come to the conclusion that life is meaningless, and for all intents and purposes, you are dead to the world, without hope. Or you think, if I am still alive, there must be a reason for it. There must be something that I can do with my experiences to make things better."
One doesn't have to undergo personal tragedies such as Uwurukundo's in order to make a difference in people's lives. But a person like Uwurukundo has a tendency to attract like-minded people, and they tend to bring out the better qualities of those around them. It was Uwurukundo's UNHCR team who put us in touch with a Chadian farmer who had given plots of his land to Sudanese refugees to farm ("Flooded with refugees, a farmer shares land," in the July 12 issue of the Monitor).
Uwurukundo recalled his own lengthy conversations with the farmer, Al-Hajj Ali Saboor Bakit. Mr. Bakit had been a refugee himself, Uwurukundo says, forced into a more peaceful Darfur when Chad itself was having a violent anti-government rebellion. Now that Darfuris are flooding across the border into a relatively peaceful Chad, Bakit could identify with the losses of the Darfuris who have now flooded Chad's sparse desert.
It was clear that Uwurukundo could see a part of himself in Bakit as well. The two men – both Africans, but one an illiterate Muslim, the other a highly educated Christian – had found common experiences of hardship and a similar outlook of what to do with their experiences.
Outsiders have a disturbing tendency of portraying Africa as a passive place, where people blame the outside world – from the former colonial rulers to the World Bank – for their problems. But these two are not quitters or blamers. They knew they could make a difference.
"My object is to get the local community and the refugees together to see how they can share traditional wells and keep things together," says Uwurukundo. He realizes that his job is to put himself out of a job, to help the refugees reach a point where they can look after themselves.
"It's a matter of dignity, a feeling that they are not begging," says Uwurukundo. "If you give 100 percent assistance to refugees, you create a dependent state, and when it comes time to repatriate them, you'll have trouble. It's only once they are capable of contributing to their own well-being that they will feel better about themselves."