International Rescue Committee (IRC)

“If I could go home, I would”: Ten years on, Darfuri refugees still waiting to return

In February, the International Rescue Committee’s Sophia Jones-Mwangi visited the Oure Cassoni camp in eastern Chad, home to 280,000 Darfuri refugees, some of whom have been living there for a decade. Sophia talked to a few who continue to dream of a time when it will be possible to return to their native villages in Sudan.

I meet a lot of refugees in my job as East Africa regional media manager for the International Rescue Committee. Many tell me the same thing — “If I could go home, I would” — as did the Darfuri refugees I visited recently in the Oure Cassoni camp in eastern Chad. Their homes are just across the border in Sudan, five miles away, so near yet so far."
The conflict in Darfur started in February 2003 when fighting erupted between Janjaweed militias, supported by the Sudanese government, and rebel groups. It deteriorated into one of the worst humanitarian crises ever, characterized by atrocities and the destruction of entire villages. (In 2007, the United States declared the Janjaweed killings to be genocide.) Almost half a million people have died and 2.8 million displaced, including 300,000 refugees to eastern Chad.

Ten years on, it is important that the Darfuri refugees are not forgotten. “The IRC is calling on the governments of Chad and Sudan to continue their dialogue in finding long-term solutions for the refugees’ safe return,” says Felix Leger, who runs the IRC’s programs in Chad. “We are grateful to our donors for their assistance these past ten years, but please don’t forget that the refugees are still in these camps and need to have their basic needs covered for as long as they stay here. Further cutbacks will only make their lives even more precarious than they already are, particularly as attention and resources move to more current crises, such as Syria and Mali.”
Women walk through sandy Oure Cassoni camp in Chad

Cuts in humanitarian aid funding will make life in refugee camps like Oure Cassoni more precarious that it already is, says the IRC's Felix Leger. 

Photo: Sophia Jones-Mwangi/IRC
Amira Idriss, a 35-year-old mother of eight who has lived in Oure Cassoni since 2004, would love to return to Darfur. “If there is peace and everything is okay, then yes, we will go back, but not now,” she says.

Amira is a community health worker in Oure Cassoni, one of three camps where the IRC has worked since 2004. Her job is to visit families, make evaluations, and offer advice. “Sometimes I may find a sick person in their house and tell her to go to the health center,” she explains, “or I may visit a pregnant mother to see how she is doing and make sure that her immunizations are up to date, or if I see that a child who looks malnourished, I will tell the mother to take him to the health center.”

Amira can never forget the day that she and her family fled to Chad. “Life was good before the war,” she recalls. “We decided to leave after we saw too many of our relatives and neighbors being killed by the air bombardments. We ran from the village after one bombing. I lost my children and couldn’t find them for three days. Then a neighbor found them scared and hiding.”

Amira, her husband and children trekked to Chad on foot and by donkey. “We walked for six days,” she says. “The Janjaweed were chasing us and my children cried all the way."
groups of children and men walk through market

A marketplace in Oure Cassoni: The approximentely 300,000 Darfuris living in eastern Chad have settled in as best they can.

Photo: Sophia Jones-Mwangi/IRC

Although the conflict in Sudan has subsided, the region remains volatile. “Violence and insecurity erupts to varying degrees and at different times in Darfur, making it very difficult for people to return home and rebuild their lives,” says Leger. Recently, rival tribes renewed simmering antagonisms over gold and other resources in northern Darfur, reportedly displacing another 100,000 people when fighting broke out over a mine.

While visiting Oure Cassoni, I met Yussif Suleiman Nair, president of the Parents’ Association at the camp’s Zone A primary school, one of three schools that the IRC supports. He was a farmer in Darfur before he fled with his two wives and children in 2003. 

“When someone flees from war, you just take what’s in front of you,” he told me. “We took some food and a donkey and came here. It took us five days. My second child was a very small baby and was still drinking his mother’s milk. It was cold and the cold affected the children in particular and they got sick.”
Pregnant women

Expectant Darfuri mothers wait to be seen at an IRC health center in Oure Cassoni.  Many of them came to the camp as young children. 

Photo: Sophia Jones-Mwangi/IRC
I also met 19-year-old Nadia Heire. She was about to deliver her second child at an IRC health center and, indeed, after four hours of labor, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Nadia’s mother, Ache Hissein, couldn’t hide her joy. “I am very happy!” she said, laughing. “My daughter has had a baby and has delivered with no problems.” She was carrying the afterbirth in a bucket to bury it according to her culture’s practice.

Ache arrived in Oure Cassoni nine years ago with her husband, Nadia and her siblings. “There were too many people with guns and doing very bad things,” she said about Darfur. When I asked her if she would go back, she didn’t hesitate. “If there is peace, then yes! Of course I would go back.”
Ache plans to have a celebration when Nadia and the baby return from the health center to their camp residence. “I will kill a goat and invite the relatives. I will cook food and give to them all to eat. This will be after seven days, when we name the baby.”

The approximetely 300,000 Darfuris living in eastern Chad have settled in as best they can. Those who, like Nadia, were young when they fled Darfur have grown up and gone to school in the camps. They have had children of their own. This is the only life they know.

Darfur: An Ongoing Crisis
During ten years of conflict in Darfur, Sudan, it is estimated that 300,000 people have died and some 2.7 million have been displaced. Although the worst violence has declined, fighting still flares up and several rounds of peace talks have failed.  
IRC Crisis Watch report: Darfur news and photos


1 comment


it is so sad to be a

it is so sad to be a refugee.from 1990 to 2005 i was a refugee on the buduburam refugee campam in Ghana so i known how is it to be a refugee especially single mother.