One of the most ludicrous statements to come out of Chad’s government spokesman, Mahamat Hissene, was his assertion this week that ‘rape cases did not happen in Chad before the arrival of Darfur refugees’. He was responding to an Amnesty International report which claims that ‘high levels’ of sexual violence are being perpetrated on women and girls living in camps in the east which are supposed to offer them protection.
Mr Hissene, an ostensibly worldly, educated man – dapper even (he’s often seen sporting sharp suits and white gangster shoes), was postulating, I believe, that only Sudanese men – either refugees themselves or people crossing over the border – are incapable of controlling themselves. He’s almost affectionately well known for publishing statements wildly at odds with reality.
Nonetheless he responded quickly to an issue that has caused much excitement. I had one of my busiest days ever when the Amnesty report came out, including interest from domestic UK news who have never asked me for anything before.
What Amnesty is saying is well-known. The east of Chad is a hostile, unforgiving landscape – from the air, concentric circles of bald sand, denuded of trees, can be seen emanating out from the refugee camps. There is not enough wood to go round, and women are forced to leave the camps to search for more. This is when they come into conflict with local people, resentful of the handouts of food, fuel and water that the refugees receive.
Women such as Marian “nine women went out into a village to collect wood. We were stopped by some men from the village. They took our materials and attacked us with sticks and stones. I don’t know who they were. Now the children are too scared to go out alone”.
After months of frustration that most of the outside world doesn’t really seem to care what happens in Chad, it was refreshing to be bombarded with requests for reports. But also interesting for us here that the Amnesty report had no sense of perspective – the phenomena of rape in the camps is well-known, so are things getting better or worse? How many people are we talking about exactly? Is rape still used systematically as a ‘tool of war’ in the way it was in Darfur? The crisis in eastern Chad, for better or worse, is still only comprehensible in its most reduced form – Darfur spill-over, refugees, women, victims.