Text by Daniele Bellocchio
Pictures by Marco Gualazzini
Inferno of sand
It is like there is a Jinn, a desert spirit, a ghost, so old that, at sunset, while warmly wrapped up in a white jellabiya and holding on tightly to a walking stick, advancing with effortless elegance through the dust and the wind of the Sahara, showing the entrance of the world to the margins of history. Advancing still further with this Jinn, it forces us to follow in its footsteps, but then dives into the fiery horizon of the desert and disappears, leaving no footsteps, just endless huts and sand. A maze of tents and improvised hovels open up wide before our eyes. And then the fugitives appear. They are the fisherman and farmer Boudouma and Kanembou, having escaped aboard a pirogue canoe from the islands and scattered within Lake Chad, when the jihadists Boko Haram arrived to ransack, rape, raid and force enlistment. Lake Chad has become a stronghold for the African caliphate of Al Baghdadi. The African branch of Isis has turned this land ravaged by desertification into a battle ground: here the horrors don’t come as stories sent via the web, but are felt in person, through the words and nightmares of the people.
Mahamat Issa is one of the leaders, and on this day he spoke about all of his displaced communities. He describes how all they have are dry branches under which to live and empty pots inside to look for leftover food. He then recalls when he used to live on the island of Braserie. Fishing, farming, rearing cows, goats, camels with feeding troughs: a nativity of African land which was then interrupted by a massacre of the innocent, perpetrated by soldiers in camouflage balaclavas and black flags, who landed on the island aboard barges, set fire to the houses, stole the livestock, bloodied their bayonets and riddled the night with sounds of gunfire. I asked him what he saw on the day in which he had to flee and abandon his life. Mahamat did not open his mouth, but raised a finger on his right hand, tracing it across his throat without ever lowering his eyes, which were full of those sweet and melancholy tears that fill the eyes of the elderly.
The stopwatch of time has been lost down here. The gears have jammed and all that is left is the hammering sound of suffering. Celou Al Hadji is ten years old and limps through the sand clinging onto his crutches. A year ago her mother sent her to buy a bag of rice, and while she was out a suicide bomber blew himself up. The child lost a leg and today does not go to school. She now lives with her younger sister and the mother that cannot forgive herself for having sent her to the market that day.
The story of Apsa Mohamet is equally pitiful: she is 17, and lives in the refugee camp at Dar es Salaam having arrived there after she was a prisoner for two weeks under the jihadist group Boko Haram. “They arrived in my village in Nigeria and I was kidnapped because I was still unmarried so they wanted to turn her into one of their brides.” Her face was framed by a pink hijab, her hands were paint with hennè patterns and her voice was filled with the pain of her past punishments. “They kept me segregated in a house with other girls. One day they freed a mother, and her daughter begged them to let her go with her: they, Boko Haram, refused, but the young girl insisted, so they slaughtered her in front of her mother and all of us.
“Sheitan, sheitan!”, demons, devils, they tell how they survived this horror but cannot forget the nightmare, because in the camp, today, while the traumas are detached from the memories but are not forgotten. Psychiatric conditions are becoming increasingly more common: the doctors tell of how many of the women and men can’t even bring themselves to say the fiery words, and are scared of the colour red and hide in fear whenever they hear a sudden noise. Afflicted by “post-traumatic stress” as it is scientifically known, or “Satan” as its more commonly known name, which at times, gives it a more effective meaning.
There isn’t any difference between refugee camps: the endless sand is all the same. After the events of 2014, the crisis began, the number of refugees in Chad rose to 130 thousand people. Their lives in these years seemed to have been shaped and formed to represent fatigue and suffering. The situation in Kurfa is the same as that Dar Es Salaam. In this second tent city there is also a small well. There, in a row, dozens of women wait with their containers to pump their water. The temperatures are searing and mothers and children roll up their hijab and niqab in order to carry by hand and on their head their containers of water, being careful not to lose a drop. The constant ladeling of water leaves them fatigued, and also yearning for a piece of bread. A barefoot girl in the shade of a tree, with her face encircled by a green hijab, continues kneading cereal in her mortar. The cadence of the blows, measured, neither increasing or decreasing in speed. Its blows strike like a metronome that punctuates the whole field’s rhythm of hunger.
A further image of desperation that chokes the population is the island of YIga, where desertification can be seen in its most ferocious form. A few improvised huts, made from branches and brushwood, trying to keep out a heat that can melt bodies and drain you of any life force, occupy a view on the horizon. Seven hundred people bravely populate this island, in spite of constant attacks.
Some women sit under a small tree, with children sleeping in a hut, another young girl drinks from a water tank that she then pours into a bowl to give to her younger brother.
In order to survive the heat and the desert, people have had to learn to limit themselves to activities of minimal effort: no pleasure, no exceptions, even for religious or personal reasons.
With temperatures reaching above 50 degrees, and the earth offering nothing other than more sand, only what is absolutely necessary is allowed in order to survive. “I am old enough to remember what it was like before this whole disaster started. The lake was filled with animals, and we lived on fish and agriculture. You don’t believe us? It really was like that.
Tanto pesce e pesci grandi, numerosi: come mettevamo le reti in acqua queste subito si riempivano e poi vacche, capre, dromedari. Oggi invece non c’è più nulla. Questo è quello che abbiamo”.