Although escaping to a neighboring country at war seems nonsensical, it was Younis Hassan Issa’s only option.
“The reason why I went over the border to Sudan was because it was so close. It was 26 kilometres to safety in Chad, so I preferred to go to Sudan,” said Younis, adding that the Janjaweed had crossed into Chad in 2006 and were attacking Chadians in Tissi, a border town where he is originally from.
The Janjaweed, a horse or camel-riding militia, were used by the Sudanese government to target Darfuri rebels, but their attacks included rape and murder of civilians, as well as kidnapping and burning down their villages. In 2008, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo presented evidence that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was directly responsible for ordering attacks on civilians.
“If we were going to go to Koukou-Angarana it was really far. I couldn’t,” he said.
While he fled alone, Halima, 28, had just given birth to her first child, less than a month before she fled with her family.
“It was difficult crossing the border,” she said. “I had complications and had to be taken to the hospital in Darfur.”
Her daughter, Fatna, is now a healthy 13-year-old who lives with her father. Halima had two other children with her ex-husband, before marrying Younis.
Halima said she met Younis in the refugee camp, and they were married there. Younis has no problem with raising two stepchildren, he said. “When I married Halima, her first child was 12; the other was 55 days old. Today, I consider them like my own. There’s no distinction,” he said, adding they have a six-month old baby as well.
Both Younis and Halima say they are happy to be back in Chad after 12 years in a refugee camp. They have settled in Kerfi, a bustling market town some 45 kilometers south of Goz Beida, the capital of Silla region in eastern Chad.
“I’m originally from Tissi, near Sudan and the Central African Republic border, but I’m afraid something might happen there. I have family here, so we came here,” said Younis.
Most of their friends from the camp moved back to Tissi, while some have settled in areas where there is no cell phone coverage, so they have no news from these friends.
They received a warm welcome from the community in Kerfi, and are looking forward to putting the children in school next year. After living 12 years as a refugee in a camp, life is still an adjustment, said Halima.
“Here, I’m home. But in Sudan it was better because there always were fruits and vegetables. You can’t find them here. It’s a little different you eat more pasta,” she said.
Sitting under a tarp in the market in 50C degree heat, Halima said that water is always an issue. Most access water from wadis, or drainage ditches, when it rains, but a water borehole with a hand pump near the large school in Kerfi also supplies the town with water.
“But there’s a lot of us in the community,” she said.
As part of a resettlement package, UNHCR has given Issa and his family 83,000CFA, or roughly 125 euros, per person, with an additional house allowance. He has built a square brick house with two windows on either side of their brightly painted blue metal door.
“I’m happy. I built my house, and I’m waiting for the rainy season so I can work in the fields like other members of the community, where I’ll grow corn and beans,” said Issa.