Friday, 28 September 2007

UNHCR Compound, Iriba

We left Bahai at about 8.30 this morning full of uncertainty about how or when we were going to get down to the next, more southerly set of refugee camps gathered around the town of Iriba. Although actual distances between places is not immense, there are no roads as such, just tracks in the sand.

The vital flights that connect the camps and facilitate the aid workers effort are operated by the amazingly well-organised non-profit organisation Air Serv International, who as an added plus have good-humoured and flexible pilots. As a consequence we find ourselves airborne, flying south to Iriba. Below us, we can see a long group of traditional Arab nomabs livestock: laden camels, a string of goats or sheep and then the family on horse back. They are carrying out their traditional "transhumance" or seasonal migration to take advantage of the lush pasture brought about by the recent rains - in an area where competition for natural resources has always been a struggle, the conflict in neighbouring Sudan (just a few kilometres from Bahai, and which is as much a clash between cultures as anything else) means that tolerance of Arab nomads amongst Chadian villagers is diminishing. In truth the situation is far more complicated than can be summarised here, but it gives just some idea of how difficult the task is for us to find a soloution which reflects the interest of all livestock owners in the region.

Iriba is a photogenic African village, and after dumping our kit in the UNHCR compound, and once again mentally congratulating whoever had the presence of mind to install wi-fi here, we go off to meet at first the District Prefecture, and then the genial Canadian Director of the Care International office here. SPANA is funding some Community Animal Health Workers in the three refugee camps they manage and we shall be visiting them over the next few days. It's now mid-afternoon, and we are off to meet the Sultan of the region. I have put on a clean shirt for the occasion.

The Sultan has a real Palace. We breeze in through his gates in our 4x4 Toyota, and dislodge part of his gatehouse with our radio antenna. In the corner of the palace forecourt is a well kept but ancient John Deere tractor. We take our shoes off, go up the steps and inside. In his snow-white robes the Sultan, who had been sitting on the ground in front of his imposing throne, stands up to greet us. This is a scene, I think, that people like Mungo Park, TE Lawrence and even Livingstone will have found familiar. We pay our dutiful respects to the Sultan, who listens, but keeps and eye on the TV playing Arabic music beamed from Sudan. After hearing what SPANA is about, he listens more intently. A memory stirs in which I am reminded that when I was a small boy, I had some aspiration to sit on the floor of a Sultan's Palace chatting with the big man. Even the accoutrements of a modern Sultan (mobile phone, cable TV, funky fly-swat with built in torch) can't dispell my enthusiasm for having ticked this "to do" item off my life list.

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