Sunday, July 25, 2010

Back in the Capital

In my room at LWF there are three beds, all size single (i.e., slightly shorter than I am tall). The first bed which is easily the most comfortable bed in the room has a wooden bed frame that feels like it is going to disintegrate when I try to move it. It actually pulls apart at each one of its joints on every attempt. As I cannot move it to a location beneath a fan or a mosquito net hook I just leave it where it is and stack clothes on it.

The second bed has a white, metal bed frame with half-circle arcs at either end. My first night at LWF I pulled my mosquito net over each arc to keep it from touching me while I slept; the next morning when I awoke the net had pulled out and I was covered in mosquito bites. Absolutely covered in them.

This second bed also has a bed frame which is just the perimeter of the mattress and so has three pieces of particle board laid across it, on which the mattress rests. Until the beginning of July I was using this bed but, one morning, I shifted the wrong way, the boards fell from the frame and I was sitting on the floor, trapped in a mess of frame, board, mattress and mosquito net.

This second bed has become the guest bed.

The third bed frame, the one which I came to use, is also metallic but has a cross-hatch of springs spanning the length and breadth of the frame. My first night on this bed I found that, with the foam mattress that was initially on it, I was sinking into the middle and unable to move in the night. I also found that, with this foam mattress, my mosquito net was coming untucked from the corners and I was potentially exposed to the malaria-carrying disease vector I'd been trying to avoid. So I switched the mattresses between bed numbers two and three and found the perfect compromise.

A resettlement mission came from the branch office, arriving in Ali-Sabieh on 10 July to commence its mission on 11 July. An intern on the mission stayed with me at the LWF guest room for all 10 days of the mission. He used the guest bed with the particle board platforms and the foam mattress. While he didn't have the same trouble I did with falling to the floor on moving inappropriately, he did have that same problem with the mosquito net coming untucked in the night - which was particularly surprising as he actually had ties on each corner of his net to tie the net to the bed frame. Funnier still, the fan under which the bed was placed doesn't seem to circulate any air. None!

I heard about that a few mornings, and had a laughing fit on more than one occasion; but gradually grew deaf to his complaints.

The resettlement mission was rather large, with five people conducting Refugee Resettlement Form (RRF) interviews. After having spent the previous two weeks in the Ethiopian section, speaking primarily with Ethiopians but also with Eritreans, I decided it was time to return to the compound to recommence my interviews with the Somalis. The first day I was able to secure a room and met with a few people but had very little organized; it was also difficult for refugees to come into the compound, as they were being turned away at the locked gate, so I was only able to meet with those people who were already inside the compound.

Due to the size of the resettlement mission, on the second day I lost my room, so I ventured into the refugee camp and returned to Section 7 where I interviewed more Ethiopians and drank more Ethiopian coffee.

On the third day, one of the English-speaking refugees, a teacher at the refugee school, took me into Section 5 where I visited his home, met his family, and went for a tour of some of the other homes close to him. Afterward, I went back to Section 7 where I again met with the Eritreans. Shortly after midday there was a bit of a commotion in the camp due to what was happening in Kampala, Uganda, so a bus was sent out to look for me and bring me back to the compound. As of that moment our security was heightened somewhat and I, and others, were required to stay within or close to the compound.

Thereafter I used one of the rooms available in the school. I also made my first visit to a coffee stall set up next to the compound. I hadn't organized anything but a mob of refugees came to see me wanting to have some kind of audience with me. I dutifully explained to everyone who I am, what I'm doing, and explained I'm neither in protection or resettlement - or a medical doctor - and cannot help anyone with any of their problems. I don't think anyone believes me when I tell this to them. In any case, I asked everyone to organize themselves by way of a list, and one of the refugees took charge of this exercise and presented me with a list of upwards of 50 names - which continued to grow as more people showed up. Suffice it to say my dance card was full for the next week.

On the second to last day of the resettlement mission my interviews were interrupted and I was taken to the office of the local authority for an audience with the regional authority, the local authority, and a slew of others. It seems no one knew, or everyone forgot, what it was I was doing in the camp. So I again explained my study and thanked everyone for their comments and support.

The following day, I returned to the capital with the resettlement team at the conclusion of the mission, and met with my superiors at the office the morning after. Having completed six weeks of field research at the Ali-Addeh camp, and interviewing some 200 or so refugees, it seems I'm in well enough shape to start writing my report from the branch office. I will only return to Ali-Sabieh and Ali-Addeh from time to time to meet with some of the local authorities to gain their perspective on the various facets of the administration of justice in Ali-Addeh and Djibouti.

After spending so much time in Ali-Sabieh and Ali-Addeh I'd forgotten how hot and humid it is in the capital. Unbearable, really. I'm staying with one of my colleagues, an intern from Switzerland, who has a studio apartment close to the Hotel Alia (where I spent the first 10 days in Djibouti). Now that I am staying in Djibouti for good I will need to find a place of my own, and I'm making inquiries to this end, but so far nothing has been found.

On Friday, 23 July, as most things in Djibouti-are inoperable (as I've noted to some people, Friday is Muslim Sunday in Djibouti), I came to the office to work on some things. A few hundred yards up the road from my colleague's flat there is a roundabout followed by a small area with barren trees and a large cross, all of which is surrounded by a chain rope suspended maybe a foot and a half above the ground from regularly placed poles.

As I walked by this area with my computer bag hanging from my shoulder, wearing brown and blue plaid shorts, a green t-shirt, a blue and white American Eagle baseball cap, and brown running shoes, I believe I was giving onlookers the distinct impression that I am from the United States. I know this because, as I walked along the road, someone beyond that roped-in-area was calling to me - at least I presume it was me. Over and over he repeated: "American! Fuck you, American!"

It's great to be back in the capital.

Friday, July 9, 2010

An English-Speaking Angel from Canada

Of late I have been spending long days in the refugee camp interviewing refugees, beginning from the time I arrive, and working as close to the time that the car comes to take me away as possible. On any given the day the car may pick me up at four thirty in the afternoon or it may pick me up at noon. I never know.

These have been long days. I haven't been taking lunches with the exception of two days ago when the Executive Committee of the Ethiopian section 'invited me' to join them in eating some traditional Ethiopian food - too spicy for me, and they enjoyed that. As I have been sitting in the Ethiopian section the last two weeks, the Ethiopians have been preparing traditional coffee, and keeping the various translators and I well stocked with fresh thermoses of coffee throughout the day.

As soon as I arrive, I want to get down to business, so I walk over to my tiny folding chair and my even tinier desk and I ask to see the first person on the list. Lists of interviews are prepared for me each day by the Executive Committee of the Ethiopian section. This level of organization will be sorely missed when I return to the Somalis.

I generally meet one person at a time, though I will meet with an entire family from time to time, and on one occasion I met with all of the orphans living in the section at the same time (and then individually thereafter). I meet with large, representative groups, including various sub-committees representing different demographics within the section. I have met with various ethnic minorities living in the section, such as the Eritreans, and I have met with various linguistic minorities living in the section, such as the Oromo. I have also met with all of the women in the section - or a majority of them at least - as they felt their sex was not being attended to well enough.

In each of these meetings, whether with one person or with a group, I introduce myself, I explain who I am and the study I have been asked to undertake, and I stress that I am not regular staff and have no inherent powers of protection or resettlement (or any ability to influence people who have those powers). In spite of my warnings, the people I meet with tell me I have been sent by God, either as an angel or a very special person, who will indeed protect them or resettle them, as the case may be. I sport a wry smile when my translator tells me these things, and I ask my translator to tell them that I thank them for their high compliments and I will do what I can within my power to make their concerns known.

I perform these interviews and say these things, over and over again, starting from about eight o'clock in the morning and going as late as four o'clock in the afternoon (we're really not allowed to remain in the camp much later than that). As the days wear on, my translators ask to leave and to be replaced by different people; I tell them that they may do as they wish, as they are all volunteers from the refugee community, and I appreciate any and all help they can provide me with.

When one volunteer has been with me long enough on any given day, and has sat through so many interviews, he'll know my caged introduction and will just jump right into them. He'll tell me that the person or people sitting in front of me understand why I am there but I still confirm with them that they understand I'm just a consultant who has been asked to write a paper on dispute resolution systems and access to justice in the refugee camp. They tell me they understand both what I am there to do and that it is God who has sent me both to do this and to help them. I smile and we proceed.

I'd like to make a game where I see how many interviews I can get through in an hour and then see if I can break that record in each successive hour. Unfortunately, some interviews take as many as four hours. It wouldn't be much of a game really.

At the conclusion of each interview my translator will say "take a break now?". While I'm ready to jump right into the next interview and keep blazing through each day's list, like a machine, my translators are not machines and I recognize they need breaks. They invite me to their cigarettes but I show them that I have my own and invite them to mine. This periodic indulgence is a habit I will unfortunately need to break when I move back to the compound to interview refugees from the Somali sections. I'll just be taking frequent latrine breaks while I am there [note: you'll need to refer to an earlier post here].

While I am enjoying the interview procedure, and the routines I've been developing with the translators I'm working with have been fun, I can't say that I enjoy the stories I'm being told in the same vein. People are telling me about their problems, both with other refugees and citizens, and the difficulties they encounter when they try to access the different faces of the justice system both in this country and in that refugee camp. I've shared a few details with some people privately. I'm not going to share them here. I don't hear very many things while I'm in the refugee camp that make me smile. Yes, when I am likened to an English-speaking angel from Canada it causes me to grin. But when this English-speaking angel from Canada is asked to save someone from the daily misery of life in a refugee camp, and that misery is explained, there's not a lot of smiling.

I met a girl yesterday who will be entering the seventh grade at the refugee school in the fall. There are eight grade levels taught at the refugee school, after which the education of refugees ends unless they are able to pursue further studies in other countries (the parents of some refugees sell half of their rations to pay for their children to take further studies abroad; they tell me this).

This particular girl, who will be turning 15-years-old next month, was required to repeat the fifth grade. She was required to repeat the fifth grade because, during her first time through, being an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, she took issue with being required to memorize the Quran. While UNESCO was charged with providing education to refugees the memorization of the Quran was required learning; this has changed since LWF has taken over, and I am told the Quran is no longer required learning for students, Muslim or not.

Religious intolerance is something to which I could devote an entire blog.

I've met this girl's father on numerous occasions. He's one of the elected leaders of the community. He is actually a leader in several capacities. While he has a number of distinguishing titles, as a single father, I would warrant that 'dad' is one of the more important ones: probably the most important as far as his children are concerned.

While I have met this girl's father previously in his capacity as a community leader, I interviewed him for the first time concerning his personal refugee experience on Tuesday of this week. He had a number of things to tell me but several stories concerned his daughter. I asked him if it would be alright if I met his daughter and he agreed to arrange this for me for a future day.

I met this girl yesterday towards the end of the morning. When I arrived in the camp yesterday, I was dropped off in the Ethiopian section, and as a matter of chance met someone I'd had the pleasure of meeting the day before. He speaks English and teaches in the refugee school. He informally became my first translator for the day. We walked to the Eritrean sub-section of the Ethiopian section, where I met with several of the Eritreans and was given a view of their living conditions (many of them require new tents, or first tents, and as their God-send I tell them I am making inquiries).

Towards the end of the morning I walked with my translator to the Ethiopian meeting centre and I met with the girl I'd arranged to meet with several days prior. She confirmed for me the things her father had told me, the details of which I won't provide here. I don't like that bad things are happening to anyone, or to her in particular; or that these details are now known by me and that I have a written record of them on which I will base parts of a future report.

Her mother still lives in the camp but her parents are no longer together (the details of their separation, while interesting from my perspective and may wind their way into my report, won't be provided here). She tells me she will visit her mother, from time to time, and her mother may give her food, but she remains with her father where she helps him with cooking and cleaning and caring for her other siblings.

After she confirmed the details of the several incidents and provided me with her own perspective on whether or not justice was served I asked her a few more questions about her experiences, generally, in the refugee camp. A number of women I speak with, and even men, discuss the problems they have with collecting water from faraway wells and wood from faraway valleys. The men speak of being beaten and the women speak of being raped and beaten. There is often talk of verbal harassment and there is often talk of stones being thrown.

I asked this girl whether she ever has problems when she goes to collect water or when she goes to collect wood. She told me that, because other girls have problems collecting water and collecting wood, her father does not let her collect these things on her own: he either accompanies her or he collects them himself.

I know the intimate details of this girl, this family, and I want to write a song for this man about how great of a dad he is - something Enrique Iglesias or Mariah Carey might sing. I think his daughter does, too.