The worst humanitarian crisis in the world that no one knows about

by Todd Pitock / 13 December, 2018
Idriss Deby and Bejamin Netanyahu

Chadian President Idriss Deby (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leave after meeting in Jerusalem in November 2018. Photo/Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images

The people of Chad are the human equivalent of trees falling in forests with no one around to hear.  

When Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Chad’s president Idriss Deby to Jerusalem last month to discuss their common perceived enemy, jihadi extremists, it was a rare moment of global attention for Chad. While Israel is always in the global spotlight, Chad is on the dark side of the journalism moon. The global media doesn’t staff foreign bureaus here. It’s hard and expensive to get to, journalist visas are no small obstacle, and working without one can land you in prison alongside thousands of its regime’s critics, a fact that makes people reluctant to talk. Chad’s roads are rough and in some remote parts terror groups are active. Its dark, dusty capital, N’Djamena, is plagued by street crime; at dusk, markets close and most people stay indoors.

A massive humanitarian crisis has been unfolding here with no end in sight, and little awareness elsewhere that it is even happening. The most recent situation report by the United Nations Children’s Fund in June 2018 states that 4.4 million of Chad’s 12 million people are in dire circumstances, including 1.6 million who need water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. More than a quarter of a million children under five are severely malnourished. Other illnesses are tuberculosis, malaria, HIV, staph infections and an assortment of congenital diseases. In May, a deadly outbreak of measles swept the land.

Read more: Yemen: Children starve in the world's forgotten war | New Zealand's silent Pasifika mental health crisis

chadian fish dealer

Fishing represents the main source for the Chadian ethnic group Bodouma. Kolle Chulum, a fish dealer pictured here on the banks of Lake Chad in November 2018, has recently seen his activity reduced due to Boko Haram's presence on the Lake. Photo/Michele Cattani/AFP/Getty Images

Lake Chad used to provide food and livelihoods for Chad and its neighbours. But drought and other factors have depleted it to less than 10 percent of what it was in the 1960s. And raids by Boko Haram, which dreams of a caliphate in neighbouring Nigeria, have made it hard for fishermen to fish. Farmers, fearful they won’t be able to stay to harvest crops, have stopped planting. Some 600,000 refugees and Chadian returnees, many fleeing an ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic on Chad’s southern border, have filled camps around N’Djamena.

And yet somehow, amid all this grimness, the headline news out of Chad this year was its import of six rhinos to Zakouma, a luxury bush lodge. Two of the rhinos have since died from unknown causes. That also made news. The paradox of extremely poor countries is that in one place you have mass hunger, and in another, tourists arriving to enjoy the adventure of a lifetime. Don’t judge them: given the scant coverage, how could they know?

So perhaps it’s useful to take the moment of Netanyahu’s embrace to focus on Chad’s leader, Idriss Deby, the man who bears the most responsibility for the country’s deplorable state of affairs. Deby became president in 1990 with the help of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, displacing Hissen Habré, who had come to power in 1982 with US and French support. Deby later fell out with Gaddafi, who had thoughts of adding Chad to Libya.

Chad’s oil might have helped the country overcome its problems. But revenues were first mismanaged or purloined, and then disastrously mortgaged after Deby’s government borrowed more than a billion dollars from Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss mining conglomerate, in 2014. The loan was to be repaid in future oil sales, but when oil prices collapsed, Chad’s economy unravelled. More than 80 percent of oil revenues, the country’s main source of income, went to paying the debt – and often without cash to pay the civil service. Frequent strikes have included hospital staff, leaving an under-served population at even greater risk. This year Deby pushed a new constitution through parliament that allows him to stay in office until 2033 and expands his presidential powers.

chad hospital

At the Mother and Child Hospital in N’Djamena. Photo/Todd Pitock

International support for Deby, especially from France, infuriates many Chadians. “Many people are saying, one day we're going to kick France out of Africa,” says Natolban Tchadaoubaye, who hosts a radio show in his adopted home – Canada – for an audience mostly made up of fellow Chadian exiles. “France values democracy inside its borders. [But] in Chad they protect one man, the dictator.”

Amid the moral questions of propping up Deby are other, practical ones. It is impoverished autocratic nations that export the large numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers currently worrying Europe, the ‘promised land’ for Africans. So Africa’s problems, which once seemed so remote and irrelevant, are likely to become ever more present and immediate in Europe and elsewhere in the West. Even Israel has struggled with waves of migrants and refugees from Eritrea and Sudan.

Despots like Deby increase global insecurity. They are effective recruiters for terror groups, creating conditions – unemployment, boredom, hopelessness, brutality – that nourish the terrorist cause. Paradoxically, the threat of terror is useful to leaders like Deby as it excuses them and stops scrutiny of their performance, and keeps foreign aid and support flowing. Meantime, people continue to suffer.

In September, I joined a group of aid workers and volunteers as they delivered nutritional powder and educational supplies to N’Djamena. Norwegian Airlines had donated a Boeing 737 Max 8 stuffed with 13 tons of water tablets, antibiotics, rehydration kits and school bags, all part of the budget carrier’s annual Fill-A-Plane programme that delivers humanitarian aid to global disaster zones. Such efforts, and the work of a host of NGOs, mitigate suffering and save lives. Without them, the situation would be much worse. Between donor fatigue and international indifference, they struggle with constant budget shortfalls. This year UNICEF has raised just 43 percent of the $54 million budget it says it needs in Chad. At best, NGOs can treat symptoms of what ails Chad, and to do even that, they have to work with, and be part of, the aid system that also props up the Deby government.

While the hospital has saved lives, the developmental effects on young patients are long-lasting. Photo/Todd Pitock

While the hospital has saved lives, the developmental effects on young patients are long-lasting. Photo/Todd Pitock

And some of the NGO optics are problematic. On the September journey, UNICEF-Norway personnel moved about in a convoy of well-equipped late-model SUVs, and decamped at the Hilton N’Djamena, an incongruously luxurious compound of gardens, tennis courts, swimming pools, sumptuous buffets and palatial guest rooms.

It is just a few minutes’ drive from the Hilton to the Mother and Child Hospital, which houses a 31-bed pediatric intensive care unit that doesn't have enough resources to run air conditioners hanging on its walls. Between the stifling heat and the grim scene, it was hard to breathe. The scene illustrated how, when a society falls apart, the worst consequences land heavily on its most vulnerable people.

These included Ezechiel, just three, who lay on his side, his skin lined and cracked as if there wasn’t quite enough of it to cover his frail bones. Rapid, shallow breaths filled and emptied the sack of his belly. His eyes were wide, his gaze distant and detached. Ezechiel’s parents had abandoned him, and by the time his grandfather arrived, hunger had all but eaten him alive. A few days later, unable to pay the hospital bill — fees range from $25 to $175, a fortune for people with nothing — Ezechiel’s grandfather took him away to an unknown fate. Another three-year-old, Fatimé, had first-degree burns, a consequence of a folk remedy to treat diarrhoea by searing children’s backs and anuses with hot irons. The next day, septic shock took her life. Eighty per cent of these tiny patients would probably survive, the doctor who led us through the ward said, but most would have permanent developmental injuries.

Such are the tragedies within the statistics. They are the human equivalent of trees falling in forests with no one around to hear.

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