Jewish Journal

Blogging under African skies

Local women go to help Darfur refugees in Chad

Posted on Oct. 21, 2007 at 8:00 pm

(From left) Rachel Andres, Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug and Janice Kamenir-Reznik with a solar cooker. Photo Courtesy of Jewish World Watch.

(From left) Rachel Andres, Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug and Janice Kamenir-Reznik with a solar cooker. Photo Courtesy of Jewish World Watch.

Saturday, Oct. 13, three leaders of Jewish World Watch flew from Los Angeles to Africa for a two-week trip, with their ultimate destination the Sudanese eastern border refugee camps, Iridimi and Touloum in Chad.

Jewish World Watch's Solar Cooker Project, led by Board President Janice Kamenir-Reznik, Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug and project leader Rachel Andres, has raised $850,000 to date, to provide self-sufficient and easy-to-use cookers to women in the camps so they don't have to put themselves in grave danger of rape or murder when they leave the camps to collect firewood.

Kamenir-Reznik, Schwartz-Getzug and Andres' trip to the camps will allow them to bear witness to the conditions there, to see the cookers being used and to assess future needs. Because of the danger in the region, they are traveling with United Nations escorts and will not be able to stay overnight in the camps.

The Jewish Journal invited the three travelers to record diaries while on their journey, the first entry of which, written by Kamenir-Reznik, an attorney, longtime activist and Jewish leader, we reprint here. It was written four days before departure.

After the trip is concluded, The Journal will publish extensive excerpts from the diaries.

How can I go to Bloomingdales?

Man's inhumanity to man is limited only by the creativity of his cruelty.

Today we cried. We have sat with small and large groups of Darfuri refugees for the last several days and talked about solar cooking, with the details of the horrors that brought us together silently hanging in the air. Today, however, we looked into the sad dark eyes of our refugee sisters and listened to their tales of horror.

Zanuba is 25 years old. She is a beautiful young woman with three small children who has aspirations to come to America. She has been living in the Touloum refugee camp for two years. When her village was attacked by aerial bombing and then by the Janjaweed militia, they ran. Many were able to get to the nearby wadi (a dry riverbed), but many more were killed, including a woman who had gone into labor with twins and could not run. The men were primary targets, so they tried to hide by wrapping themselves in scarves like the women - but the Janjaweed forced everyone to remove their head coverings and killed the men on the spot. Many young women were tied up and raped until they died. Other women were put into trees that were lit on fire until they divulged the whereabouts of their men. And in one of the most gruesome stories I have ever heard, the Janjaweed decapitated several people and used the heads to form a "three stone fire."

As Zanuba shared her painful story and the stories of the other women in the room, tears streamed down our faces. I was overwhelmed, not only by their suffering and loss, but by the ability of human beings to use their superior abilities to inflict unspeakable and evil acts on one another.

As we spent our last night in Iriba thinking about all we had seen and heard, one of our UNHCR colleagues asked me if I felt this experience had "changed me." I'm quite convinced that the personal impact of this visit will continue to unfold in the weeks and months to come, but my initial response is OF COURSE. How can I go back to my life, my hectic, wonderful life without hearing the voice of Zanuba in my head? How can I go to Bloomingdales (I feel ridiculous even writing the word sitting here in Chad!) without remembering the pathetic "marketplace" in the middle of the Touloum refugee camp? I know it won't stop me from buying a new, but probably unnecessary pair of shoes, but I hope that it will give me a new context in which to think about my everyday life and renewed energy towards this work and the work by done by others who are helping those in need.

I also wonder how I can possibly share, in a meaningful way, these lessons with my children? Do they translate? Do you have to "see it to believe it?" And is such extreme trauma comprehensible for a child? Probably not. G-d willing I will have many years ahead to absorb and share these important lessons.

-- Tzivia October 21

Photos from Touloum sewing bag
touloum teen
jww's she-speak
Sunday in Touloum
Janice, Rachel
--Touloum Camp, Chad, Sunday 10/21/2007

I was yet again overwhelmed by the boundless capacity of human beings

Today we had the most intense experience we have had to date. We went to the Touloum refugee camp to see the expansion of the Solar Cooker Project. We were escorted by a truckload of armed police to Touloum. As we approached the outskirts of the camp we saw a caravan of donkeys and refugees leaving to collect firewood. Within the camp we saw many people carrying wood as well-much more so than we did at the Iridimi camp. Since the Solar Cooker Project is so new to the Touloum camp, this did not surprise any of us. In fact we were far more surprised at seeing solar cookers operating in many of the houses!! But, that was not what made the day so emotionally intense.

We had asked to meet with a group of women who would be willing to sit with us and talk to us for a while. Either Derk or Marie-Rose arranged for us to meet with the "artisans", the women who work in the solar cooker "atelier". Around 10 refugee women joined us at the "atelier;" Marie-Rose, Patillet, Justin, Naomi and Derk from Tchad Solaire (SCP) were also there.

The conversation started with them telling us how much they love solar cooking and how they feel that solar cooking has contributed to their safety and security. We then told them that we were there representing thousands of Jewish people. They did not really know about the Jewish people, but they seemed to know about the people of Israel and the seemed to have some inkling about the suffering of the people of Israel. We then asked them if they would be willing to share their own personal stories of how they came to be at the Touloum refugee camp. At first they said that they couldn't share these stories in public and they declined to speak about it. But then, not more than one minute later, a young 25 year old mother of 3, Zinuba, began to tell us the most heart wrenching and gruesome stories of the horrendous treatment of the Darfurian women at the hands of the Janjaweed. The crimes committed against the women with whom we were meeting and against their now deceased daughters, sisters and mothers were unspeakable. And yet, they were being spoken to us. Now. Here. As we all sat and cried together, I was completely overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the suffering that the women had endured. Overwhelmed by the fact that Tzivia, Rachel and I are here, sitting in front of the women in the Touloum refugee camp near the Darfur border, listening to their stories and crying with them.

Above all, I was yet again overwhelmed by the boundless capacity of human beings. The capacity of humans to commit unspeakable evil, and the countervailing capacity for healing. The capacity for those exposed to the greatest of evils on our planet to be able to regain their trust in people. The capacity for survivors of horrific cruelty to be able to laugh again. The capacity of women, who have watched their daughters tortured and murdered in front of their eyes, to give birth again to new life. The capacity of people who live in a god-forsaken place to feel hopeful about tomorrow.

Once again, the differences between us dissolve and we find ourselves sitting with our sisters, sharing our prayers for peace.

-- Janice Sunday, October 21

We have touched their lives in a very important way

This was our last day in the Iridimi refugee camp ALREADY. Clearly it is not enough time to develop real relationships with the people there, but I do feel that we have touched their lives in a very important way - by helping them feel more secure, more safe.

I participated in one of four teams that has met with more than 50 families so far (hundreds of people), and will continue to meet with families next week after Janice, Rachel and I leave. I can tell you unequivocally that I am convinced more than ever of the positive impact the solar cooker project has made on the lives of the women. To a family, we have heard over and over that using the solar cooker, in combination with a fuel efficient stove, has almost completely eliminated the need for most to go out of the camp to look for firewood. And to a family, most had experienced rape or some form of violence when searching for firewood previously. This was the goal of the solar cooker project and we are so thrilled to hear from the mouths of the refugees themselves that we are really helping to keep them safe! And of course, we have heard from the refugees, over and over in the last few days, about horrible losses each and every family has suffered during the aerial bombardments of their villages by the Sudanese government and vicious attacks by the Janjaweed militiamen. Helping these gentle, modest people feel a bit more secure in their lives is the least we can do.

There's one other point that was particularly meaningful to me today. There have been some skeptics about the use of solar cookers, in particular because of the belief that one cannot cook the mainstay of the refugee diet, boule, a pasty millet porridge served with a tomato based sauce. So, when we arrived at the camp this morning, the women offered to put up a pot of boule in the solar cooker so we could see for ourselves. Two hours and 10 minutes later, we returned to the workshop and . . . the boule and its accompanying sauce were done! While it took more time than cooking it over a fire, it does not require constant stirring and allows the women to walk away from the pot and do other things in the meantime. Janice and I decided we would be the first to put our hands in the pot (another in our constant quest to avoid sharing germs with others, of course!) and tasted the boule. Janice immediately exclaimed that it tasted like her mother-in-law's "plutzkele" (like eastern European homemade gnocchi) and I shouted out the only Zaghawa word I've learned, "tamam!" (good). It was polenta-like and tasted really good. (You can see me giving it a thumbs-up in our photos from today!)

It was pretty cool to try the local food of the refugees because, obviously, it is nothing I would have ever had an opportunity to do otherwise. But even better is knowing that, with a bit of education, more and more of the refugees will learn that they can depend on their solar cookers for more of their families' meals and this, in turn, will lead to more support from the NGO (non-governmental organizations) community as well. I'm so proud to be associated with this project and to know these brave Darfuri people.

-- Tzivia Saturday, October 20

Photos from Iridimi Camp daughter
SCP team
Saturday in Touloum
Tzivia tastes
Everyone loves
man of the house
iridimi children
travel in the camp
meeting with family
janice and kids
rachel and newborn
children of iridimi
-- October 20, Saturday 2007

I feel that I have become a witness to their pain

What does it really mean to bear witness? Having been here in the Iridimi refugee camp now for several days, it seems to me that "bearing witness" takes on new meaning. As we visit with these women and question them about their solar cooker training, their usage of the cooker, the results when the food is cooked, and the follow-up assistance if they have problems with the cooker, we have ended the interview with a question about their personal story... how they came to live in the refugee camp, to bear witness.Of course we know from news reports of the atrocities being committed in Darfur over the past few years, but we are sitting now, face to face, asking the question. A few women chuckled nervously as they began their story, each telling of their village being bombed and the Janjaweed militia coming by truck and attacking their families, raping the women, stealing their belongings and burning their villages. Each told of family members being killed. One woman had six children; four were killed the first day during the bombings the other two children killed the following day. A man came outside of his tent as we walked by to tell us that he uses the solar cooker to cook his meals. He was the first man who talked of cooking. His wife and children were all killed in Darfur. He is alone now.

I woke up this morning and wrote the above entry but with no time, left it unfinished.

And now that we have just returned from the camp, I write with a heavier heart. We went to a different camp today, the Touloum camp, where the Solar Cooker Project has recently begun. JWW funded the construction of a manufacturing plant and storage room and are now funding the manufacturing of the cookers and the training for the women. After touring the camp, visiting the Doctors Without Borders compound, walking through the different zones, witnessing solar cooking taking place, taking photos of and with the kids (everyone loves having their pictures taken...), we came back to the solar cooker workshop to meet the women who work in the project and to talk with them. After the initial introductions and welcome, it seemed clear that this would be short conversation. The women expressed that what happened to them and their families was too painful to discuss. We said we understood and told them that our hearts are with them. We thought that would be the end of the conversation, that we would thank them for all their work to make the solar cooker project successful and give them all the t-shirts and bracelets that we brought for them as gifts. They thanked us for coming such a far distance to be with them. Then the subject of our long airplane ride came up.

Suddenly the topic of airplanes sparked horrific memories for the women. They began to speak of the bombings and the attacks. One woman, Zanuba, opened up and told us stories of torture and pain I would like to forget, but never will.

People have said it is our job to bear witness. We have spent days talking about the positive impact the Solar Cooker Project has had on the lives of these refugees. Now, hearing the stories of the women's suffering in Darfur first hand, I feel that I have become a witness to their pain and must begin the work of telling their story.

-- Rachel Saturday October 20 and Sunday, October 21
Friday in Iridimi

iridimi photo 1

iridimi photo 2

iridimi photo 3

iridimi photo 4

iridimi photo 5

iridimi photo 6

iridimi photo 7

iridimi photo 8

iridimi photo 9

iridimi photo 10

iridimi photo 11

iridimi photo 12

-- LA JWW in Africa Friday 10/19/2007

Here are the first photos from Iridimi

Derk (founder of SCP) introduces Janice to Madame la Presidente des Femmes Refugies Makhboulet
Derk (founder of SCP) introduces Janice to Madame la Presidente des Femmes Refugies Makhboulet Marie Rose and Fatima in the SCP storage building
Marie Rose and Fatima in the SCP storage building Meeting with Iridimi Leadership Council
Meeting with Iridimi Leadership Council (note the JWW team in the back!) Outside the Solar Cooker Project workshop
Outside the Solar Cooker Project workshop Preparing gum arabic
Preparing gum arabic for use with SCP manufacturing Solar cooker used for cooking rice by refugee family in Iridimi
Solar cooker used for cooking rice by refugee family in Iridimi Tzivia filming children in Iridimi
Tzivia filming children in Iridimi Working in the SCP workshop
Working in the SCP workshop

--JWW team in Iridimi 10/18/2007

It's a small world after all

Today we arrived in Iriba. Having "slept" last night in Abeche, we woke early to catch the UN flight to Iriba. The 12-seater plane carried our team, which now includes Daniel Roger Tam, from the UNHCR Environmental Unit, as well as a representative of Internews. Internews is our partner with Equal Access for our new "She Speaks, She Listens" radio project (Ask us about it!) The Internews Program Director was on our plane and knew Jewish World Watch and that we were his funders! Now that is a "small world!"

As we flew from Abeche to Iriba we had a birds-eye view of the landscape, spotting the intricate wadi systems, the inactive volcanic craters, small settlements of 20-30 households and then, as we approached Iriba, we were finally able to see the Iridmi camp on the left side of the plane and, in the distance, the Touloum camp to the right. After being so intimately involved in these camps for so long, having never seen or visited them, we were thrilled to finally be here. Tomorrow we will begin our visits.

In the meantime, we had several very interesting and informative meetings with the entire evaluation team. We received a security briefing with the UNHCR head in Iriba, Emmanuel, and were then joined by the number 2 in charge at UNHCR in Abeche, Florent, and Regional Delegate of the Chadian Ministry of Environment, Quality of Life and National Parks, Nelngar Younane. Later we will also be joined by CARE International, Bureau Consult International, and Commission Nationale D'Assistance aux Refugies.

We have already heard from the UNHCR reps how much they and the refugees believe in the Solar Cooker Project and believe that it is helping to reduce the amount of firewood needed by the women for cooking, thereby helping to reduce their risk of rape or attack. We are looking forward to speaking with the women themselves and hearing it directly from them over the next 5 days. -- Tzivia Wednesday Oct. 17th 2007

Iriba -- we finally made it

It's hard to believe it, but today, 4 days after leaving Los Angeles, we finally arrived at our destination -- Iriba. The town is home to somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 people (there is no census so no one knows the population for sure). Of course, there are only a couple of dirt "roads" and all of the people live in small mud houses.

But first, a word about yesterday. While in Abeche, we had a wonderful meeting with the UNHCR manager who is responsible for refugee camp programs in Eastern Chad. There are more than a dozen camps housing some 250,000 refugees in Eastern Chad. The UNHCR Eastern Chad Camp Manager expressed her support of the Solar Cooker Project and asked that the project be expanded in 2008 to 3 more camps in another part of Eastern Chad. This was very encouraging. Like others with whom we have met, she explained the complexity of the political situation in Chad, specifically about the enormous shortage of firewood and the tensions and violence caused by that shortage.

Today, we began our series of meetings with our partners. We met our partners who actually operate the Solar Cooker Project in Iridimi. They are amazing people who are so grateful for the support we have given to the project. We delivered a shipment of our beautiful potholders, which they love. The said that the women in the camp are asking for potholders, and we were very happy to bring a fresh supply to them.

We also had a meeting with the "governor" of this region of Chad. It was definitely a surreal event about which we will report more when we are no longer in Chad.

In the last couple of days we, quite by accident, met representatives from two of the other projects which JWW has funded-we met a man who works for HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, through whom we funded a social worker in the Goz Amir camp in Southern Chad), and we met the representative from Internews (through whom we are funding "She Speaks, She Listens", a women's education and empowerment radio project). We have also seen the major presence of International Medical Corps and the International Rescue Committee-two other organizations to which JWW has made major financial donations. It is so great to see the dollars we have raised actually bringing some modicum of service and relief to this area.

Tomorrow we go to the camp to begin our evaluation.

-- Janice October 17

We walked along an endless river of garbage

The most common comment I heard before we left L.A. was "You'll never be the same . This experience will change your life forever." At that time,I didn't know what they meant exactly and surely I didn't think it would happen the first day of our journey. But I think it has. While "touring" the capitol city of Chad, N'Djamena, Derk wanted to give a message to someone who happens to live in the poorest section of town. We were dropped off by Ali Mousa, the logistics manager for the Solar Cooker Project (Tchad Solaire) and our driver while are here. We walked along an endless river of garbage: plastic bags, trash, bugs, empty containers, a few goats roaming, small fires burning...words can't describe the smell and sight. On one side of us was the garbage with children walking across it and even wading into it, and on the other side were dung huts where families live in 10 x 10 hovels. There were a few children roaming about, some barefoot, as well as a woman braiding another woman's hair, a skinny dog sniffing around for something to eat and finally the home of Martine.

Martine is a beautiful, poised, sweet woman who was so gracious and pleased to see us. It was putting this beautiful face and sweet personality to the reality of this slum-like living that was completely devastating. The realization that people were living, literally, on top of this trash dump hurt to the core of my being. This country and its people are supposed to be in good shape compared to Sudan. . . and we haven't even arrived at the refugee camp yet.

All is well with our crew. A driver met us at the hotel at 5:45am. "Driver" sounds fancy... picture a small Land Rover with all our luggage and the 5 of us + the driver crammed in! We then flew on a 20 seat World Food Programme plane to Abeche, our next stop on the way to Iriba and the camps.The pilot looked 20 but she did a beautiful job. Apparently these are the best pilots because they fly so much. No bathroom on the plane but luckily there was air conditioning!

We fly tomorrow to Iriba and, if all goes according to plan (not so common in Africa apparently) , we will be in the refugee camp on Thursday. More then.

-- Rachel Andres Tue, 16 Oct 2007 13:00:58 +0100

Life here is incomprehensible

I've driven my children down Skid Row at dusk so they can see the reality of life in Los Angeles for people not as privileged as we are. Today I was driven through the capital city of Chad and witnessed poverty and squalor to literally turn your stomach.

As we left the main road and turned into a dusty road along a watery river of trash, sewage and disease, we saw where the well-dressed hotel cleaning woman and the polite pool attendant go home every night. To say that life here is incomprehensible is a ridiculous understatement.

The average life expectancy here is 47 years old; I can tell you that I have not seen one older person anywhere! I am 45 years old and because of sheer luck or fate, I was born in Los Angeles, as were my husband and my children; and based on life-expectancy rates in the United States, I should have many more years of life to experience. But the children here, the smiling beautiful children in their school uniforms, waving to us on a street corner - what chance do they have? And will their lives be better or worse than those living in refugee camps we will visit this week on the eastern border with Sudan? Some say those refugee children are better off because they've got the world focused on providing for them. I don't know, but I think I understand what the words "G-d forsaken" really mean now.

-- From Tzivia Monday -- Oct. 15, 2007 -- N'Djamena

Email upon arrival in Chad

It's Sunday evening and we have just arrived in N'Djamena, Chad! The almost 24 hours of flights went fine and we are settling in for the night before we go to various government entities tomorrow to get the permissions necessary to continue our travel to Abeche, and then on to Iriba and the Iridimi and Touloum camps.

We met up with Derk Rijks, the Solar Cooker Project founder, and with Gabrielle, a board member of Solar Cookers International, at the airport in Paris and flew here together. It's dark outside so it is hard to give you any impressions of the place right now. We will write again tomorrow and hope not to blow out another converter when we do so!

-- Signing off from N'Djamena, Janice, Rachel and Tzivia, Oct. 14, 2007

They say our trip will be no more dangerous than a walk through Downtown L.A.

Photos © 2007 Barbara Grover
For all the photos, click here

I was thinking today that exactly 30 years ago this week my husband and I, as young 20-somethings, stood in a passport control and "welcome to the iron curtain" line at Moscow's International Airport; we had dozens of Zionist and Judaic books and other such "subversive" documents sewn into the linings of our clothes and hidden in our bags. We carried a list of names of the 30 refuseniks with whom we were to make contact over the next 10 days. I am not embarrassed to say, we were scared.

I have been thinking a lot about that experience 30 years ago as I anticipate my trip to see the Darfuri refugees at the Iridimi and Touloum refugee camps in Chad. Of course, there are major differences between that trip and the one we are about to take: First, we are not bringing anything that could be considered contraband into Chad; second, the people who are the targets of our mission to Chad are not refuseniks who could easily have been (and maybe were) my actual cousins, or at the very least, fellow Jews; and finally, in the case of the Soviet Union, my husband's parents and my grandparents were all born in the geography that we would be traversing -- we were very aware of the fact that we

could just as easily have been among those trapped behind the Iron Curtain as we were among those who were visiting with contraband and support.

But, with all of those differences, right now, for me, the similarities are more striking. First and foremost, these two trips are the two most "dangerous" things I have done in my life. Yesterday, Tzivia, Rachel and I were assured by a relief worker that Chad is no more dangerous than a walk through downtown Los Angeles. (He didn't say if the walk was in the daytime, nighttime or what part of downtown ... yikes!! Was this supposed be comforting?!?) But honestly, as an upper-middle-class Jewish daughter, wife, mom, attorney, community volunteer -- raised in Pacific Palisades and now hailing from Encino -- I don't usually find myself sneaking contraband into foreign countries or, for that matter, booking travel to places that are rife with political instability, rebel armies and refugee camps! We have always made a point of avoiding such situations -- except twice: then ... and now.

But, despite the twice-daily calls from my very nervous octogenarian parents and in-laws who repeatedly assure me that they will not rest comfortably until we return safely from the trip, I do not feel scared about our physical safety. I do, however, feel anxious and am having a difficult time sleeping this week. My anxiety is related not to getting to the camps, but rather, to leaving the camps. I anticipate the misery of the people we will meet. I anticipate how sad and sorry and painful their stories will be. And I anticipate that when we leave, to go back to our husbands, our children, our loving families, our
Rachel Andres' audio blog
Part I, 5:36. MP3
beautiful homes and our more or less orderly and predictable lives, the starkness of the contrast between the refugees and us will be overwhelming ... and that will be very difficult and very painful.

When we left Anatoly Scharansky and Ida Nudel 30 years ago in their Moscow apartments, I remember that same feeling I anticipate now ... profound sadness and fear for what would become of them. In that case, a week after we left, Anatoly was arrested, tried and then taken to the Gulag where he spent years of his life in solitary confinement.

So, as I anticipate what the faces of genocide will look like when we encounter them next week, I want so much to be able to leave Chad feeling a sense of hope that one day they will be able to be restored to the life they and their families knew for so many hundreds of years. But ... I also am frightened that I will find the face of hopelessness and dread. Will we know how to comfort the grieving mother? What will we tell her we can do for her? How do I explain that we care so deeply for her well-being? How do I tell her that we are trying to awaken our government and others to their plight?


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