May 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Back in March I met a young writer named Abdirizak.  Well, to be fair, his career was just getting going, but he listed writing as his “favorite,” and he seemed pretty dedicated.
And by dedicated I mean, despite the fact that he had just fled for his life from Libya where he was working as a day laborer, and before that fled his home country of Somali as it descended into chaos, he still managed to write everyday in a little paper notebook.

Abdirizak and I first talked at the still existent Choucha transit camp, which sits on the Tunisian border with Libya, near a small town named Ben Gardane.  Back in March I spent a week at the UN, Tunisian military co-assisted camp assessing the information needs of the tens of thousands of foreign laborers who had become stranded in the Sahara, briefly refugees on their way back to their countries of origin.   Over the course of the first few weeks Choucha Camp took on the qualities one might expect of any ubiquitous summer camp.  People got fed well, organized activities like soccer and movies at night, called home from NGO provided satellite phones, and slept a lot.  Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis, Nigerians, Ghanaians, and more were eventually put on buses, and then planes home.

But for Abdirizak, his fellow Somalis, and a few thousand other mostly Eritreans and Sudanese, home no longer exists.  Home is a war zone, or a political nightmare, and the UN has to keep these refugees safety in mind.  Which means, they are men, and this case mostly boys, without a home.

When I met Abdirizak he had only logged a couple of days at Choucha Camp, and his smile was still one of optimism.  He lived in a small section of the then ballooning tent city, surrounded by the thousand or so other Somalis.  While his friends incessently asked me how long I thought they would be stuck in the desert, and whether or not the rumors of them being repatriated to the Sudan instead of Somalia were true, Abdirizak remained calm.  He was busy working on something.  Something big.

With the help of a local Tunisian filmmaker, who had come to Choucha Camp to see if there was a way for her to keep these far flung laborers calm, Abdirizak had started writing a play.  Tucked into a corner of his green canvas UNHCR tent, he worked for days putting together what turned out to be a musical documenting the exodus from Libya, the arrival to Tunisia, and the gratitude he had for his current hosts.  He told me he was going to call his play, “A message to the world,” and his friends gleefully promoted the title in broken english as they gathered around him.  “YES, a message to the world!”

I asked to explain this, “message,” a little further.  Here’s what he said.
“cause we haven’t really a life here.(Choucha Camp) Because the most people here are teenagers, and they need futures, and how to get education.  And how to get what I can call developing themselves.  That is why is what is closer to be like a refugee here.  And we don’t hope to stay here a long time.  We hope to go here soon.”

The general advisory by the International Aid crowd was not to stay at Choucha camp past dusk.  I left that afternoon, but came back a few hours later, because I promised Abdirizak I would.  Tonight was his big debut.  The Tunisian filmmaker who had been advising him had erected a makeshift stage in the center of the camp, and had hired a public address system.  Broadway in the Sahara was about to commence, and “A message to the world,” would be its first production.

I can’t say that I understood Abdirizak’s play at all, it involved a lot of patriotism, some Somali men in drag, and a lot of laughter, mainly from the other Somalis, but everyone was there that night.  Tunisians, Bangladeshis, Ghanaians, Malians, and more.  An amazing audience by any standard.  Abdirizak was focused, making sure his actors were all ready, and knew their lines.  He was a pro.  “I’m very happy.  Because tonight is the first night that the many different nations are waiting for my production.”

A few days later I said my goodbyes at Choucha Camp and headed home.  I felt a little guilty, partly because I had the luxury of leaving, and partly because I knew the chances were high that Abdirizak and his friends would be stuck in the Tunisian desert for a long time.  I was right.

The other night I got a note from a UN contact explaining that a fire in Choucha Camp had resulted in the deaths of four Eritreans waiting for resettlement.  Shortly after that incident I got another email, some of the remaining camp residents, down to around three thousand from a peak of around 18,000, had blocked the local road in frustration.  They were met by the military, fighting ensued, and shots were fired.  Two were reported dead, sixteen injured, and tents were destroyed.  News reports say the protesters were mostly Eritreans, Sudanese, and Somalis.

A civil war in Libya has unofficially claimed the lives of four, and possibly more foreign workers who were nowhere near the fighting.  They would have gladly been at their jobs, working away in Libya, sending money back home to their families.  Instead they lay dead, and fighting persists, not only in Libya, but on the Tunisian border.  In a camp that was supposed to represent safety, a place where the international community, with all its resources and know how, promised to make things better, something went very wrong.  A few lives may not sound like a lot in the grand scheme of the upheaval that is North Africa.  But these deaths are different, they were utterly preventable.  With some better communication and simple information, things might be different.  People were asked to be patient, to spend long days in the hot desert, and that eventually things would get better.  Things got worse.

As I take in this news, I wonder what Abdirizak might have witnessed.  I imagine him hiding behind a tree with his notebook, observing the events, recording details.  Or maybe he was thrust into the angry mass, trying to capture the desperation and frustration of his brethren.  Either way, his next work promises to be a Shakespearen tragedy.


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