I got to the field, sort of, for the first time yesterday. I visited a refugee camp here for the first time. Afterward, it occurred to me that it may have been my first visit to any refugee camp anywhere. I’ve spent time in dozens of IDP camps in northern Uganda and a small handful in eastern Congo. But refugee camps, those are different.
This refugee camp, outside of the small city [redacted], houses some 12,000 people who fled from [redacted]. There is controversy surrounding [redacted] and some are suspected members of [redacted]. The houses are built of sandy-colored stones and have satellite dishes atop them. There are gardens and the camp-management office has plumbing and is air-conditioned. Electrical poles shoot upwards and wires crisscross the sky.
We spent time in the Handicap Center for a distribution. We saw exactly zero people-with-disabilities in the Handicap Center. People-with-disabilities’ relatives arrived to pick up wheelchairs for them. Frozen bottles of water were handed out all around, even to the children. No one begged for my empty water bottles. The older women at the center wore these long, colorful dresses with long sleeves, sleeves so very long that the ends were gathered behind the dress and tied up and there was still enough fabric for the women to have full use of their arms. A couple of kids showed me how to pull leaves off of a tree and chew them. The leaves tasted kind of minty. One little boy arrived to pick up a wheelchair for his brother which he was patently too petit to carry so we went with him to his home, assisting. The brother was about 11 years old, skinny as a matchstick, legs twisted up with one another like a corkscrew, lying on the floor of their house in their compound. The brother didn’t seem miserable but he didn’t seem healthy. The hair on the back of his head was all rubbed off from lying on the floor so much, like an infant's would be. A mom or an aunt was patiently wiping the brother’s face with a washcloth. We dropped off the wheelchair and left.
The [redacted] refugee camp has been open for more than a decade, since [redacted]. I thought about Mungote IDP camp, near Kitchanga in Massisi, open for two years, with shelters of thatched banana leaf roofs not taller than a man, and uneven volcano rock, clogged latrines, and mud. I thought about the camps in Northern Uganda, each with its own personality, some with huts crammed together and crumbling and dirty, some lovely with small gardens and swept dirt, open for twenty years. Like every city in the world, it seems to me that every camp is unique, dependant on culture and history and governing bodies and access to wealth. The Handicap Center we visited at the [redacted] refugee camp had its own truck.
Iraq isn’t a poor country full of poverty-struck persons. This is a rich country full of paved roads and electrical lines and other public works, even in the camps. But this is still a country with a horrible war surrounded by other countries in war. That makes humanitarian aid a different beast here, doesn’t it? And yet at the same time it is always the same.
What is The Same is that all these camps, no matter the circumstances, are inhabited by people who are reliant on others for subsistence, who are unable to govern their own lives.