Sunday morning, we wanted to go see if we could talk with some of the
displaced people who were living in what had been a series of huts that
served as a depot for manioc (cassava). Stefan went in the car and the rest
of us walked down to find the street completely blocked by a crowd of some
1,000+ people! "What are they gathered for?," I asked Stefan. "I think they
are here to see us," he replied. Whoa. . .
The photojournalist, Roger, and Peter went off to look for photos. Jacques
and Bavon had gone earlier to look at some more latrines. Stefan and I were
standing there, completely surrounded by people. Then he says, "well, I
think we need to talk with them." So he and I went to look for the President
of the group, whom we located in one of the shacks. Stefan spoke to them a
bit and then decided that we should speak with them in groups, so we asked
for a group of women, then children, then men to come meet with us. The
women came in and we were, after telling them many times, able to get the
men to leave so we could talk only to the women. They were very clear that
they needed new or different housing. Stefan tried to understand why they
would want to live in plastic half-tents rather than the relatively solid
rooms with proper tin roofs they were in now. Apparently they were sleeping
15+ in each room (and otherwise living outside on roadside). This was not an
issue raised by the children (of course — sleep over every night with your
friends!), but I can imagine that it would be very uncomfortable, on many
levels, to sleep like sardines with who knows how many other families. . .
The women also mentioned the need for food, cooking tools and clothes. The
children mentioned food and clothes. And that they were being hassled by the
soldiers. It's a common practice for soldiers of all types to just grab any
passing child and make them run errands, carry stuff, whatever. The other
thing mentioned was being attacked by soldiers when they (women & children)
tried to go out to fields in search of food.
The conversation with the men, commencing with the President, was
theoretical and general, but luckily, some of the other men spoke up and
also talked about the housing situation.
In the end, Stefan was able to assure them that Malteiser (another NGO
working there) would be by sometime to register everyone as displaced which
would then lead to distribution of food and non-food items. He also spoke
with them about their ideas about how to resolve the housing situation and
promised to speak with the Chef de Poste — the local head of government —
about what could be done.
We thought we were finished, and it was 9am, time for everyone to go to
church, but no one was leaving. After hanging out for 15 or 30 minutes or
so, Stefan decided he needed to talk to the whole crowd. So he climbed up on
the hill with a couple of guys to interpret and recounted to everyone what
we had discussed in the meetings with the representatives of the women,
children and men. Everything was going along just fine until he said, "and I
can assure you that a team will be coming to register you within the next
weeks." At which point, his interpreter stopped cold and didn't say
anything. . . Interpreter no. 2 jumped in, but it was clear this was not the
news the crowd had been hoping for. In the end they took it fine and
eventually dispersed and we were able to go on our way.