Everyone is Gone
At 17-years-old Awa went through hell. Today, she takes small steps towards a better future.
Picture this: a worry-free teenage life full of possibilities. Awa lives with her parents and older brother. “Whatever we wanted, we could get it”, she says. At home household aides surrounded them; cleaning, cooking, everything on demand. Their parents rode comfortable cars and dropped the children off to school each morning.
Now picture this: Awa is sitting alone in front of a small hut she calls her kitchen. Next to it is a tent with the letters of the UN Refugee Agency printed on the tarpaulin. Inside, a few plastic bags she calls her own and a straw mat on the floor. The air smells of loneliness.
What separates Awa from fellow teenage girls around the world is the misfortune of having been born in a country that could not offer her peace and security; a country in which girls sometimes have to become women too soon and a country that she no longer calls home.
Awa grew up in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). When she turned 16, she was asked to marry. “I didn’t want to, I wanted to continue school,” the young woman says, but her family decided differently and that was the end of the discussion. “But still, we were doing well”, she says. It is not hard to understand why today, looking back, Awa sees her early marriage as the smallest of troubles she had to endure.
In 2013, when the government in Bangui was overthrown, violence swept over the country and uprooted hundreds of thousands of people. Awa had to flee with her husband, but they weren’t alone: she was pregnant at that time. Then, everything happened quickly. Or it might have taken an eternity, no one knows, the horrific events all blur into each other from a distance. First, her husband was killed during their flight. She joined another group of refugees and was lucky to get a spot on a vehicle, but they were far from safe. While on the run the group was cornered by armed men who took all of their belongings, forcing the group to flee for their lives on bare feet. Finally, Awa found shelter in a village. She tried calling her mother in Bangui, but the connection failed, again and again. She finally reached a neighbor who broke the news: Every one of her family had been killed. Awa was left to herself. When she gave birth to her child a little later, it was stillborn. How much suffering can fit into 17 years of life?
Awa has a stunningly beautiful face and posture; the old-fashioned expression of someone “carrying herself well” fits her perfectly. When she talks about her ordeal, Awa’s face loses its glow. Her French becomes a bit rough and she looks down to the floor.
Danamadja used to be a small village roughly 25 kilometers north of the border between Chad and the Central African Republic. Today, cramped between two parts of the village, sits a site for roughly 11,400 people who have fled from CAR. Technically, they are not refugees but returnees: People of Chadian origin who for the most part have lived in CAR for decades. They do not obtain legal refugee status but their needs are the same. Awa has found refuge here.
CARE is responsible for looking after unaccompanied children. The rather technical term, in French mostly abbreviated as “ENA,” enfant non-accompagné, which means nothing less but utter loneliness and desperation. These “ENA” are girls and boys who were separated from their family during the traumatizing escape from violence, children of all ages who find themselves in an unknown country amongst people they do not know, carrying with them the images of death and destruction. The CARE teams take a close look at the registration forms of all new arrivals in Danamadja and then identify underage children who do not have any family members at their side. After the identification, these boys and girls all receive individual care and guidance from the team.
“Thanks to CARE, I can sleep. They provided me with a mattress and some hygiene items”, tells Awa. But the children do not only get standard relief items but each of them is supported individually according to their needs. In Awa’s case, CARE staffers wanted her to feel useful and not spend all day in her tent by herself. It just happened that there was a group of eight teenage boys, all of them unaccompanied, that CARE had sheltered in a tent near the child-friendly space. It’s a global phenomenon and definitely also applies here in Southern Chad: Teenage boys are always hungry. Luckily, Awa had some space next to her tent to set up a kitchen. Every day, the young woman receives money from CARE to go to the market and cook meals for the boys. According to them, Awa makes the best meat, vegetable and eggs. “We love her”, they say in husky voices. “We are all here by ourselves; that is what unites us.”
For Awa, the eight boys have become friends and confidants. But she does not miss the occasion to give them some advice for their future. “I tell them about my early marriage and we discuss the disadvantages. The boys say they won’t marry a girl this young.” Awa herself wants to continue school now and become a nurse someday. The shadows of her past will not fade away quickly, but with help from her friends and CARE she can start to rebuild her life.
Written by Sabine Wilke, CARE Germany