Martin Plaut

When the rains come, the dry dusty lands of eastern Sudan can be turned into a quagmire. Life for the tens of thousands of Tigrayans who fled there after the invasion by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in November 2020 was a tough existence. But with the mud come flies, insects and disease.  A hard life becomes a nightmare.

When the war started people flooded across the border. The UNHCR and other aid agencies provided immediate support, but as the weeks turned into months and then years the camps have been moved away from the border.

Nohe Lema called me from the nearest town: Gadaref. He has given up a comfortable life in the Bay area of San Francisco – and his 4 year old daughter – to be with Tigrayan community in Sudan.

“Last week there was very heavy rain for half a day. It brought huge quantities of sand into the homes in the camps,” he told me.

Tigrayan homes flooded out

He has been going between the three main camps: Tenedba, Um Rakuba and Hasheba.

Um Rakuba alone is home to over 18,000 people, in more than 10,000 households, according to UNHCR. And of these more than 4,500 are school age children.

They desperately need education.

“Most of the children were not going to school when I arrived,” Nohe says. “Save the Children was paying the teachers, but their salaries stopped about 5 or 6 months ago. The teachers want to be in the classrooms, but without pay they have to look for other work.”

“A few have continued, but it’s very hard. And they have no resources to give the children. They can only give them verbal lessons.”

The community to the rescue

But Nohe is not alone. He works with AnythingforTigray which produces a daily show highlighting the plight of his people.

Using crowdfunding they gathered donations to fund work in the camps. He has been distributing basic equipment the children need.

Nohe Lema distributing notebooks, pens and pencils

“We give them five notebooks, pencils, an eraser and a pen. It is very limited – the most basic. But when you see their faces, they brighten up!” Now the children want to be back in school.

Cuts in rations

Normally, says Nohe, families get 14 kilos of wheat a month and 1 litre of oil. But last month the UNHCR said their rations would be halved. “I don’t know why – perhaps it has to do with the invasion of Ukraine by the Russians, which has put up the costs of grain,” he says.

But the reductions have made life even tougher in the camps. People who get sick have to go to Gadaref for treatment, but they need permission to leave the camps and that can be difficult to obtain.

It is a grindingly hard existence, but Nohe is determined to do what he can. “I was going back, but I cancelled my flight. My community needs me here. We have to help,” he explains.

Note – these are the refugee numbers in the camps near Gadaref: Tendbah 25,000, Um Rakuba 18,000, Hasheba around 5,000 people