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Story from the Field Giovanni Zanelli – Senior Field Officer to UNHCR in Abeche, Chad

DRC Standby Roster member Giovanni Zanelli experienced the tragic consequences of the Sudanese civil war at first hand during his recent deployment as Senior Field Officer to UNHCR in Abeche, Chad. Giovanni ended the mission in August – his 16th with the DRC Standby Roster. In May, Giovanni shared his perspectives from a rather extraordinary deployment with former DRC Standby Roster Intern Elisa Bianchini.

Posted on 05 Dec 2023

The interview was done on 25 May 2023, and the situation in Sudan is continuously unfolding. Statements on the Sudan crisis from the interview should therefore not be considered as up-to-date information.

How would you describe the situation in Abeche?

In the Eastern part of Chad, where I am based, we had 13 refugee camps hosting a total of 420,000 “old” refugees. Since the problem in Sudan started, people are arriving from Darfur basically every single day. In total, we had approximately 500,000 Sudanese refugees, and new refugees keep arriving every day. These new people are coming from Darfur, in large majority women and children. Only a few men. All of them in a very dire situation. 

What are the conditions of the Sudanese refugees?

I have been in the humanitarian field for around 30 years, and only a few times I have seen people in a desperate situation like I saw in the informal settlement of Borota. First of all, they are mainly very young women, around 20 years old, with many children. They came with almost nothing, as they are poor already from Darfur and they have had to leave everything to different Sudanese militia in order to reach the Chadian border.

They arrive in villages where the host population can, in the best scenario, afford to help them only for the first few days. They don’t have a roof, only the lucky ones can find some trees to settle under. They don’t have food, they drink water which is not potable. They are vulnerable women who, for the most, were not treated well while trying to reach the border. 

We try to do our best, but despite our efforts, the response isn’t as fast as it could be. We lack financial and human resources, and the logistics are a nightmare with bad roads and very difficult transport conditions. So, it often takes days, sometimes even weeks, to respond to new refugees’ needs.

The government is committed and willing to help but does not have enough resources and mostly relies on the support of the international community.

What is your role in the response?  

My official role was Roving Field Officer, but I switched to emergency mode. Therefore, I often go on mission to the Chadian/Sudanese border. I am roving in the different entry points where people arrive, trying to organize the response. The first time, in early April, around 10,000 people arrived in the same area within a few days, the second time was around 15,000, then it was 25,000...

What did you experience at the start of the Sudan crisis on 15th April? And when did you realize that this would cause a massive displacement into Chad?

There were signals before the problem in Khartoum started. The first waves of arrivals were related to conflicts between communities. When we spoke with some of the local authorities in the village of arrivals, they said “this is just the beginning”. And a few days later, the conflict in Khartoum started. Conflicts between communities in Darfur have been occurring for the past 20 years.

I was in Chad in 2004 when the first Sudanese refugees arrived, and the first camps were opened. The problem was already there, and now it has exploded again.  It is a very neglected crisis by the international community, and despite the efforts by UNHCR and the humanitarian community, donors are not seeing progress or durable solutions for the refugees. We don’t have enough resources, and the response is still underfunded.

The Sudan Emergency

  • On 15 April 2023, fighting erupted between Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
  • In the first five months of the crisis, over 1 million refugees and returnees fled the country. Chad has the received the largest number of people, more than 450,000 as of 27 November.
  • More than 5 million were displaced inside Sudan as of 30 November, the largest number of internally displaced people globally.

Source: UNHCR

What is the most interesting and the most challenging part of your work? 

Even though I am used to these kinds of operations and situations, it is always satisfying when you can do something for people in vulnerable conditions. Of course, you have to be flexible and adapt yourself to different tasks, but, honestly, it is not a big challenge for me.

I know this kind of business, I am willing to take my bag and move to another country with short notice, I am willing and used to change my ToR. The most challenging part for me is that, at my age of almost 60 years old, sleeping under no roof or living in a place with no toilets is not as easy as it was for me 25 or 30 years ago. But it is good from time to time to be in the deep field and close to the beneficiaries.

How is the security situation in Abeche and at the border?

I haven’t experienced any security threats. In Abeche, we don’t really go out to public spaces, especially in the evening, so I am less exposed to potential danger. At the border, I have never felt threatened by the local population or local authorities, and we also have military escorts all the time. I feel very safe, but I want to emphasize that I am an old man, and it would probably have been different if I was a young woman. 

How do you cope with the stress and the emotional impact of the situation you are dealing with?    

At times, I am very tired. Especially when returning from field missions. But mostly because we work very long hours, under the sun and in very high temperatures. It is just physical fatigue. How do I cope with that? I don’t know exactly, but I do. Maybe thanks to dinners and laughs with colleagues at the guesthouse. And then of course we have R&R every two months, and even a short holiday in Italy is enough for me to recharge the batteries.  

What do you foresee for the future situation in Chad and the needs in this area? 

Unfortunately, I am not very positive. I hope it will not be like the situation in 2004, with people staying in Chad for ages. The worrying part is the fact that this is a forgotten and “chronic” crisis. I hope I will not come back in maybe 20 years and see that the refugees are still there. I was in Chad 20 years ago, and when I came back this year, I found the same camps with children of the refugees that I met 20 years ago and their parents still there.

At least they are safe in Chad, but I don’t foresee good things happening for the Sudanese refugees in Chad during the coming years or maybe even decades. While the war in Ukraine ongoing, I am afraid there will not be paid more attention to African refugee crises, neither in general nor to the one in Chad.

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