Friday, 29 November 2019

Towards a greener Sahara - Part 2

The hospital gates are open for a day.

The loud speaker on the small mosque on the far side of the wadi crackles into life at 4:30 am, awakening the faithful and calling them to prayer at dawn. It is the coolest time of day but not yet the cold season so the temperature is a respectable 15C. There is a slight chill in the air but  we are sleeping outside in our yard. Sometimes I say a short silent prayer from my bed, sometimes not, either way I am soon asleep again until 6am. I don’t hear it every day but a few nights ago I did and shortly afterwards there was the sound of the gates opening in the neighbours yard and a couple of petrol engines coughed into life. They sat there running for 10 minutes or more, to make sure the engine was warm, and then I heard the cabin doors  of the pick ups slamming shut, others passengers were no doubt  climbing on the back that is already piled high with luggage and with a cry they were off down the rocky hillside  on their adventure- to the gold fields. 

The Teda, it seems to me, are never happier than when they are travelling. I guess that in the past that the men spent time away from their villages in the mountains riding on camel trains, but now camels are rare and are used as a source of meat rather than transport. They have been replaced by Toyota pickips, be they the lighter slightly more economical Hi-Lux pickups or the more rugged and thirsty Land Cruisers preferred by the military and those that can afford them.

Energy efficiency label in Bardai.
Verdict poor.
So what happened to the motorbikes that are so comparatively cheap to buy and economical to run? A fuel efficiency of  giving  80-100 mpg. There are two in Bardai and they are rarely seen in use. In the Tibesti the distances between towns are such that you need to travel with all your fuel and water plus sleeping equipment, and you wouldn’t ever travel alone.  Even driving around town for short trips would be difficult due to all the loose sand.  So unlike Ndjamena and the south of the country, where motorbikes outnumber cars 10:1, and saloon cars and taxis similarly outnumber SUV’s, in Bardai a small means of transport is a 4X4 petrol powered pickup giving about 26 mpg.

At the Drive Thru Pharmacy!
The young Teda men drive them around all the time, even f!or short trips of a kilometre or so around the town. Fuel economy is not a consideration with a price of 40p a litre from Libya as opposed to 80p in Ndjamena. Engines are left running not only to warm up (Is that really needed) but also whilst trying to fit in a quick consultation at the hospital and then drive straight on the 50 meters to the pharmacy to get the drugs. Actually as the hospital has got busier we have limited that by trying to keep the gates locked so as to diminish the risk of accident in what should be a pedestrian zone.

If the Teda lived in London perhaps some criticism of their choice of expensive 4X4, or indeed any personal vehicle could be justified. The effects of CO2 and other pollutants are significant both for the health of the planet and its human population. But what other choice could be practical for this isolated mountain dwelling people? Many of them live in homes that cost much less than their vehicles with no sanitation or running water. The long distances on sand and mountains, on unmade roads, means that it is either a camel train or 4X4. I know which I would choose. At least off road vehicles are used off road here, unlike in the UK where many are only off road when parked on the pavement of a congested city.

Gold mining equipment, sand sifters, for sale in Bardai
The sheer numbers of vehicles up here is amazing, where  did all the money come from. The cheapest new  pick ups  coming from Libya are £24 000 and another £8000 for Chadian import taxes ( the latter rarely paid in this remote province). In a country where nurses and teachers are paid $300 a month this is a colossal sum. Many of the men struck it rich with the early part of the gold rush when large nuggets were being readily found in the superficial sands using metal detectors. A vehicle cost about 500g of gold. It was all  a bit of a lottery you might find some  large nuggets, you might find nothing or you might be really unlucky and  find an antipersonnel mine. However prospecting for nuggets finds just a small  a fraction of the available gold, now the men are digging large quantities of auriferous sand and rocks and using air blowers they can sift it and get about half of the available gold. It is less efficient than traditional water washing but water is in short supply and there isn’t even enough for basic hygiene; diarrhoeal illness, typhoid  and viral  hepatitis have been frequent problems.

 Last week I heard of 2 new tragedies, one immediate and one long term. The first was of a mine collapse that killed 30 people up towards the Libyan frontier. Unsupported mine workings in rich seams of gold bearing dirt are dangerous. I saw a photo of a similar accident from September, a large group of men lined up around a large sunken linear crater in which another 30 men had lost their lives, there were no survivors.
The second and  long term problem is that of using mercury, a very dense liquid metal,  to improve the yield.  Reportedly using this technique  80g ($3500) of tiny flecks of gold can be found in a sack of 50KG of dirt. The process is simple using a small amount of water to make a suspension of the dirt mercury is added and all the gold that comes into contact with the mercury dissolves in it making an amalgam. The mercury is then gently heated  and it boils away leaving  grains of pure gold. The problem is that mercury which can be inhaled is toxic in many ways including neurological and psychiatric syndromes. In other gold mining sites  around the world mercury poisoning is a major problem as environmental contamination of fields and water supplies around villages leads to birth defects, mental retardation in the next generation. At least up in the remote wilderness only working men are found and so the risks are confined to them.

Gold, if it is well managed, is a potential blessing for the economy of the Tibesti. It could bring about major beneficial changes for the local and incoming populations and since 2012 there are some big changes in population and markets. The immediate  problems associated with infectious disease, accidents and insecurity are all to some extent acknowledged but so far the long term issues arising from environmental pollution, be that from vehicles or mercury, are not even on the radar. 

In a cloud of dust, showing off to the girls using the new 'camel'

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Towards a greener Sahara: Part One

A question : September 20th 2019, where were you?  And what did you do?

The evening before, we were in London drinking coffee with Rebecca. When we compared plans for the following day, they couldn’t have been more different. 
Celebrating Mark's
birthday at 35,000 feet
She had made a difficult decision to skip lectures from her course at King’s College London and join with members of the university Students for Global Health Society and millions of young people around the world on the Global Climate Strike. 
We would have loved to join her too but instead we had to wake up at 3am, walk to Terminal 4 Heathrow and board an Air France flight to Paris then on to Abuja and finally Ndjamena, a journey of at least 3500 CO2 emitting air miles.

Could we have done the journey in a different way? Horse and cart, sailing boat and camel train would have made for an interesting blog, and would have been quite in the spirit of Greta Thunberg’s recent voyage to the Climate Change Action Summit at the UN. Alternatively we could have symbolically delayed our flight, but in doing so we would have missed the special MAF charter flight to get out team back to Bardai. In reality neither were practical possibilities, we needed to get back to work supporting and developing the health services in the Tibesti mountains- mid Sahara. However neither we, nor BMS World mission, are ignoring the impact of our travel on climate change. How could we? It is the poor and disadvantaged that we seek to serve who will suffer the most from its consequences. Accordingly all our miles travelled by air to and from Chad or on home assignment are logged and a financial carbon offset is set aside for the BMS Eco-Fund. In an imperfect world, this helps to reduce the unintended consequences of our travel.

 The Tibesti mountains are one of those places where a small change in temperature or rainfall could completely alter the character of the towns and the life of the people that live there. The Sahara is no stranger to climate change there have been previous profound natural changes on the flora, fauna and way of life as it becomes drier and drier. Five to ten thousand  years ago , during the last ice age,  the Sahara was green and the mountains and valleys were the habitat of elephants, giraffes, ostriches and other exotic animals.  
The evidence can be seen in the fossil record at the museum in Ndjamena and also carved on to rocks and cliffs some of which are at just a couple of km from our house.  When the Teda people migrated here, their tradition says from Egypt in about 600BC , the tropical animals had gone , perhaps it was them that introduced the camel ( strictly speaking dromedary) to the area. They may have seen however have seen some North African elephants on their way through modern day Libya. (Hannibal’s hometown Carthage was nearby on the Mediterranean coast).

Flooding in the wadi
They settled  in the mountains mid Sahara at various places where water could be found, sometimes at springs where water flow out of rocks and sometimes in places like Bardai beside a  wadi (a mostly dry seasonal river that floods after rains come in the mountains) . In Bardai they found a place where the water table would have been just below the surface of the sand  along with associated small lakes and  permanent wet lands.  Each year the rains came the wadi would flood and the life sustaining superficial underground water would be replenished. The date palms, which need to be able to get into a water table at most four metres from the surface flourished  and much of the local culture and calendar revolved around the dates, climbing and pollinating, harvesting, using the trunks for housing, the spines as pins, the fibres from the leaves to make ropes, the bases of the branches for firewood, the branches themselves as supports for the long reeds growing in the wetlands which are used for making partition walls and roofing.

An old well
Now the traditional way of life in this rocky oasis is under increasing threat. The palm trees are still there, producing plenty of dates, but the water levels are falling.  Forty years ago there were many gardens and fields throughout the valley, water was drawn from wells using the simple old technology of a counterbalance bucket and the water poured into open channels that irrigated the enclosed fields. Vegetables and amazingly enough wheat was grown to make the traditional Teda flatbreads. Water must have been plentiful. Now there are just one or two of these farms left growing lettuce, rocket  and okra, no one grows wheat.  The disused wells look dry, the wetlands have gone and the water table has fallen to between 2 and 3 metres. The local people say that it just doesn’t rain like it used to. Climate change is significant but hasn’t been the only impetus to change, the turn of the century rebellion that lasted about 8 years took a generation of men off the fields, joining the rebels, or fleeing to Libya or Ndjamena. The remaining villagers,  the elderly, women and children were obliged to live in the towns. Once peace came in 2008 the discovery of gold and the open frontier with Libya have lead to an influx of cheap flour and other foods, all this coupled with climate change there has been no incentive to return to the old way of life.

After the floods at the hospital
In the UK we are getting used to extreme weather events and flooding. The Teda have lived with the risk for thousands of years as a nice flat dry wadi can become a raging torrent. Presumably Jesus had experience of similar events in Palestine, the wise man built his house upon the rock, the foolish one built his house upon the sand ( The Bible Matt 7 24 onwards). Villages and markets were traditionally built on rocky hillsides beside wadis. Now in Bardai there are many buildings on the flat broad sandy areas at a reasonable distance from the main wadi as it is so much easier to build there.

This year heavy rains have come and wreaked damage, the walled hospital filled with muddy water and only avoided serious internal damage when the gates were opened and the water could flow out. Abdoulaye, the gatekeeper awoke to find his small tin shop flooded and lost a lot of stock. He has been here since 2008 and had never seen rain or flooding like it. The same flood waters shot through the town to get to the main wadi, destroying a number of shops. In a nearby village there was much more damage and loss of livestock.

The eco system here is finely balanced, at times hot and dry with temperatures of up to 45C in the shade in the hot months, at others overnight temperatures approaching freezing at night in the cold months. There is little local rainfall and the town is reliant on periodic flooding of the wadi from water that falls on the vast areas of bare rock on the surrounding mountains. Too little, irregular rain and the date palms will die, too much rain at one time and the destruction of property and life is serious. This balance could be jeopardised by even a small rise in global temperatures and accompanying changing weather patterns.

You can see that there have been some important ecological changes in Bardai, as in the rest of the world. Over the next 3 or 4 months we plan to look at how we and our neighbours live here and how that impacts the environment.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

10 (1000) Reasons why it’s good to be in Bardai

We have been back in Bardai for 2 months now and thought we would share with you some of the joys of being here.

Sweet smelling flowers (and tasty vegetables)in the garden

Imagine our surprise when we arrived back to see the sweet peas we had planted  in October sprouting well. We have now had 2 flowers and there are many more on their way. Sweet peas in April strange but beautiful. Not only that but  the warm temperatures here although they have not been too high just yet ,mean that everything grows so rapidly. We planted green beans and courgettes when we arrived back 8 weeks ago and have already eaten plenty  of courgettes and some beans. It’s amazing to see and we are also enjoying all the herbs and the spinach that our neighbour watered for us whilst we were away and so kept alive. 

Living an ecological life

Living in the middle of the desert means that we have plenty of sunshine and our house is completely powered by solar power. We have a solar fridge which works remarkably well and  we also have  solar oven. We also don’t own a car so walk everywhere except for occasional lifts from people who find it strange that we are on foot. It’s a much more ecological way of life than when we are in the UK or Ndjamena.

Helping to treat our previous next door neighbour
Our previous next-door neighbour had a major bleed after giving birth and only just survived, when we arrived back she was still very unwell. After admitting her to hospital we were able to diagnose that due to the bleeding she now had another problem, where she was not making the necessary hormones she needed to make breast milk and to maintain her blood pressure. She is making a good recovery now and it’s great to see the improvement and  not only that but MAF were able to bring us the drugs needed to treat her at just the right moment.

Our previous next-door neighbours
Fresh vegetables and fruit
Life is full of surprises here and it was always fun to go to the market and see what had arrived from Libya. When we first arrived back fresh fruit and vegetables were in really low supply and weeks were going by with no fruit. In the last few weeks things have dramatically improved and we have been excited to buy green peppers and Kiwi fruit for the first time here and plenty of carrots, apples and aubergines. It makes meals more interesting and means our dried supplies will last a little longer.

Operating a man badly wounded in the abdomen
Mark with the now recovered patient
A few days after we started back at the hospital a man was brought in seriously wounded by a gunshot wound in his abdomen. He had been shot by someone robbing his lock up store on the goldfield 12 hours before. He had somehow survived the journey but was now shocked and seriously unwell. After resuscitating him he was taken for major surgery and his bowel , bladder and his abdominal wall repaired. The good news is that we were there and he survived the surgery to be able to return home tomorrow after his tooth has been removed! 

Celebrating the birth of our next door neighbour’s baby
Food at the naming ceremony
Three weeks ago I was called hastily to our next door neighbours at ten pm. The baby had been born and the placenta wasn’t coming. Despite my previous advice home delivery had still been the birth of choice. We set off to the hospital after a few minutes, where the placenta was easily delivered, and we were home again by midnight. A week later was naming ceremony day after cutting onions early in the morning and peeling endless garlic it was off to work then back at lunch time for a delicious meal. Since then regular visits have been made as it’s a long time 40 days to spend in the house and there’s plenty of time to chat and drink tea.
Helping with preprarations

Having the toilet with the best view in the world!
A while ago my sister sent me a picture of the view from the toilets in the Shard it is pretty impressive but I immediately sent one back of our amazing view of the mountains and not only that but the clear skies mean that every night we are surrounded by a canopy of stars overhead  and can clearly follow the moon through its full cycle often not needing  our torches  as it shines so brightly.
The view from our loo

Baptisms at church

Baptisms just outside the church
Our concrete basin outside the church was back in use 2 weeks ago and we celebrated the baptism of 2 church members. It was an early start at 7 30 and the water although not plentiful was warmer than it had been in January last year. It was great to be there to witness the lives transformed 

Fondue in the desert
We received a message from our colleagues  who are back in Switzerland for the birth of their baby that we should check out their stores (as they had been unable to return here after our time in Ndjamena)  and eat whatever was out of date. Great news when we found several fondues and the first has already been eaten with home-made bread prepared by Helen our Swiss midwife .

Easter sunrise over the mountains

Breakfast after sunrise
On Easter Sunday morning we climbed up the mountain nearest the town and watch the sunrise .We have done this now each year we have been here and although it involves an early start it has been a great way to remember  the resurrection of Jesus . We celebrated afterwards with a tasty breakfast and then the church service. It’s great to be back and be able to do this again. In Ndjamena there were no mountains and a ladder to look over the wall is just not quite the same.
Sunrise on Easter Sunday

A taste of life in  Bardai -We hope that you too are able to experience in your lives the ‘joie de vivre’ that we have here.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

A Tale of Two Cities.

 That may not seem a very seasonal choice of Dickens titles, to which I am obliged to reply, ‘bah humbug’ and carry on regardless. So ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’

The first 'city' is really a hotel, it is as big as a village and exudes importance. Built in the style of a Roman palace it has a defensive wall, and huge gates with armed guards. Situated by the river it makes an impressive sight, and all the trappings of worldly splendour have been added, huge tastefully furnished entrance lobbies, an amazing swimming pool and gardens. See for yourself by clicking here 

The vast conference/ballroom can seat 500 at tables, has chandeliers, air conditioning, and offers a very fine selection of coffee and vienoisserie mid-morning, plus sumptuous buffet lunches from what are no doubt excellent kitchens. All this was less impressive than the very interesting well organised meeting organised by the Ministry of Health over 4 days in mid- December. It was a bit of a surprise to get a telephone call from the Regional Health Director in the Tibesti whilst driving in a rather battered looking yellow taxi to the Health Ministry building. The line was very poor, but I eventually understood I was to go to the Hilton straight away and represent him at the meeting. Once there I saw that a major theme was Maternal Mortality and so Andrea joined me the second battered taxi of the day to grace the otherwise impeccable fleet of 4X4 and limousines on the forecourt.
It was really a very informative set of meetings, with presentations and debates amongst the participants from the 23 regions of Chad, all the major hospitals, the various programs and agencies, malaria, TB, HIV, UNICEF, WHO, etc. The second day, having been directed to our seats amongst the Chadian Regional Health Directors, and feeling a bit conspicuous, someone spotted us and assuming that we were with a large NGO, thought we should be on the other side of the room, but then agreed we  were already in the right place.
In addition to the main theme, Important subjects such as rural health mutual assurance, the currently bankrupt national Central Pharmacy warehouse, immunisation programs and the National budget were discussed. Perhaps the most important for us was how to encourage government employees who are deployed to places such as Bardai to actually go to their postings rather than simply remaining in Ndjamena and drawing their centrally paid salary. It seems there may be a move towards decentralisation which may help.
 As well as gaining a better understanding of the health care system in Chad we renewed and made a number of new contacts, and even had a brief talk with the health minister, who had some words of encouragement for our work in Bardai.
We sensed that there was a genuine attempt to address the major problems and can only hope that in a years time we can hear of targets for immunisation being reached, more doctors and nurses working in the regions and a revitalised Central Pharmacy supplying low cost, good quality, generic drugs throughout the country.

Two days later just before Christmas we had a completely different experience, a journey from the centre of Chad to the margins took us to Teriturenne, a village about 8 hours drive north of Ndjamena. The second half of the route is across the same area of Sahel that had proved impassable due to rain at the start of our journey last August. Now it was bone dry and it was difficult to believe that the large herds of cattle and other animals that we saw will be able to survive until the next rains; passing from water hole to waterhole and eating the meagre ration of spontaneously dried hay that thinly covers the area. The rolling hills of sand and earth have scattered trees with occasional villages on the higher ground.

 It is said that ‘A city on a hill cannot be hidden’ but if the houses are spaced out single room mud brick buildings without electricity it can be very difficult to spot, especially as we arrived at Teriturenne after night fall. There are about 60 homes in the 2 halves of the village. Light is not the only thing that is lacking. The name of the village Teriturenne means ‘one water pail village’ and that water supply is 1-2 km away down a steep sandy hill to the low ground, where the water is close to the surface. Despite this there is a thriving school in the local language that is attracting about 150 young people and children from the surrounding area. This is a new concept to learn to read in Dazaga and then teach French later. The same project is now working to get a solar powered well into the heart of the village, and as we arrived a team of experienced Chadians were working to drill a well by hand 60m deep. It was night and they had been drilling since midday and they continued working by the lights of one of our vehicles. The bore was completed and lined with a plastic tube by midnight. It was a real community event with women gathered round , ululating and garlanding the most enthusiastic worker; three men rode up on horseback and pranced back and forth and then rode off with gusto. The joy was palpable and the next day the news on everybody’s’ lips was ‘the well was born’.On the next trips the water tower will be erected, and the solar water pump installed.

We were there to see whether there was any possibility of having a small health clinic in the same village. We spent most of the day travelling over 100 km around the local area looking at what clinics were already in place. Fortunately, we had talked with the Chief Medical officer for the region at the Hilton Hotel just 3 days before to get his permission for the visit. We were travelling with a Chadian who is now a teacher in the University having done a master’s in law in the UK and who is seeking to help his birth village.

Recurring themes in all the villages we visited were the lack of drugs in the clinics, the problem of getting women having difficulty in labour to hospital, absentee staff, and a total lack of even basic dental care. They seemed less concerned about the lack of a good complete vaccination program and seemed proud and content with the once a year anti polio campaign.

In the evening we learnt about the reality of rural healthcare, there may well be a small clinic about 10 km away,but there were two patients who were seriously unwell and had been for 2 or 3 days, and no one was making any effort to get help. (apart from asking the visiting doctors after dark). The first was a man who was severely dehydrated with a diarrhoeal illness and another a young girl with a severe infection of the face and a high fever. We had an emergency kit with us and were able to set up the necessary intravenous drugs in their homes, something which we never do elsewhere, but it was clearly a day to bend the rules. The young girl was improving by the next morning and after a second injection could continue with tablets. The man needed more care in a hospital or clinic, but refused to travel, so on our way home to Ndjamena we stopped off at the clinic 10 km away and spoke with the local informally trained nurse. We paid for the necessary medicines and he agreed to go and give them. He knows the village as his son is there staying with friends so that he can go to the school. We have since heard that both have done well. Later this month we can check on them when we go back to speak again with the local people, do some health education and treat any dental problems that are there.

And now a question to consider; in which city would you expect to see God at work, at the Hilton or in Teriturenne? The answer we are glad to say is that we have seen it in both. However, if you are wise enough to be looking for a baby, try the village, the stars are truly amazing.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Waiting for Christmas

So here we are still in Ndjamena and not yet sure when we will return to Bardai, we are praying for a peaceful resolution to the conflict the start of which caused us to come to Ndjamena 6 weeks ago. It’s a strange feeling because being in Ndjamena, which was previously our normal Chadian place to be: It suddenly seems a special and luxurious place almost half way to being in England!
So in true Christmas celebratory spirit lets tell you about the 12 days of fun.

No1.Watching Hippos by the river
We spent a week in a new missionary retreat centre by the river and while we there not only did we see lots of beautiful birds and sunsets but a family of Hippos too. They announced their arrival very loudly the night we arrived and their departure the night before we left.

No 2. Having the chance to go to a wedding.
We had heard that Yola one of the nurses at Guinebor was getting married and were wondering how to send her a gift. Well we were not only able to do that but to be at her wedding too it was fun to be there with the other staff from Guinebor and celebrate with her.

No 3. Being at the Team conference.
We spent a great week being taught more about Jesus our shepherd and how to follow him and hearing how others are doing that all around Chad. We also had fun together visiting the farm we used to go to with Ruth and Rebeca horse riding for a barbeque amongst other things .Including Mark wearing a Manchester United outfit(very stressful) as there were no others available at the market and we had to dress up in something representing our country.

No 4. Going Swimming.
A relaxing day was spent at the pool with only 3 colleagues to share the 25m pool for most of the day. Mark finally managed to achieve a target that he set about 5 years ago with Ruth and Rebecca, to swim the same number of lengths as your age. (They had the advantage of youth) .

No 5. Having a washing machine.
Actually this is more than one day you’ll be glad to hear, but it’s very nice not to do our own washing by hand.

No 6. Eating out.
We have been out a few times notably for Thanksgiving where half of us were Americans but also recently to have a sandwich in N'djamena’s latest newly decorated café where you can eat in a taxi bus.

No7. Having (even book) shops to visit.
From the same café come bacon and ice cream, delicious treats not available in Bardai. Except for the one time when we turned our solar fridge into a freezer and it valiantly fought outside temperatures of 44C to make ice cream at -14C, a staggering 58C difference inside and out. We have also been to a bookshop and managed to buy some great medical books to take back to Bardai.

No 8. Having language lessons.
Well it’s not exactly a treat but it is good to have the time to do this without other demands on us and we have found a teacher who is really patient and helping us to progress.

No 9. Going to the theatre.
We were hearing about Rebecca's theatre trips in London and thinking how nice that would be- now since being here we have been to one guitar concert. a play about child soldiers and some modern dance. All at the French cultural centre in town in an outside theatre, it has been a real pleasure.

No 10. Having Whats app and internet in the house.
Its lovely to be in more frequent contact with our family and we are really enjoying this but trying not to get too used to it.

No 11. Not being freezing cold.
Actually at first we were a bit warm but now temperatures have dropped to a cool 33C by day and 15C at night. It’s certainly easier than wrapping up every night and sleeping under layers of blankets, Bardai is 4C overnight. However we know what we would really prefer.

No 12. A Christmas craft market
This year there seem to be several of these. Last Sunday afternoon we went to the Hilton an experience in itself! An opulent 21st century version of a large Roman villa. They had a craft fair including a stall from the Acacia project that Rebecca worked with and a huge tree and lots of decorations. There will be another with products from around Chad at the French cultural centre later in the month and yet another at another hotel later on. There are Christmas carols playing in the supermarket too.

This year we are going to enjoy celebrating here in Ndjamena with an English carol service by candle light and Chadian church celebrations. Although we would have equally if not more have enjoyed this in Bardai and actually the mincemeat and Christmas pudding are still there. Not to mention our presents and decorations. Despite this the Grinch hasn’t stopped Christmas coming. We like you will be celebrating the birth of JESUS.

We have a ‘tree’ and are using it as a reverse advent calendar putting on one decoration a day. I am going to try and make acake and homemade mince-meat so we’ll see how that works. I’ll be lucky if it’s as good as my solar cooker cake last year

 We pray that you like us will be able to celebrate and know the presence of the Prince of Peace this Christmas where-ever you are.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

After the War - Lest we forget.

Armistice Day, 11/11/1918, was rightly commemorated last weekend around the world. At last, after four years of terrible industrialised fighting and unprecedented death and destruction, the war to end wars was over. 
An old weapon, the underground tunnelled mine had been perfected and was used with devastating effect at Messines Ridge in 1917 when 19 nearly simultaneous explosions of a massive 455 tonnes of explosives killed an estimated 10,000 German soldiers. (ref 1). But as the war drew to a close, these traditional mines were being replaced by the new much smaller, at first improvised and then factory made, landmines. These were placed in the ground to defend against the new chariots of war, trench busting tanks. They have become an indispensable part of the military arsenal.

In the late 1960’s and 70’s our family made an annual visit to my aunt and uncles farm at Burgh le Marsh. We visited nearby Skegness and played on the beach for days on end. I have many happy memories but a couple of things fascinated me, the faint memories of WW2. A small number of ex-army landing craft which rolled along the beach giving rides to fun loving tourists, and a disarmed sea mine acting as a collection box to help shipwrecked sailors. Old military equipment being put to a better use, memories of a distant war. But it was only 25 years since the end of WWII, the beaches at and around Skegness had been part of the 1,997 minefields laid around the UK in 1940 (ref 2). In total about 350,000 mines were laid to prevent an invasion, and then removed, often with considerable difficulty and cost in human life. Around Britain accidents happened through the 1950’s with residual munitions, I don’t recall hearing of any in my lifetime, certainly they weren’t frequent. However, whilst writing this I found that in a controlled explosion an old anti-tank mine was destroyed at Gibraltar Point not far from Skegness in 2015 (ref 3). The de-miners had done a good, brave, but imperfect job. 

Driving into the Tibesti on a white stone lined road

As we entered the Tibesti from Zoar-Ke last year we saw a destroyed tank and other vehicles from another past war, the Libyan- Chad war of the 1980’s. We also saw the white stones by the roadside which mark areas of potential minefields. It was all from some conflict some 30 years before and yet as we entered Bardai there were zones either side of the road which were unsafe to drive on. It all seemed a little unreal, but we asked questions and were told that as long as we stayed on the roads we were reassured that we would be fine, that there were no mines in Bardai itself, and there were many less accidents than there had been a few years ago. The local demining team was still active and once in a while there was a controlled explosion of collected anti-tank mines. The people in danger we were told, were incoming goldminers who didn’t believe the local Teda when they said that a zone was dangerous.

A controlled exposion in the Tibesti -MAG

The task of demining the Tibesti is more difficult than the beaches in the UK. MAG have worked here since 2004 (ref 4). The British minefields had been marked and surrounded by barbed wire and other defences so as to avoid accidental entry to the minefields. The mines were laid above the tide line and in many cases the mines were wired together to facilitate eventual removal and prevent migration. I don’t know how the minefields in the Tibesti were marked, but mines in wadis get washed downstream when the dry river beds flood, and through years of rebellion and civil unrest mines have been lifted from their original sites and used to booby trap roads. For these there are no reference charts. Naturally the roads, dirt tracks, have been swept for mines, but nothing is static.

One day we went to a neighbouring village for a wedding, there were many pickups parked by the mosque. Our Teda friend parked as neatly as possible to save space but was told to go no further forward as there was a mine buried, in a small area marked by white stones, right in the middle of the village. An hour or so later, on leaving, our vehicle was hemmed in, and so a man stood in the circle told us to drive forward over it, there’s nothing here he said. We decided to wait all the same, best not to take a risk. Is there really a mine there, who knows, apart from the man who laid it.

A short while later there was an explosion on a well travelled road to another village, just up the wadi from Bardai. A large lorry heading to market with many passengers on top had set off an anti-tank mine. Thankfully only the tyre was blown off, perhaps the mine had sunk deep into the sand. A fortunate escape, but all the same there was an impressive hole. A colleague of mine from the hospital lives about 200m off the road at that point on a small rocky hill. He doesn’t have a car but rides a motorbike.

So how common are landmine accidents around the world? The Nobel Peace Prize winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines collates statistics from each country and publishes The landmine and cluster munitions monitor. (ref4). These and following statistics for Chad come from their 2017 report.

Around the world in 2016 there was an increase in the number of incidents related to mines and discarded munitions with 8605 casualties, at least 2089 were fatal. Most casualties were civilians (78%) and 1544 (42%) of those were children. These are the highest figures since the Mine Ban treaty of 1999 which bans the laying of mines that are activated by human contact (antipersonnel mines) but not yet those activated by vehicles.

There have been 3011 casualties recorded in Chad by the Landmines and Cluster Munitions Monitor with 1179 deaths. Recently a decreasing trend has been apparent with 27 casualties in 2016, with no reported deaths. Thirteen were caused by mines and 12 by old shells etc and in 2 cases it was not declared.

In the last 6 months these numbers on a graph have become real to me. Twice I have been called to the hospital to treat young men who have been in a pick-up truck that ran over a mine whilst off road out of town. They both died of multiple blast injuries. Whilst I was in the UK in the summer another two people died in another couple of incidents. In the first a young man who took a different route into town because of the flooded wadi, and in the second the wife of a friend of the ADP was killed. She had been at a busy meeting place under a tree on the edge of a local village and was killed as she was driven away.  All of these were local Teda people and all caused by anti-tank mines laid over 30 years ago, but which can still be laid under the Ottawa Protocol.

A fifth young casualty was a gold miner. He was at work when he came across something unusual, a plastic canister that he didn’t recognise. It was an antipersonnel mine. These are designed to maim and not kill as the injured require help from colleagues further depleting an attacking force. It blew up in his left hand. He arrived at the hospital the next day after a long drive with improvised bandages over both of his hands, he looked terrible. Once he was stabilised we operated the same day, amputating the remains of his left hand at the wrist, and cleaning up his badly injured right hand plus all the other shrapnel wounds and flash burns to his chest arms and legs. He was cared for by his friends who had to feed and wash him every day. I was amazed that how cheerful the young victim was as I visited him. He was it seems simply glad to have survived and to be receiving treatment. What more he was going to get a functional right hand. After 2 more trips to the operating theatre and finally skin grafts to his thumb and fingers he was able to hold a spoon and feed himself. He left the hospital exactly one month later returning to his home town in the east of Chad.

A young man who doesn’t smile for photos

These five families and many more like them will never have the possibility of forgetting the danger of landmines.

  1. World War I underground: unearthing the hidden tunnel war. Peter Jackson. BBC News . Magazine 10 June 2011
  2. Evans, Roly (2017) “World War II Coastal Minefields in the United Kingdom” Journal of Conventional Weapons Destruction Vol 21 Iss 1 Article 9
  3. Anti tank bomb explodes at Gibraltar point- Skegness Standard .Facebook Jan 14 2015
  5. Landmine Monitor