I close my eyes and I see them. The girls I met on a recent NBC News assignment in Chad are in my dreams. I think about what they have seen. I worry for their continued safety. In the picture above, you see everything that they have: Dirty clothes. Streaked faces. Each other.
Their names are Samiyah, Safiyah and Gamara. They live near the killing fields of Darfur. But they are not Sudanese. They are Chadian. Their only crime was an accident of geography and the color of their skin. The genocidal monsters of Sudan have changed everything about their lives. Starting with their mother and father.
The village of Gongour in Eastern Chad is a 200-year step back in time. Families wake up under thatched-roof huts over mud floors. Children ride donkeys on their way to the communal water well. Other children are assigned the day's other major task: finding firewood for cooking the evening meals. The children sometimes walk for miles with huge bundles of firewood on their backs. Most of them have never experienced the modern luxuries of a hot water shower, their own beds, refrigerators or a Western toilet. There is schoolwork for the boys, but not always for the girls. Each day has its own hardship, but there is always a great sense of community.
The girls are Masalit, descendents of the harsh southern Sahara desert tribe. To reach them, one must travel to one of the most remote, dusty spots on earth. Our journey begins with a plane ride across the Atlantic to France. Another five-hour plane ride from Paris to the Chadian capital of N'Djamena. Transfer to a United Nations relief flight from the nation’s capital to the regional capital of Abeche. From there, it's a torturous drive over tracked dirt that passes for a highway in Chad. It's a four-hour drive to the eastern trading post of Adre. In my time in Chad, I saw two concrete roads. Both of them were runways.
Adre is tense. A cross-border raid in January brought most of the government’s troops back to defend this vital crossroads. Army tanks routinely run through town, kicking up huge amounts of dust. Toyota pickups are filled with young, eager faces holding onto AK-47s. In the countryside, the Sudanese militias step into the power vacuum. The villagers are defenseless. War seems imminent.
The drive to Gongour is still another three hours from Adre. It is easy to see into Sudan for most of the drive. In most other countries, the road would appear to end in Adre. But in Chad, the drive continues over tracked desert that feels like driving on the beach. We drive past women and children loading up donkeys with firewood and the occasional camel herd. We drive past many thatched-roof villages. During the day, it looks empty but there is much humanity here. Thousands of Africans live in these conditions, as they have for centuries.
In short order, the tranquil African countryside gives way to more ominous signs. Kilometer after kilometer of empty villages. Where are all the people? We arrive at the village and look for the local sheik. Small, dirty children instantly surround us. They follow us everywhere.
We are told of the nearby village of Ajani that was recently burned. The sheik rides with us to the site, about five kilometers farther south. He warns us to be quick, as there are many Janjaweed still around. As soon as we arrive, we realize we are stepping on hallowed ground. An utterly lifeless village transmits the horror. Several charred holes confirm it. Each piece of ash, each burned pot, each hole was the cornerstone for a family.
On a cool February morning, just two weeks ago, the first sign of trouble comes from a distant sound. Horses running fast. It’s unusual in the hot desert at any time. But for Chadians, it may be the worst kind of warning signal. It jolts a primal instinct like no other. It the sound of Janjaweed — rebels from Sudan. Most stories are impossible to confirm, but they are all remarkably consistent. Thousands of refugees, many hundreds of miles apart, tell the same story. The Janjaweed ride into town on stolen horses. They wear khaki uniforms and turbans. The villagers run for their lives, but not all can get away. The Janjaweed catch many. They pull everyone out of hiding places. They kill all of the men first. A quick, but ruthless, execution. They are called Nubi, similar to being called the "N" word in our country. They are told that this harsh no-man’s land no longer belongs to them. It belongs to Arab Africa. Next, they take the mothers. Often times, they force the kids to watch a slow, painful torture replete with the worst kind of violence against women, who are tied spread-eagle and gang raped repeatedly in front of their children. In an instant, they are traumatized for life. When they are able, the survivors run for their lives and retreat to nearby villages. They know no one. Thankfully, the orphans are not split apart. In interviews, we find these girls have not eaten in days. There is no ability to gather food. They are staying with strangers without any family. Alone, but they have each other.
This is the story of Darfur. The Sudanese government, alongside the Janjaweed militias, is systematically killing all black Africans in this area. First in Darfur, now in Chad. The Sudanese government is complicit in this ethnic cleansing when it uses its helicopter gunships to mow down anything that moves through the village. The villagers have remnants of bomb fragments that they show us.
As I take their picture, I think of my own two children, safe and sound some 8,000 miles away. I think of the nights I spend reading to my 8-year-old daughter. We love the American Girl story of Samantha and her friend Nellie. Nellie and her two sisters were orphans, too. Three girls alone in the world with only each other to hold. The African girls are strangers in a village teeming with refugees. They have no food and no parents. I scan my brain to think of some way to take these kids with me, just like Samantha and Uncle Gard. Yet I’m resigned to knowing there will be no rescue for these girls. It would be an impossible legal nightmare even if the tribes would allow it.
What can be done? Beyond the stories of traumatized children, there must be something more to it. Just giving voice to a powerful story is a good start. When friends and family ask why we go to dangerous places, my stock answer is: It's a powerful thing to witness courage, to witness bravery. It's an honor to tell their stories. Here are children who have almost nothing left in the world. And yet they show us the face of courage and their bravery to face each new, unpredictable day. Most of all, they are trying to hold a family together. Their mother must be so proud.