"Don't forget your
sweater!" joked a colleague when I told him I was going
on mission to Djibouti with the ICRC.
Djibout… that faraway place everyone
has heard of but knows little about, other than that it is
one of the hottest places on earth. Living in Africa, I had
some idea of what to expect: a stony desert, a strange and
impenetrable culture, a dry and dismal landscape, blinding
sunlight, the feel of a former colony with old French-style
buildings, an air of Arabia in the midst of Africans who don't
quite have that air…
My image of the place was pretty accurate,
but my first contact with the people changed my preconceptions
of them. I had imagined them to be harder, like their Somali
neighbours: they look the same, but their history is different,
Djibouti having known little war and having almost always
lived by trade.
"My friend, come and drink tea,
come and chat!" I was regularly hailed in the street
in French, but without insistence. People have time; I am
in the heart of a culture rooted in human contact. If you
reject these overtures, you are perceived as arrogant.
I quickly learn the importance of khat,
the plant with stimulant effects, which the local people have
been chewing for centuries. Dependence on the drug has made
it the number one import in a country where almost everything
comes from the outside. In the afternoon, life comes to halt
in Djibouti; everything is closed. There is no one in the
street, and not only because of the heat.
Shanty towns file past before my eyes
as the ICRC vehicle heads out of town. Poverty is ever present,
rubbing shoulders with big military bases behind rows of barbed
wire and brooding watchtowers. Since the 'global war on terrorism',
US troops have joined French forces who have long been based
here as part of military cooperation with their former colony.
After crossing the vast expanses of
desert, disturbed only by US helicopters carrying out training
exercises, we reach the Awr Aoussa camp. Some 8,000 asylum
seekers from neighbouring countries are grouped here. In the
camp, in the middle of nowhere and with no shade to temper
the relentless sun, they wait for their applications to be
reviewed. The ICRC visits the camp regularly and offers families
the chance to communicate via Red Cross messages.
We move on to a Somali refugee camp.
Kids throw stones at us, but ease off when my companions explain
the purpose of the visit. I ask a child what he would like
to do when he grows up, to which he replies: "Bin Laden."
The man is a hero in these parts, where people have nothing
and there is little hope… It makes for fertile ground.
Back in town, we conduct a dissemination
session on international humanitarian law for members of the
police force, followed by a visit to the prison. I feel privileged:
it is rare for a photographer to be allowed access to such
places. The women's prison in particular affects me. I attend
'interviews in private', a typical ICRC activity for detainees.
Some of the detainees could write a book about their lives.
Their stories are sometimes incredible — and sad.
During one such interview, I spot a
plastic bag on which was written "Just say yes!"
Yes to what, to life? I find it incongruous in such a place
and at such a moment. I take a photo. I don't know if people
will understand; the picture has nothing extraordinary…
certain moments leave a strong impression, even if they seem
Boris Heger is a freelance photographer based