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Snapshots from DJIBOUTI

 


"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 like nothing.

Boris Heger
Boris Heger is a freelance photographer based in Nairobi.

Distributing Red Cross messages at Ali Addé, a UNHCR camp in Ali Sabieh district, where about 12,000 people from Ethiopia and Somalia are staying.
©Boris Heger / ICRC

In UNHCR's Ali Addé camp. Here, patience is a virtue.
©Boris Heger / ICRC

Ali Addé, camp is regularly visited by ICRC staff.
©Boris Heger / ICRC

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