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Montrealer reaches the refugees of Darfur

by Archives January 19, 2005

Images of hunger, genocide and war are bound to elicit reactions -they may leave viewers enraged or disturbed enough to contemplate taking action. Some have even opened their wallets to help, as witnessed recently with the tsunami disaster in Asia. But what does it take to transfer well meaning thoughts into concrete service to aid these countries that beg for our help?

Having spent months as a volunteer for Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF) in the fields of Chad, a neighboring country to war torn Sudan, Montrealer Patrick Robitaille knows what it takes, not only to rise to the challenge, but to survive for the long haul as well. Previously sent on missions to afflicted areas, such as Sierra Leone and Pakistan, Robitaille maintains he pulls through on inherent flexibility.

“I have this ability to adapt very fast to where I’m going ,and feel comfortable and up and running when I go [out] in the field,” he says with a modest tone.

Adapting to these conditions, clearly, is no easy feat. Over the course of his stay, Robitaille went to two MSF camps.One camp had close to 30 thousand refugees, a scene that Robitaille describes simply as “chaos”. Currently, it is estimated that over 1.5 million have been displaced within the Sudanese region of Darfur, due to the threats and violence being forced on them by the government militia known as the Jinjaweed. The conflict originates from clashes over resource use between the sedentary Masalit, Fur and Zaghawa people, the cattle herding Beni Hussein from North Darfur and the Beni Halba from the South

In recent decades, drought, competition for resources and government reorganization with arab ethnic groups led to increased tension. The traditional Zaghawa, Masalit and Fur people saw their position of power being threatened. According to the UN, these conflicts are of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, not even surpassed by the recent tsunami disasters.

Many refugees fleeing conflict in Darfur have to travel far to get to the MSF camp in Chad. Robitaille, recalling one severely ill woman who flagged him down by the roadside only meters from camp, is clearly moved by such courage.

As a logistical coordinator, Robitaille’s mission for MSF in Chad was to distribute needed supplies to the camps and transport personnel, as well as keeping contact with equipment suppliers on the outside. Although there were few days off, he says he kept going because of his passion for the work.”We’re [driven] by a very powerful force of loving what we do and [having] a good team next to us.” he proclaims.

Working around the clock meant sometimes putting in seven days a week, and even at the end of the day dinner with colleagues often involved discussion of daily operations. With all these demands, he says you have to find some middle ground, to maintain a balance. “You have to find a way to release your stress; that’s up to you…You find yourself in a difficult place for finding you again – you’re a different person, in a different situation and you don’t have anything to hold ground with.”

Back home in Montreal, Robitaille is now a political science student at UQAM, and on the side has worked on a photo exhibit of Sudan images with MSF colleague Patrick Lemieux. Reflecting on his experience, which now seems far away, he enjoys answering questions about his work. Although, he says many have trouble putting his stories into context.

“It takes a lot of words…if you want to get away from the clich

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