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Resoring the fragile land. Spreading desert forces families to flee

Standing in the shade of a tree in 100-degree heat in the desert south of N'Djamena, Al-Hajj Umar, a Muslim husband and father, looked thin, drawn, but indestructible. In white skullcap and black beard, he began to tell me how he had trudged for 11 days from his devastated northern village with his three wives and six small children.

It's increasingly a tragically common story in Chad and across the eight countries of the Sahel: an already precarious balance between life and death upset by drought -- too many people and too many animals turning marginal land into sand.

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The result: a new breed of famine refugee, walking to live: Al-Hajj Umar.

He came from Bokoro, 155 miles east of N'Djamena. Once he owned 17 cows and six goats, but the only animals he set out with were two donkeys.

One wife sat on one. The others walked.

``In our village, it hadn't rained properly in seven years,'' he said stoically. ``The cows died of hunger. I sold the goats to buy food. I tried to plow. I tried to grow sorghum and groundnuts [peanuts]. I left late last year with 15 other families.''

The trek was terrible. They walked day and night. Two children in friends' families died. Now his family has been brought here by truck from a holding camp near the shrunken Chari River, ready to work in new fields carved out of dry soil behind us, hoping someone would provide a small pump to lift Chari water to them. It all looked bleak, dry, and wretched, but Mr. Umar thanks Allah he is not still back in Boroko.

``If I am here it means that Allah has saved me,'' he said. He thought for a moment. ``Even if the food still isn't enough for us. . . .''

Al-Hajj Umar cannot read or write. But he can still work. And hope.

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