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On the border in Chad

by Gauthier Lefevre

Some 110,000 Sudanese civilians, many of them women and children, have crossed the border into Chad since last year, fleeing the violence in the western province of Darfur. Every day more people seek refuge in a region where water is scarce, basic infrastructure is lacking and access is difficult.

Six-year-old Fatme has arrived in Chad after walking for five nights. She fled her home in the Sudanese province of Darfur January 2004, along with her mother, aunt, and seven brothers and sisters all under the age of 14. Her father, a schoolteacher, and two of her uncles were killed when fighting between government forces and rebels from the Sudan Liberation Army erupted in her village.

Some 110,000 refugees from Darfur are living along the 500-kilometre border between Chad and Sudan. Most refugees are staying in scattered towns and villages along the border and are living under very difficult conditions. There is a lack of food, clean water and shelter.

The newcomers relied on distributions of food and non-food aid from United Nations (UN) agencies and, more importantly, on the generosity of local Chadians. This is especially true in the northern areas around the villages of Tine and Bahay, where Zaghawa communities on both sides of the border have enjoyed strong ties for centuries, and last year's harvest produced a small excess.

Cases of malnutrition have been few, but a sharp rise was reported in early March as food reserves were exhausted. But slowly the situation has changed. After one month of camping in precarious conditions, separated from Sudanese military by only a few hundred metres and a dry riverbed, Fatme and her family climbed aboard one of 20 Chad Red Cross trucks donated by the Norwegian Red Cross to facilitate relief operations in the east.

Over two days, the Red Cross transferred Fatme and 260 other refugees to a camp in Kounoungo, 100 kilometres south of Tine. Organized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in response to the growing pressures on water and sanitation facilities, this transfer was the first of many that took place with the help of Red Cross volunteers.

A Sudanese refugee family arrives in Chad after crossing the frontier to escape attacks by militiamen, 27 January 2004.
©Reuters / Antony Njuguna, Courtesy

Finding shelter and water

The difficulty of finding water in sufficient quantities delayed the opening of camps to accommodate the refugee population and distribute humanitarian aid. By the beginning of March, less than 10,000 had been settled in the three camps already operating at Farchana, Touloum and Kounoungo in eastern Chad. On average, only one in three drillings produce a usable water source, a difficulty that has forced UNHCR to plan on opening as many as eight camps.

In the southern region, the large number of cattle that the refugees were able to bring with them compounds the problem. Initially the camp in Farchana was planned to house some 12,000 refugees. Currently, only 2,000 are settled there with double that number of cattle. In the arid north, water is harder still to find, but few refugees have any cattle.

Thirty-year-old Mahamat came to Chad in February with his mother, grandmother and ten siblings. His father owned 100 cows, 70 sheep and 55 camels before he was killed in the attack on his village in January, and a large part of his herd was stolen. Most of the rest died along the way of thirst, hunger and exhaustion. "Today, we have just two donkeys left," says Mahamat, "but they will be dead by tomorrow."

Humanitarian response

The response of the international community has been strong. As many as 13 non-governmental organizations have partnered with UNHCR to provide assistance to the refugees, and 11 others have conducted assessments. "The Red Cross has assumed an important role in the transport side of the operation, in agreement with UNHCR," says Roger Aubé, programme coordinator in N'Djamena for the International Federation.

The Red Cross of Chad has been present since the beginning of the emergency, and is steadily increasing its capacity in the region. Its volunteers have played a key role in accompanying the refugees as they are relocated from their temporary settlements along the border to the camps set up by the UNHCR.

Mahamat Djabo Abouna heads the 20-strong team of Chad Red Cross volunteers based in Adre, who are participating in the relocation effort to Farchana camp. "The refugees have been through a terrible ordeal," he says. "It is our role to reassure, help and explain how they will be taken care of. We give the whole relief effort a human face."

On arrival at the camps, volunteers distribute food and water, and offer advice as the refugees go through the lengthy process of medical screening, registration and then being given food and non-food aid.


The Red Cross of Chad is teaming up with UN partners to respond to the Sudanese refugee crisis.

©Gauthier Lefevre / International Federation

Mobilizing the Movement

The appeal launched by the International Federation in December 2003 has mobilized the Movement. Twenty trucks landed in the capital, N'Djamena, in February, donated by the Norwegian Red Cross. By the end of the month 14 of them had begun operating, carrying 45 tonnes of drilling equipment for Norwegian Church Aid.

Other sister National Societies have also reacted swiftly to the emergency. The Spanish Red Cross, which has been implementing programmes in Darfur for some time, and the French Red Cross, which has just completed a water and sanitation project in several schools in N'Djamena, both sent assessment missions.

This assistance has reinforced the Chad Red Cross's partnership with the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations working in the area. After a successful collaboration in the south of the country last year in assisting 60,000 refugees from the Central African Republic, the Red Cross and UN agencies are once again teaming up to respond to the Sudanese refugee crisis.

The next big challenge will be the arrival of the rainy season in June. Indeed, while the refugee situation is not catastrophic and the work of all those involved in the operation is starting to have an impact on the ground, once the rains come weather conditions will change the situation. Access to the affected areas is already difficult, and will become nearly impossible for three months from June to August, when torrential rains make the wadis treacherous and the tracks all but disappear for the season.

"We are racing against the clock to set up all the camps, gather the refugee population into accessible sites, and pre-position supplies before June," says Yvan Sturm, who heads UNHCR operations in Abeche,

But not all the refugees will have settled in a camp by the time the rainy season arrives. Some have already chosen not to move and prefer to remain on the border even in precarious conditions. The nomadic lifestyle of many of the refugee groups does not fit in well with living in a camp, even temporarily. Others have close family and friendship ties where they have settled. Others still are hoping to return to their country sooner rather than later and will stay as close to it as they can. "We cannot go back there until it is peaceful and safe for us to raise our families," says 40-year-old Osman Adam Abdallah, who lost his wife and two sons. "Here we can receive aid from the international community until the conditions are right for us to return to Darfur."

The UNHCR plans to bring up to 45,000 refugees into its camps. Meanwhile, efforts are being made to provide humanitarian assistance at the border, despite the difficulty of access during the rainy season. This is no doubt where the Chad Red Cross will be particularly effective.

Gauthier Lefevre
Gauthier Lefevre is an independent journalist based in Paris.

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