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Darfur’s refugees in Chad

Some 200,000 civilians, many of them women and children, have crossed tChad since 2003, fleeing the ongoing violence in the western Sudanese province of Darfur. The refugees and the local populations are sharing the region’s limited resources, but tensions are rising as competition increases for food, firewood and water.

A sudden influx of uninvited guests can tax even the most generous host. When the hosts are among the world’s poorest people, the visitors vastly outnumber them, and the newcomers have no immediate plans to leave, you might expect trouble.

For the past two years, people in eastern Chad have played host to nearly 200,000 people fleeing conflict in Darfur, a region of neighbouring Sudan. Both hosts and guests come from the same ethnic group, Massalit, speak the same language, have the same customs. They are a people separated by a border.

Conditions in eastern Chad are hardly hospitable. It is in the Sahel zone, a textbook example of survival in one of the world’s most marginal regions. The land is arid, the climate harsh. There are few trees. Dust covers the ground.

Perhaps surprisingly, villagers in eastern Chad have largely accepted the 193,000 newcomers, who are among more than a million people displaced since early 2003 by fighting between rebel troops and pro-government militia in Darfur.

“The local population has been very generous to the refugees until now,” says Eelko Brouwer, head of delegation for the International Federation in Chad.

“We have to avoid a situation in which there are more and more strains between the refugees and the local population, where they compete for resources.”



Local Red Cross volunteer Ibrahim Jakob Barka Adam (a refugee) weighs and measures children with a calm, fatherly manner that reassures them. ©Rosemarie North / International Federation

 

Competition for limited resources

Bredging is the name of a Red Cross-run refugee camp housing 28,500 Sudanese. It is also the name of a village of 960 people just one kilometre away from the camp.

Refugees often fled in the middle of the night, with no time to collect their belongings. They are totally dependent on international aid for food, water and shelter. From Bredging village, local people get a good view of life in the neighbouring camp. They watch as the refugees benefit from schools where children sit under canopies, adult literacy programmes, vocational training, health education and fortnightly distributions of food, all managed by the Red Cross.

“The refugees get food regularly,”says Haoua Mahamat, a villager from Bredging. “That’s nice for them. But we don’t have anyone who will give us food. We have nothing. Everyone is suffering.”

It also rankles with villagers that refugees forage for straw from their land.

“Refugees use some of the straw to feed their animals and the rest they sell at the market,” Mahamat says. “Our animals are dying of starvation because we don’t have the money to buy the straw.”

In effect, villagers are now forced to pay for straw they had considered their own before the refugees arrived.

Perhaps the greatest strain is over firewood. Inevitably, 43,000 refugees from camps including two run by the Red Cross, Bredging and Tréguine, home to 14,500 refugees, are foraging for firewood in the same dry landscape that was used by about 10,000 local villagers.

“Before the refugees arrived it was easy to get wood to prepare meals, says Fatimé Ibrahim Adam, 44. “Since their arrival all of the wood has gone. We have to walk three to four hours to the mountains to find wood.”

In a neighbourhood of Bredging camp, Mariam Ahmat Idriss, 35, is trying to make ends meet for herself and her five children, aged 5 to 16, on her own. Mariam lost her husband, her brother, and her brother’s two sons, aged 15 and 16 in Darfur.

Mariam says she is desperate to earn money so she can buy meat and vegetables to supplement the ration that is supplied by the World Food Programme and distributed every two weeks by Chad Red Cross volunteers and staff.

“On the day of the food distribution I went to see if there was any work,” Mariam says in a resigned voice. “There wasn’t any. So I have been looking for firewood to sell at the market.

“But it’s risky. The local people caught me and took away my axe. They said, ‘don’t cut down our trees.’ So it creates problems when you look for wood. I’m scared.”

Three months ago two young men from a village caught an elderly refugee cutting firewood. They attacked her, slashing her face with a knife. Refugees don’t have much choice when it comes to cooking fuel. The Red Cross is working in partnership with other agencies to find an alternative to wood, but there are no obvious solutions.

Going hungry

Food is also a problem. The International Federation estimates that more than a third of local people are undernourished. That is a higher ratio than in the camps. In fact, during a distribution of a calorie-rich supplement to more than 3,500 children, and pregnant or breastfeeding women in six villages around the camps in May, two severely malnourished children were discovered. They were taken by ambulance to Adré, a town about two hours’ drive away to an emergency feeding programme run by Médecins Sans Frontières.

There are two main reasons for distributing food to the local population, says Matanda Sadrack, International Federation relief delegate.

“First, people in the local population are badly off. They don’t have a lot of resources themselves. So the first reason is humanitarian. The second reason is security. It doesn’t make sense for us to hand out everything to refugees living so close to people who are struggling for existence.”

The day after the distribution, Halima Brahim, 19, from Hadjer Hadid town, brings her baby, Zamzam, 11 months, to a nutrition clinic run by the Red Cross in Tréguine camp. Refugees and villagers alike can use the clinic. Although underweight for his age, Zamzam has been making good progress during the several weeks that he has been coming every Monday to the clinic, says Halima.

Among the volunteers working at the clinic is Djouma Ahamat Gamaradine, 28, a farmer from Darfur and a father of four. “I myself am a refugee and I want to work to help mothers and fathers. A week or so after coming here, the babies can be much healthier. That’s a good feeling.”

 

 

Water levels low

To provide the refugees with safe water, the non-governmental organization Oxfam is digging new water wells for the camps (and later hands them over to camp managers). Oxfam spokesperson Cedric Fedida says that nevertheless, in many areas, the water tables are dropping.

“There are tensions already between the local population and the refugees, which was not the case in the beginning, because the local population think there are a lot of refugees to share the resource with. After a while, it may become too much.”

Acknowledging the problem of water for the local population, the ICRC decided to install a water pump to improve water supply in the town of Abeché, says Marcel Stoessel, head of Abeché sub-delegation for the ICRC.

“Abeché became the humanitarian capital of eastern Chad. Water consumption increased there because of the presence of humanitarian actors and also because of the presence of people who came to work for them in fields such as construction.”

Water is now available 24 hours a day, an increase of about 40 per cent. And the ICRC is also working on water projects in the towns of Iriba, Tiné and Adré, which are near refugee populations.

No quick, easy solution

Tensions will probably remain as the refugees are unlikely to return home soon, says Claire Bourgeois, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees deputy representative in Abeché.

“Our planning is based on what we are hearing, what we are seeing. Most of the authorities say the refugees are here for a long time — three to four years, even five years. So certainly we are planning for two more years because the peace process is taking a long time.”

So in spite of tensions over firewood or water, people need to find a way to live together peacefully. That message is understood in Bredging village. “We are like brother and sister. We have to share. We are the same people separated by a border,” says Haoua Mahamat.

Bredging village headman, Abdoulaye Ibrahim Djibrine, 47, says, “There are lots of difficulties, but we support the refugees. Although there’s not much room for them here, we have to live together.”

 

Rosemarie North
Rosemarie North travelled to Hadjer Hadid, eastern Chad for the International Federation.


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