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Top UNHCR official gets mixed impressions in Chad

News Stories, 14 November 2007

© UNHCR/A.Rehrl
Chadian IDP leaders in Gassire share their views and experiences with Deputy High Commissioner L. Craig Johnstone.

ABECHE, Chad, November 14 (UNHCR) UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees L. Craig Johnstone returned to Geneva on Wednesday after meetings with Sudanese refugees and internally displaced villagers in eastern Chad, which he said left him both encouraged and concerned.

On Sunday, Johnstone travelled some 220 kilometres south of the eastern hub of Abéché to the town of Goz Beida, where he visited the Djabal camp for refugees from Sudan's Darfur region before driving to the locality of Gassiré to meet some of the estimated 180,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in eastern Chad. The following day, he went to the sprawling Oure Cassoni camp close to north-east Chad's border with Sudan.

"Even though security is still an issue and even though we have to face many logistical challenges, I think the refugees in Chad are doing well. I'm pleasantly surprised by what I've seen in the camp," Johnstone said after touring Djabal, one of 12 UNHCR-run camps in Chad that host a total 240,000 refugees.

In the camp of some 15,500 Darfurian refugees, Johnstone visited a veterinary clinic, water outlets, a skills training centre, health and educational facilities and a reforestation project. He also sat in on a meeting of a refugee working group on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

A refugee leader reported the case of a woman who had been harassed a day earlier by unidentified armed men while harvesting tomatoes just outside the camp. "Since we started the SGBV sensitization campaign in the camp, women have started to speak up. This is a big improvement," refugee Hadja Abdallah Ibrahim told Johnstone, who said he was impressed by the coping mechanism established by the refugee community.

The Deputy High Commissioner later Sunday visited Gassiré, some 30 minutes drive from the refugee camp, and met female leaders of the IDP community, many of whom had lost their husbands. They told him about fleeing from their villages over the past two years and the hardship and uncertainly they still faced.

"As long as there is nothing in our village, no security, no schools, no health centres and little water, we prefer to stay here," one of the displaced women, Halima Mahamat, said.

Johnstone was not as sanguine after his visit to Gassiré. "From what I saw today, we need to do more for the internally displaced people, both in Chad and in Darfur," he said. "UNHCR's commitment and that of our partner agencies needs to be, most of all, action oriented," Johnstone concluded, while promising the IDPs that he would seek international help in rebuilding their communities.

"UNHCR is not a development agency, but we will try to mobilize partners for a long-term durable solution in your communities of origin," he said.

The UN refugee agency is currently coordinating the protection of around 90,000 IDPs in the Goz Beida-Koukou Angarana area. Working with other UN agencies, it handles camp management, emergency shelter and telecommunications.

During his visit Monday to Oure Cassoni, Johnstone was struck by the tough living conditions, including scarce water resources, for both the camp's 28,000 Sudanese refugees and the people who look after them.

"Over the past few days, I have had the opportunity to explore the extraordinary complexity of the situation in Chad," Johnstone said before leaving Abéché on Monday for the Chad capital, N'Djamena.

"But I'm going away with much more hope and lots of ideas and examples on how we can with the help of our donors still do much more. Not only for the refugees, but especially for the Chadian internally displaced persons."

Johnstone was in Chad as part of a week-long visit to Sudan and Chad, which began last week in Khartoum and also took him to Darfur. He met a wide range of government officials, non-governmental partners, diplomats and UNHCR staff.

By Annette Rehrl in Abéché, Chad

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Portraits of Darfur's Refugees

Nearly 200,000 refugees, the majority of them women and children, have fled across the border from Sudan into Chad since the outbreak of conflict in Sudan's Darfur region in March 2003. The refugees have left behind their homes and often loved ones in Darfur, where militias have reportedly killed and raped villagers, looted and burned houses and possessions and driven people from their homes.

Most of the refugees in eastern Chad are sheltered in 11 camps established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where they receive humanitarian aid, shelter, water and basic services.

Life in the camps is not easy in the desert environment of eastern Chad, where water and firewood are extremely scarce. Sandstorms are a regular feature during the dry months and torrential rains flood the landscape in the wet season.

Yet in the faces of the refugees, dignity and hope remain in spite of the hardships and the violence they have suffered.

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