Up to 20,000 Chadians flee to Cameroon border town

News Stories, 5 February 2008

© UNHCR/D.Mbaiorem
Chadian refugees from N'Djamena look back across the Chari River from Kousséri in Cameroon.

KOUSSERI, Cameroon, February 5 (UNHCR) A five-member UNHCR team has arrived in the Cameroon border town of Kousséri and estimates that up to 20,000 people have crossed the river border with Chad to escape fighting in the Chadian capital of N'Djamena.

As of Tuesday morning, frightened people were still crossing in a continuous flow three days after the exodus began. UNHCR staff still remaining in N'Djamena said they saw many people leaving the capital and heading south on Tuesday.

The UN refugee agency is also preparing to send two airlift flights this week from its regional aid stockpiles in Dubai to Cameroon, while a second UNHCR team was scheduled to leave the Cameroon capital, Yaoundé, on Tuesday for Kousséri. This team includes a water sanitation officer.

The two UNHCR airlifts will carry 90 tonnes of relief supplies, including plastic sheeting, jerry cans, blankets, mosquito nets, kitchen sets and plastic rolls. These supplies will be enough for 14,000 refugees.

A large number of people are being hosted with relatives in Kousséri, while others have found refuge in schools and some are staying in the few hotels of the town. Between 6,000 and 7,000 refugees are staying at a transit centre located near the bridge over the Chari River.

The UNHCR team members, who arrived in Kousséri on Monday evening, said these people were the most vulnerable as they had been spending the past few nights in the open, with very little protection from the elements. The refugees made two big bonfires on Monday night to get some warmth.

"We are bringing some aid supplies from east Cameroon, including blankets and plastic sheeting to help them. We are also in the process of hiring trucks in Kousséri to transport refugees to Maltam," said team chief Gilbert Loubaki, referring to a campsite last used by the refugee agency several years ago.

The site in Maltam, located 32 kilometres from Kousséri, could host up to 100,000 people and is equipped with wells. Authorities in Kousséri told UNHCR that 62 wounded people, who escaped fighting in N'Djamena, were being treated in the local hospital.

The UNHCR team was due to meet again on Tuesday morning with the authorities and the Cameroon Red Cross Society in Kousséri in order to coordinate and speed up assistance to the refugees.

"We are working together with the local authorities and the Red Cross to assist the refugees in Kousséri," said Loubaki, who is the deputy representative for protection in UNHCR's N'Djamena office. He was among those evacuated from the Chadian capital to Cameroon last Friday.

Two UNHCR trucks with relief items such as blankets, plastic sheeting and cooking sets departed Bertoua, in eastern Cameroon, on Monday and were scheduled to arrive in Kousséri on Tuesday night.

In eastern Chad, meanwhile, UNHCR and its partners continue to care for hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people. But continuing security concerns led to the evacuation on Monday of 25 non-essential staff from UNHCR's main field operations base at Abéché. They were among 47 non-essential UN staff and 99 non-governmental organization workers flown in two UN planes to Yaoundé.

UNHCR decided to take this precautionary security measure on Sunday, following reports of bombing and attacks around Adré, which is located east of Abéché near the border with Sudan's Darfur region.

Conditions are reported as calm but tense in Abéché. The security situation remains difficult further to the north, in Guéréda, where a series of armed attacks on UNHCR and other aid agencies last week forced an evacuation of most staff. There was another bandit attack on Mile refugee camp near Guéréda yesterday. Firing weapons, the armed men stole the sixth vehicle in a week, but no injuries were reported.

UNHCR and its partners operate 12 camps in eastern Chad with some 240,000 Sudanese refugees from neighbouring Darfur. Another 50,000 refugees from the Central African Republic are sheltered in camps in southern Chad. In addition, UNHCR is involved in providing help to some of the 180,000 Chadians who have been displaced internally by earlier unrest in Chad.

These hundreds of thousands of uprooted people in Chad depend on international support and a very fragile aid lifeline that must reach some of the most desolate and isolated parts of the country. UNHCR urgently appeals to all sides to respect humanitarian principles and to halt the violence.