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Aid workers struggle to deal with influx from Central African Republic


Aid workers struggle to deal with influx from Central African Republic

With thousands of refugees camped within sight of the Chadian border, the race is on to organize transfers and aid distributions ahead of the rainy season.
13 March 2008
Newly arrived refugees grind millet at the Maya border crossing.

MAYA, Chad, March 13 (UNHCR) - Their makeshift shelter of branches and leaves is only 800 metres from Chad's border with the Central African Republic, but for Josephine and Veronique it could be 800 kilometres.

The two women finally feel safe on this side of the border, where they have joined almost 14,000 other refugees, including some 3,000 of whom arrived over the past two weeks. Most have left Central African Republic (CAR) since mid-December to escape attacks by rebel fighters and bandits on their villages.

"Our village was destroyed," said Veronique. "There's nothing for me there now." Her compatriot Josephine, who gave birth in the bush while on the run, added: "It was very difficult and I've never been so scared."

The arrival of thousands of the refugees in Maya has trebled its normal population of 3,000 and put an immense strain on resources and host families in the border village.

The UN refugee agency plans on Friday to start moving the new arrivals, including Josephine and Veronique and their new-born babies, some 25 kilometres inland to a temporary site near the village of Dembo, where they will be given tents, blankets, plastic sheeting, jerry cans and food.

UNHCR staff will visit Maya in Dembo in the coming days to help screen refugees and distribute relief goods. The refugee agency is working with community leaders and local authorities to arrange the further transfer of the refugees to sites around Goré, hundreds of kilometres east of Dembo.

But there is disagreement about moving from the border among the refugee leaders, many of whom told UNHCR official Fatta Kourouma during a recent visit to Maya that they wanted to remain close to their homes in CAR.

"I know many of you feel attached to your homes even though you're here in Chad, but we can't accept leaving you so close to the border," said Kourouma, who heads the refugee agency's office in Danamadji. "When the rainy season arrives [in April], we won't be able to get food and supplies here by road."

Other factors have contributed to the sense of urgency for UNHCR, including time lost as a result of conflict within Chad last month, which saw rebel forces briefly enter the capital N'Djamena. Thousands of Chadians fled to neighbouring Cameroon, while the refugee agency evacuated most of its staff in N'Djamena.

"The evacuation of UN and aid workers from Chad really slowed things down. Our relief shipments were delayed due to the insecurity in the capital and we're still seeking partners to respond to the needs of these refugees," Kourouma said.

He said the transit site at Dembo, which has been set up by UNHCR and African Concern, was only a temporary solution, adding that, "We are having trouble finding sufficient sources of water - we need partners to rehabilitate the existing wells and dig new ones."

But it's a vast improvement on isolated Maya. The road leading up to the hamlet is barely wide enough for a vehicle and shows the signs of past flooding. But the refugees who have been streaming across the border during the past three months are not bothered by its isolation.

They have been fleeing a fresh wave of armed raids, looting and house torching in the lawless reaches of north-eastern CAR. The new arrivals blame most of the violence on rival military forces and the zaraguina - bandits, who rustle cattle and abduct children for ransom.

Before the latest influx, Chad was hosting some 45,000 CAR refugees at four sites in the south. There are a further 240,000 refugees at 12 UNHCR-run camps in eastern Chad, while a further 180,000 Chadians have been displaced within the south-east.

By Bryn Boyce in Maya, Chad