UNHCR withdraws some staff in eastern Chad after attacks
31 January 2008
ABECHE, Chad - A series of armed attacks on the UN refugee agency and other aid organisations has forced UNHCR to evacuate most of its staff from its office in Guéréda in eastern Chad.
In the last 72 hours, five vehicles belonging to UNHCR, its non-governmental organisation partners and MSF Suisse were stolen at gun-point. The UNHCR compound in Guéréda was entered by armed men two nights in a row - on Wednesday and Thursday.
"We are left only with one choice, much to our regret, which is to relocate most staff out of Guéréda area, as we cannot continue to perform our activities in favour of refugees," said Serge Malé, UNHCR Representative in N'Djamena.
"Minimum essential staff will remain in place, so as to ensure basic support in refugee camps. We hope to be able to resume our full activities very soon," he said. UNHCR operates two refugee camps in Guéréda, Mile and Kounoungou, hosting nearly 30,000 refugees from Darfur.
Tensions between opposition forces and the Chadian National Army have been mounting since Monday, leading to increased security incidents, especially in Guéréda, about 165 km north-east of Abéché.
Because of the tension, four UNHCR staff and 28 local and international staff of UNHCR's implementing partners were being temporarily relocated to Abéché by air on Thursday. In addition, a convoy of eight vehicles was travelling from Guéréda to Abéché to protect the few remaining vehicles in the town, where ethnic clashes between Zaghawas and Tamas have also been increasing.
"The local authorities don't have the necessary means to protect us anymore. In this area we have a state of complete impunity, Guéréda is getting very vulnerable," said Jorge Holly, head of the UNHCR field office in Guéréda.
"If humanitarian workers are not around, it is impossible to provide adequate protection to the refugees," said Holly. "But the situation here is getting out of control and we also have to protect our staff and partners."
The most serious incident occurred early Wednesday when two armed men in military uniforms jumped the wall of the UNHCR compound and threatened the guards with guns to steal two vehicles.
The attack on Thursday came when an unknown individual with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle entered the UNHCR guesthouse in Guéréda. The intruder was chased off by members of UNHCR's local partner. Shooting between police and the assailant was heard.
"It was a terrible experience," said a staff member who was among the first evacuees to reach Abéché. "This guy broke into the guesthouse. He had this Kalashnikov and it was just by pure chance that nobody was injured."
Remaining colleagues in Guéréda went to the two refugee camps on Thursday to distribute food and water and provide health care. "The refugees are very concerned and worried, but we are lucky to have their full support and understanding," Holly said.
As usual in cases of temporary relocation, the camps have been officially handed over to refugee leaders to manage during the reduced presence of humanitarian workers.
Meanwhile the security situation in Chad's capital, N'Djamena, is also very tense today, with international staff of UN agencies and NGOs advised to stay at home.
UNHCR staff in eastern field offices, like Goz Beida and Koukou-Angarana, are monitoring the situation. Even though some roads are impassable due to military movements, such as the road between Abéché and Farchana, 120 km to the east, UNHCR is trying to ensure assistance continues to 240,000 Sudanese refugees in 12 refugee camps and 180,000 internally displaced Chadians in the east.