Thousands of refugees flee Darfur and seek shelter in Chad
ABECHE, Chad, February 11 (UNHCR) - Up to 12,000 people have fled militia attacks in Sudan's Darfur region over the past few days and sought shelter in neighbouring Chad amid a marked deterioration in the regional military situation.
Early Sunday, a UN refugee agency team, along with humanitarian partners, sent an emergency mission through Chad's volatile eastern border region to Figeira, in the Birak area. An estimated 4,000-6,000 refugees from Darfur have sought refuge around Birak, fleeing lethal ground and air attacks Friday and Saturday.
An equal number of refugees are believed to be near Koruk, also in the Birak area. The UNHCR team is scheduled to go to the area on Tuesday.
UNHCR team members said the refugees they saw in the Birak area were destitute and terrified. They told of their villages being looted and burned, and encircled by militia to prevent people from fleeing.
The refugees are mainly from the areas of Sirba, Sileah and Abu Suruj, some 50-70 kilometres north of El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur. The area, also called the northern corridor, is known to be a stronghold of the Sudanese opposition group, JEM (Justice and Equality Movement).
"Most of the new arrivals in Chad had already been displaced in Darfur in recent years. They are really tired of being attacked and having to move," said UNHCR's Jorge Holly, who visited Birak on Sunday.
"All the new refugees we talked to said they did not want to go back to Darfur at this point, they wanted to be transferred to a refugee camp in eastern Chad," the head of the UNHCR office in Guéréda added.
The new arrivals said many other refugees, mainly women and children, were on their way to Chad to seek sanctuary. UNHCR staff in West Darfur and other humanitarian agencies were travelling to the affected area Monday to assess needs for humanitarian assistance on the Sudan side of the border. Thousands of households have reportedly been directly affected by the attacks.
A refugee from Sileah told UNHCR that ground attacks by the janjaweed militia, allegedly supported by Sudanese Antonov aircraft, nearly destroyed Abu Suruj and caused heavy damage to four camps for internally displaced people. UNHCR has no immediate details of casualties. Staff of non-governmental organizations in the area were forced to cross into Chad to escape the attacks.
UNHCR plans to send trucks on Tuesday from Guéréda to the Birak area to start moving the new arrivals away from the border to Kounoungou refugee camp, which is located near Guéréda and about 50 kms from Birak.
"We are in discussion with the authorities to establish a new camp as our existing camps in the region, Mile and Kounoungou, are almost saturated," said UNHCR's Holly. Some 30,000 Darfuri refugees currently live in Kounoungou and in Mile.
The trucks going from Guéréda on Tuesday will transport relief items such as sleeping mats, blankets and jerry cans. UNHCR is bringing 2,000 relief items from its stock in Abéché and 2,000 from the town of Iriba to supplement existing stocks. But additional supplies will be needed to cope with the new arrivals.
"For the moment, the refugees are sleeping outside and they gather during daytime under the trees to protect themselves from the sun," said Holly. "The problem is that there are not enough to provide shade for everyone."
Before the latest influx, UNHCR and its partners were taking care of 240,000 Sudanese refugees in 12 camps in eastern Chad and some 50,000 from Central African Republic in the south of the country.
The latest arrivals come amid a deterioration in the security situation in Chad. Rebels forces stormed the capital N'Djamena earlier this month, forcing up to 30,000 people to flee the city and cross the Chari River into neighbouring Cameroon.
In Cameroon, a second Ilyushin-76 cargo plane chartered by UNHCR landed in the northern town of Garoua on Sunday carrying 45 tonnes of relief items for the Chadian refugees in the border town of Kousséri, which faces N'Djamena.
A first airlift with 45 tonnes of aid landed at Garoua on Friday. An additional 17 tonnes of UNHCR relief items were flown on Monday from Accra in Ghana to Garoua on a World Food Programme flight.
By Annette Rehrl in Abéché, Chad