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UNHCR sending relief items to Central African refugees in Chad

UNHCR sending relief items to Central African refugees in Chad

The UN refugee agency is sending a first convoy of non-food relief items to help thousands of refugees who have camped out in southern Chad after fleeing fighting in the Central African Republic. UNHCR is also working to move them away from the volatile border area.
3 April 2003
Central African refugees in Maro, southern Chad, where thousands have gathered after fleeing their homes.

NDJAMENA, Chad, April 3 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency is sending a first convoy of relief items for thousands of Central African refugees who recently fled fighting and atrocities at home for the safety of southern Chad.

On Wednesday, UNHCR received supplies of plastic sheeting, blankets, mats and kitchen sets enough for 15,000 people. It will send the relief items from the Chadian capital of Ndjamena to the south of the country, where an estimated 30,000 people have camped out at the border area following a huge influx of refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) at the end of February.

Françoise Founga, 38, is one of the recent arrivals. "We suffered terribly in the events over there," she says in Maro, southern Chad, referring to her homeland where a long-running fight between government forces and rebels culminated in a coup in mid-March that ousted President Ange-Félix Patassé and installed General François Bozizé in power.

"People and houses were burned, all the fields were burned. We lost everything in the whole village," says Founga, a mother of eight who is also tending to the four orphaned children of her sister and brother-in-law, who were killed during the fighting. Her own baby died of malaria en route to Chad because of lack of medical treatment.

Despite a lack of food and having to sleep in the open, most of the Central African refugees - like Founga - have told UNHCR officials that it will likely be years before they feel safe enough to go back home. Some speak of three or four years, some talk of an even longer stay.

UNHCR emergency workers are scrambling to establish camps and provide services for the refugees, who now are scattered in a number of locations along the border between Chad and CAR, a crisis that has been overshadowed by the war in Iraq.

"Some of the refugees are living very close to the border - just a few metres away in some cases," says Christine Neveu, the agency's Senior Emergency Officer in Chad. "This is our main concern, to move them away from the border."

UNHCR is currently looking for sites to build two camps for the refugees. Grouping them in camps will make it easier to provide them with food, water and medical services.

The recent arrivals tell stories that reflect the turmoil of the last few years in CAR, with abortive coups and prolonged fighting between government forces and rebels. The refugees variously say they fled Bozizé's forces, Patassé's forces, rogue bandits and other "unidentified armed individuals."

The coup that brought Bozizé to power has done nothing to encourage them to return. "I am just as afraid of Bozizé," says one 42-year-old refugee man. "I can't say exactly how long I will stay, but I hope peace will return to CAR. I am here for an indefinite time," says another man, 38.

Whoever was to blame for the horrors in CAR, the refugees' experiences were nightmarish. "I saw many people massacred. People were being killed and raped," says Yadentan Yobetinan. At 38, he is the head of a family of about 30 people, including his four wives and "more children than I can count."

Komingaye Sanyade, 32, was able to save his two wives and nine children when they were attacked by rebels at the end of last year. "But I saw my younger brother burned alive by the rebels. I could save my children, but I couldn't save my brother because he was sick and couldn't move."

Some of the people who have fled CAR in waves since last October are of Chadian origin - their parents or grandparents migrated 10, 20, even 50 years ago - but few of them have maintained contact with Chadian relatives.

Kaltouma Hamid, in Chad now with her nine children and a number of grandchildren, was born in Chad but now holds Central African citizenship. "I don't want to go back there," she says, cradling a tiny granddaughter in her lap in the shade of a temporary straw-mat shelter provided by the medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). "I want to settle down here in Chad, to find some land, to be able to eat and drink."

Hamid is one of the relatively lucky ones living under shelter in a camp hastily erected by MSF in Danamadji, also in southern Chad. By the side of the road in nearby Maro, other refugees have built the frames for a hut out of saplings, but have nothing to cover them with. Even those who have found leaves to provide some small respite from the blistering sun complain that their huts offer no protection against the rains that started recently. Supplying plastic sheeting is one of UNHCR's top priorities as it marshals resources to take care of the refugees.

Abdoulaye Mahamat, a 23-year-old father of three from Kaga Bandaro, CAR, is one of several hundred refugees who have found homes among the residents of Sido, a small town at the border crossing.

Mahamat and dozens of others have made their own "home" underneath a huge mango tree. They sleep on mats underneath the leafy branches, which provide some shade in the 45-degree heat. But it is hardly cosy. "It's hard to sleep and there hasn't been any support since we got here. There's no hospital and some of the children are very sick," Mahamat complains.

Prior to the recent influx, UNHCR had had no presence in Chad, having closed its offices more than a year ago due to funding shortages. But since the refugees started arriving from CAR, the agency has re-opened its office in Ndjamena and set up a new office in Goré, southern Chad.

Despite the tough living conditions, both the refugees and UNHCR are grateful to the Chadian authorities for the welcome they have extended. "Part of it is traditional African hospitality, and some of it is the fact the people in this part of Chad really do consider the refugees brothers," says UNHCR's Neveu.

"This border is a colonial border, so many of them are the same tribe and the same people," she adds. The mayor of Maro told Neveu that he had been a refugee in CAR in the 1980s. Now the same Central African family who hosted him has sought refuge in his town.

But the CAR refugees have no desire to abuse Chadian hospitality. They are eager to start taking care of themselves, as soon as UNHCR and the local authorities can provide a site where they can begin farming.

Founga, a dignified woman with a regal bearing, is not only taking care of her surviving seven children and her sister's four children, but is also looking after 31 children who lost their parents during the flight from CAR, including five siblings aged from three to eight. "If I had seeds, I could plant and then stay here for several years," she says. "I have to give my children something to eat and get my own strength back."

Simon Djinguniga, a 70-year-old blind man whose children led him to Chad, predicts grimly that it will take 10 or 15 years for peace to return to his homeland. "I can't work in the fields," he says. But he has eight children who are eager to work. "If they had seeds and some tools, they could plant and we could take care of ourselves," he adds.