UNHCR takes part in inter-agency visit to Darfur attack site
KHARTOUM, Sudan, February 22 (UNHCR) - A joint United Nations humanitarian mission has visited the town of Sirba, one of the West Darfur locations that came under Sudanese government attack earlier this month.
Residents of the town pleaded for help in securing their villages.
They also told the mission that fleeing to neighbouring Chad was dangerous because of the continuing conflict as well as banditry, and expressed concern about their compatriots who had fled across the border three weeks ago.
The Sirba residents voiced their concerns to the joint UN assessment mission that included the UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, Ameerah Haq, as well as the representatives of the UN refugee agency, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
UNHCR Representative Chrysantus Ache said he was shocked at the level of destruction in Sirba. The recent attacks also affected the nearby villages of Abu Suruj and Sileah. Before the attack, the three villages had a total population of about 30,000, some of whom have now fled to the Birak area of eastern Chad.
The assessment mission noted that about 50 percent of the villagers who had been internally displaced as a result of the February 8 air and ground raids had returned to Sirba. The UN had provided them with relief assistance, including food and shelter material, while the Sudanese government had also supplied tents. Others remain in surrounding areas.
In West Darfur, UNHCR is one of the agencies providing assistance directly to rural communities as well as to camps for the internally displaced which are primarily located in and around towns.
"Our work in Darfur includes stabilizing the situation for civilians who, for reasons other than security, swell the overstretched camps. The entire aid community should work to strengthen services in secure rural areas to allow people to remain in their own homes and to voluntarily return when it is safe to do so," said Representative Ache.
Prior to visiting Sirba, Ache was in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state, for the official opening of the UNHCR office there, as part of its scaling up operations beyond West Darfur State.
"During my visit to El Fasher, I pointed out to government officials that we intended to continue the work we've been doing in West Darfur because UNHCR strongly believes that it's not enough to provide assistance in the camps alone when we could prevent tens of thousands of civilians from being forced to leave their homes just because they need assistance", he said.
In eastern Chad, meanwhile, a UNHCR and MSF-Suisse humanitarian convoy trying to reach the border from the Chadian town of Guéréda on Friday had to turn back because of military activity on the other side of the border in Darfur.
And in southern Chad, UNHCR teams have registered 10,516 refugees from the northern part of neighbouring Central African Republic at two border crossings - Maya and Bougounanga. Hundreds more are awaiting screening by UNHCR and new arrivals are crossing the border every day.
The first refugees crossed into Chad last December in relatively small numbers. Major influxes took place in January and continue this month. Many refugees report attacks in their villages by bandits.
A four-member UNHCR emergency mission which went to the Maya border region on Thursday reported that the refugees were exhausted by their long journey to reach safety in Chad. Refugees were living out in the open with only makeshift shelters and trees for cover. They are currently about 800 metres from the volatile border.
The refugees will first be relocated to Dembo, 25 kilometres north of the border, with the first movements scheduled to start on Wednesday. Together with Africa Concern, UNHCR is setting up a transit centre in Dembo where refugees will be provided with relief items.
Three trucks carrying supplies left N'Djamena on Wednesday with 400 tents, 6,000 blankets, 4,187 jerry cans, 6,000 mats and 400 rolls of plastic sheeting. The convoy was expected to reach Danamadji - where UNHCR has an office - on Friday. The World Food Programme is also planning to do a food distribution in Dembo.
By Fatoumata Kaba in Khartoum, Sudan
and Bryn Boyce in Danamadji, Chad