New hope born among rescued refugees in southern Chad
AMBOKO CAMP, Chad, September 19 (UNHCR) - Elisabeth Noudjiguto gave birth to a baby girl at Amboko refugee camp last Friday: an event which would be unremarkable, but for the fact that it took place an hour or so after Elizabeth arrived at the camp after a 17 km walk from the small Chadian border village of Bekan, followed by a canoe crossing of the swollen Nya river and a gruelling 2½ hour journey by truck along a diabolical dirt track.
Prior to that final hair-raising journey, the heavily pregnant Elisabeth and her family - along with a couple of thousand other newly arrived refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) - had spent more than three weeks living partly on wild roots and fruit, after the border area was cut off by torrential rain and flooding.
Prior to that, she had had to flee her village and her country, leaving the father of her children behind.
Elisabeth, aged 22, was a member of the first group of 141 refugees to be transferred to Amboko camp, which is located near Goré, the main town in southern Chad, after the UN refugee agency and its partners began a carefully planned emergency evacuation operation last Friday.
Fortunately for Elisabeth, she just made it to the medical centre in the camp, which is run by the Italian NGO, COOPI, before giving birth. Despite the long journey, and very difficult living conditions that preceded it, the baby and the mother were reported to be in good health.
"It's good news to have a healthy baby girl as soon as we arrived at the camp," said her proud and smiling grandmother, Suzanne, as she washed the baby. Her family, like many others from the northern part of the Central African Republic, have suffered a succession of escalating problems.
Forced to flee their village at the beginning of August because of attacks by heavily armed men, they were subsequently set upon and robbed of most of their scant remaining possessions by nomadic herders. No sooner had they escaped their human persecutors by crossing the border, than they were struck another blow by nature: cut off by floods and forced to forage for food in order to survive.
On Friday, however, all that was forgotten - at least for a while - as the family celebrated its latest addition. The birth of the baby girl is considered a good omen, and her mother decided to name her Tarasum - which means "the problem is solved" in the Sengo language. This, she explained, is a reference to the transfer of the families from the flooded Bekan area to Amboko camp. "We're better off here at the camp and there is a good health centre as well," said a relieved and grateful Elisabeth.
Outside the camp classrooms, where the new arrivals are being housed initially, children were playing - or, rather, those children who were strong enough to do so were running around. Many others are suffering from malnutrition, malaria and lung infections.
So far, 27 cases of severe malnutrition have been reported by COOPI, the NGO managing the health clinic at the camp. Of these, the great majority are recent arrivals from CAR. The malnourished children are weighed every morning to monitor their intake of nutrients, given extra food and kept under close supervision by doctors and nurses. The length of their stay at the clinic depends on how long it takes to restore them to good health: a few days for some, a few weeks for others.
"In the forest we were forced to eat whatever we were able to find. The children are the ones who suffered the most," said Dounia Nahel, a 50-year-old man who recently fled from CAR.
Friday's canoe evacuation and convoy from the banks of the Nya to the camp were organized by UNHCR and its partner agencies - COOPI, the Chadian Red Cross, African Concern, CARE International and CNAR (Commission Nationale d'Assistance et de Réinsertion des Réfugiés).
After the initial pilot operation was completed successfully, a second group of 163 refugees arrived in the camp around midday on Monday, following the same itinerary of 17-km walk, river crossing by canoe and 25-km truck journey before reaching the camp. From now on, UNHCR will be arranging daily convoys until the relocation of the refugees has been completed, in around ten days time.
In order to respond to this emergency, as well as to a forthcoming repatriation operation for Chadian refugees currently in the Central African Republic, UNHCR said it has deployed some 30 additional international and local staff to Goré in the past two weeks, bringing the total number of staff in the area to 40.
Once they reach the transit centre in the camp, the refugees have their photographs taken and are registered by UNHCR protection staff. They then receive blankets, food, mats and cooking kits. Later this week, they will move out of their temporary home in the camp school to their own tents, alongside all the others in the camp. More than 10,000 refugees from the Central African Republic have arrived in southern Chad since June, joining another 14,000 refugees who have been living in Amboko since 2003.
By Ginette Le Breton in Amboko camp, Chad