UN refugee agency begins evacuating Sudanese refugees from conflict zone
TINE, Chad, Feb. 9 (UNHCR) - Aid workers have begun evacuating thousands of Sudanese refugees from the embattled Chadian border town of Tine despite blinding sandstorms and strong winds.
The first convoy of 147 refugees in 33 families left Tine on Saturday for the transit centre of Touloum, 80 km inland. On Sunday, 225 refugees in 64 families joined the convoy to the facility, where the arrivals received a 15-day food ration from the World Food Programme and mats, blankets, jerry cans and soap from the UN refugee agency.
"The first movement took place in very difficult weather," reported Yvan Sturm, head of UNHCR's emergency team in the region. Visibility was zero in the midst of sandstorms and strong winds, Sturm said, upsetting plans to transport a larger number of refugees.
Staff of the UNHCR and the Chadian refugee agency had registered 4,361 refugees in and around Tine, split between Chad and Sudan by a dry river bed. A part of the Chadian town came under aerial bombardment last month, leaving three people dead and more than a dozen wounded. This prompted the urgent evacuation of the refugees to a safer area.
Another 5,194 newly arrived refugees were registered in the Ogona region. They will also be evacuated to the Touloum facility which was hastily built and provisioned to accommodate the refugees while a camp in the area is being constructed.
The refugees are among some 110,000 Sudanese who fled fighting that broke out last year in Sudan's western region of Darfur. They are scattered in the desert along Chad's 600-km eastern border with no shelter from the blistering sun during the day and freezing weather at night.
UNHCR staff had been driving for days trying to locate the newly arrived refugees and moving another group of people in the southern border region to the new camp at Farchana when Tine was attacked. Some of the trucks and buses from the Farchana operation had to be shifted northwards for the Tine evacuation.
So far, a total of 1,471 refugees have been moved from the border to Farchana, which is planned to care for some 6,000 refugees. Other refugee sites are being identified.
UNHCR is racing against time to move the refugees to camps before the onset of the rainy season in May, when the sandy roads become impassable.
One aid worker described the scene of the first pickup point at Tine as "apocalyptic." The worker said "goats and donkeys were lying dead as families of refugees hid behind the bushes to protect themselves from the wind and sand." Many refugees have lost their cattle to the cold and lack of food.
Jamila Ali Allamine, 20, who joined the first convoy, said she fled her village in Sudan with her two-year-old son and her mother, Faiba, eight months ago. They left Goz-Naim, 100 km away from the border, after militia attacked the village, stole their cattle, burned houses and shot at residents.
Jamila said 57 people were killed in the village, including her husband. She said she had to walk for almost three weeks before reaching Chad.
UNHCR had received similar reports of atrocities in Sudan earlier but could not confirm them. The agency has no presence in Darfur.