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Chad struggles with growing stream of refugees

OURE CASSONI REFUGEE CAMP, Chad -- As the first rains of the wet season promise fresh water to drink along the way, more Sudanese refugees are fleeing the Janjaweed militias in the Darfur region and filtering across the western border into Chad. This wave of new arrivals is creating fresh burdens for a poor country already coping with nearly 200,000 refugees from the 18-month conflict in western Sudan.

Many of those displaced by the Darfur conflict say they prefer to make the treacherous journey to the relative safety of Chad rather than resign themselves to squalid, government-run camps or so-called safe zones in Sudan, which are still well within the reach of the Janjaweed fighters. But once in Chad, they must face an aggrieved local population -- and confront their own memories.

With only a thin canopy of wind-frayed scarves shielding her from the relentless sun of Chad's eastern desert, Goyra Borgo was recovering from her eight-day trek across the northern Darfur region to this sprawling refugee camp, located 15 miles north of the isolated town of Bahai on the Sudanese border.

After arriving three days earlier, the 17-year-old girl was quiet and sullen, as if frozen in the trauma of seeing her father killed during an attack by the Arab fighters known as the Janjaweed, who torched her village in May. She and many others in her village had then fled to nearby mountains, venturing out only for water, firewood and peas from the ubiquitous mukheit trees, the fruit of which can be eaten only after the poison has been boiled out of it.

''The Janjaweed burned our village. They took about 20 of our men, tied their hands together, and shot them all. Many of the women were raped and kidnapped," said Borgo in a near whisper, almost hiding behind the tangle of mukheit branches holding up her canopy. ''After that, we stayed in the mountains away from the Janjaweed and waited for the rain."

Sudan reluctantly agreed to abide by a recent United Nations resolution giving the Khartoum government until the end of the month to rein in the Janjaweed, as the Arab militias in Darfur are known, or face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions. But many Western leaders and human rights groups expressed doubts about Sudan's willingness to disarm the very militias it is accused of arming in the first place, ostensibly to put down a 2003 uprising by black African rebels in the region.

So far, attacks by the Janjaweed against civilians have left an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 dead, mostly black Africans from the Fur, Massalit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups, and displaced more than a million, according to aid organizations. The Sudanese government says the death toll is far lower than those estimates.

Those who cross into Chad often get a mixed reception from the local population, who have been driven deeper into poverty by housing and feeding many refugees during the early months of the crisis. At that time, humanitarian efforts were hampered by ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Even though many Chadians in this region have ethnic ties with those coming from across the border, not to mention a deep-rooted tradition of hospitality, the buildup of refugees has strained the resources and relations in this arid region where residents often struggle for enough food and water to satisfy their own families, as well as their livestock.

Playing host to the huge and steady stream of refugees has imperiled local Chadians, who now suffer malnutrition rates similar to that of the Sudanese refugees, which hover at nearly 30 percent, according to UN estimates.

Gone are the burlap sacks of sorghum and other grains that many Chadians stacked inside their cool, mud-brick huts. And Chadians have had to wait at their own wells and ponds as refugees from Sudan filled their jugs and watered their dwindling herds of goats, cattle, and camels. As the refugees' livestock died off from starvation and dehydration, so did the Chadian herds.

''Chadians suffered because the international community took too long to intervene," said Chad's president, Idriss Deby, after a meeting with Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, last week. ''I hope the situation will be solved as soon as possible. If not, we will see a humanitarian catastrophe like what happened in Rwanda."

In June and July, toward the dry season's end and with water levels dangerously low, the good will between Chadians and the refugees started to fray. Chadians complained that aid agencies focused solely on the refugees, giving them good-paying jobs and supplies of food and fresh water while ignoring the beleaguered Chadians who had hosted the refugees for months.

The rainy season this year is slow in coming -- some Chadians blame the refugees for the delay -- but the infrequent showers already have filled some ponds and brought thin patches of green. But thousands of the refugees' small shelters, like clusters of bird nests made of sticks and cloth, are empty.

Many of the Sudanese huddling along Chad's border near the towns of Bahai and Tine farther south were trucked to this camp, which shelters some 13,000 refugees in canvas tents provided by the UN refugee agency. Nearly a hundred new refugees arrive every day, waiting sometimes nearly a week for refugee identification cards from aid workers before getting food supplies and tents.

As the international community woke to the problems in Darfur and its spillover into Chad, they responded by setting up centers for distributing food and medicine.

As the demand for water outpaced the region's scarce supply, aid groups used satellite photography to try to pinpoint areas to dig boreholes.

In some ways, those who make it to Chad are the success stories. They are spared the deaths from starvation, dehydration, disease, and Janjaweed attacks that afflict those in Sudanese camps, where human rights groups estimate that more than 200 people die every day.

But the survivors here also long to return home and to escape the many hardships they grapple with in the refugee camps in Chad.

''In Bahai, the people used to give us jobs building houses or washing clothes so we could buy food at the market. They helped us, but when the aid groups starting coming they helped us less and less," said Armini Nour Tijany, a 26-year-old Khartoum University graduate who taught agriculture at a high school in the Darfur region.

Tijany and about a dozen other former Sudanese teachers lived in tiny huts of sticks covered with thin cloth in a dry, tree-shaded riverbed near Bahai, where they opened a primary school for Chadians and refugees.

To avoid the floods of the rainy season, she and her colleagues moved three weeks ago to the Oure Cassoni camp, where there are no schools.

''Here, there is nothing to do but wait. We have no jobs, not enough food, and we depend on the United Nations for everything," Tijany said, somewhat squeamish about appearing ungrateful. ''All of us want to go back to Sudan, but no one will return unless the Americans or the United Nations come with us."

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