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Cameroon: Shelter, medical attention for Chadian refugees

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By Raphaël Mvogo

KOUSSERI, Northern Cameroon, Feb 19 (IPS) - The situation of thousands of Chadian refugees who have fled to the north Cameroonian town of Kousseri continues to be a source of concern to aid workers, although the picture is not uniformly dismal.

"There are very few cases of malnutrition," said Jacques Franquin, resident representative in Cameroon for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Sanitation requirements for the refugees are also being met, overall. However, cases of trauma, malaria, diarrhoea and skin sores have been noted, along with respiratory ailments.

At least 30,000 Chadians travelled to Kousseri after an alliance of three rebel groups attacked Chad's capital, N'Djamena, earlier this month in a bid to overthrow President Idriss Deby. The head of state stands accused of repression, misusing his country's oil wealth and unduly favouring members of his own ethnic group, the Zagawa.

Kousseri is separated from the outlying areas of N'Djamena by the Chari river, which is spanned by a bridge that can be crossed on foot and by car.

The refugees were largely without shelter upon their arrival, and at the mercy of the harmattan -- a cold, dry wind that lashes northern Cameroon at this time of year as it blows westwards from the Sahara.

After about a fortnight, however, they were moved with the help of Cameroonian authorities to two transit sites, namely the College of Teachers and General Education and the technical college in the Madana area of Kousseri.

Maltam, a town 32 kilometres from Kousseri, in the interior of Cameroon, was designated as the resettlement site for the refugees, and efforts to move them to this area began Saturday.

"The operation will last about seven days. On Friday, we pre-registered 4,645 families. It's not certain that all these people will go to Maltam. We are busy putting up tents for 10,000 people, about 4,000 to 5,000 tents," Franquin told IPS.

A French non-governmental organisation, Première urgence (Top Priority), has provided tarpaulins to serve as sleeping mats for refugees. "They are big, plastic tarpaulins, eight metres by 12. They are thick...and waterproof. At the same time, we built communal shelters," Damien Laporte, head of the Première urgence team, told IPS.

The UNHCR estimates that up to 75 percent of the refugees are women and children. By last week, about 60 cases of orphaned children had been registered.

"They are currently housed by an association. The United Nations system is providing them with nutritional support. There will be a site just for them, where they will receive psycho-social support through the creation of a play area while waiting to see the measures that will have to be taken for their education," Abdellahi Boumediane of the Cameroonian office of the United Nations Children's Fund told IPS.

Last Wednesday, the United Nations began a five-day immunisation campaign for children, with 2,234 children aged five and under vaccinated against polio on the first day, and 4,503 others aged six to 15 against measles.

Elsewhere, vitamin A was distributed to 2,239 children aged six months to five years. A hygiene campaign to limit the spread of disease has also been started.

Despite the remote location of Kousseri, more than a dozen aid groups are now providing assistance concerning the refugees, some of whom are said to have returned to N'Djamena. Rebels briefly managed to take control of several parts of the capital, but were later forced to retreat to their bases in eastern Chad -- this after French forces came to the assistance of government.

While Kousseri has become the main destination for residents of N'Djamena trying to escape clashes in the city, other Cameroonian towns such as Maroua, capital of the Far North province, and even Yaoundé -- the national capital -- have also taken in refugees.

Not all refugees are in camps, however. Some are now mixing with the residents of Kousseri, according to a Cameroonian police officer. These are believed to include members of the Chadian army and rebel groups, raising security concerns on the part of local authorities.

Several meetings are taking place between U.N. officials responsible for security at the refugee sites and Cameroonian authorities to discuss ways of preventing violence -- politically-motivated or otherwise -- from breaking out.

At least 160 civilians were killed during the clashes in N'Djamena, according to the United Nations. About 1,000 people were reported injured.

The conflict in Chad has wide-ranging regional implications, notably concerning its potential to disrupt efforts at ending civil war in the west Sudanese region of Darfur; this conflict began five years ago.

Deby's government is believed to support the Darfur rebels, some of whom reportedly come from the president's ethnic group. Sudan's government, in turn, is accused of backing the Chadian rebels as a counter-measure. (END/2008)