The latest arrivals told UNHCR they fled their villages of Kadjama, Bele and Manda in northern Central African Republic (CAR) following attacks by a group of 25 unidentified armed men between July 18 and 20. They said they arrived in southern Chad on July 21, but UNHCR and the Chadian refugee authorities were only able to reach them on Thursday as the rainy season had made the dirt roads impassable.
"Most of these people found refuge in Chad's Bethel and Komba villages, which are located 2 km from the border," explains Marie-Christine Bocoum, UNHCR Deputy Representative for the Chad Operation. "It seems that there are a lot of armed activities in the north of CAR. Refugees tell us their villages have been directly attacked and that is why they left. Others said that they fled to Chad in anticipation of attacks. What is sure is that the situation is very volatile in northern CAR."
Most of the refugees are women and children, some of them arriving with luggage on their heads. UNHCR and the Chadian refugee authorities CNAR (Commission Nationale d'Accueil et de Réinsertion des Réfugiés) are registering them and hope to transfer them from the border villages to Amboko camp near the main town of Gore. This could start as soon as next week, and allow the new arrivals to receive regular assistance in the camp.
The new influx comes just as UNHCR completed the transfer of an earlier group of 3,600 Central Africans to Amboko camp. They are part of an estimated 10,000 who arrived in Chad's border villages in early June. Several hundreds from this group have reportedly returned to CAR.
Those who opted to move to Amboko say they feel safer at the camp. "I arrived in Chad with my parents on June 4," said Rosalie Ya, 16. "It took us a whole night and almost a whole day, carrying our luggage, before reaching Maissou village in Chad. We stayed there for a month, then my parents decided to go back because they said the situation was calm in CAR. But I refused to leave with them because I am afraid. I'd rather stay in Chad and continue my studies. I am in grade 9 and if I go back and the war starts again, I will lose a year of studies. I will reunite with my parents when peace has really come back. For the moment, I am going to stay in Amboko camp."
Another refugee, Djota Madeleine, was thankful for the assistance at Amboko camp. "We have been staying in Chad, my wife and my six children, for more than a month now," he said. "In Bethel village, we were eating wild plants and roots. The Chadians lent us a hangar so that we can have some shelter. But it was really cold. After UNHCR resettled us here in Amboko, we feel better. We received mats, soaps, mosquito nets, blankets, jerry cans and buckets, as well as salt, sugar, beans and sorghum."
The relocation to Amboko camp is especially urgent with the onset of the rainy season. UNHCR released US$1 million from its emergency fund in order to organize the transfer as soon as possible. Together with MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship), UNHCR has also started to rehabilitate the air strip near Amboko camp so that the area is not cut off after heavy rains.
"This will allow us to bring relief and medial supplies more quickly than by road if needed," explained Alistair Boulton, the UNHCR spokesman in the Chadian capital, N'djamena. With Amboko and Gore located some 550 km south of the capital, it usually takes a day and a half for trucks to cover this distance during the dry season - or double the time during the rainy season - compared to just a couple of hours by air.
Prior to the recent arrivals, there were already 30,000 Central African refugees in southern Chad who arrived in 2003 after a military coup in their country. Amboko camp hosted 13,000 of them and can accommodate up to 27,000 people. Other refugees from CAR are hosted in Yaroungou camp, near Danamadji.
Chad is also hosting over 200,000 refugees from Sudan's Darfur region in 12 UNHCR camps in the eastern part of the country.
By Hélène Caux and Djerassem Mbaiorem