Aid Groups Work to Avert Disaster Among Chadians in Cameroon

Chadians who had fled to neighboring Cameroon after an attempted rebel coup head home to Chad's capital, N'Djamena, but tens of thousands of other refugees remain across the border.
Chadians who had fled to neighboring Cameroon after an attempted rebel coup head home to Chad's capital, N'Djamena, but tens of thousands of other refugees remain across the border. (By Jerome Delay -- Associated Press)
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By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 8, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 7 -- The United Nations and aid groups raced Thursday to head off mass hunger and an outbreak of disease among tens of thousands of refugees from Chad who have pushed west across the border into Cameroon.

The first two truckloads of food from the World Food Program arrived in the town of Kousseri in northern Cameroon, and an airlift of 37 tons of high-energy biscuits was due soon, spokeswoman Stephanie Savariaud said. U.N. agencies also prepared to reopen a refugee center, about 20 miles away in Maltam, that was used in previous conflicts.

Humanitarian officials are struggling to assess the scale and likely duration of the refugee crisis. It was not clear how many Chadians intended to return home immediately to their country's capital, N'Djamena, as a rebel attack there faltered.

Some refugees have found hotel rooms or been taken in by friends and relatives in Kousseri, Savariaud said, but she added that many women and children are living on the streets or in ill-equipped public buildings. Several thousand refugees could be seen in the Madana neighborhood of Kousseri, near a bridge that leads over the Chari River to N'Djamena.

"People are scattered all over town," Savariaud said, speaking from Kousseri. "The most vulnerable are sleeping outside or in schools or in mosques."

The rebels remained in full retreat Thursday, heading east to the Sudanese border, where they have bases in the troubled Darfur region of neighboring Sudan.

Overall, aid groups estimated the number of Chadian refugees at 30,000 to 70,000. The refugee camp in Maltam has a capacity of 100,000, though no one has been moved there yet.

"The situation is difficult and not yet under control, so we are concerned about the most vulnerable," said Maurizio Giuliano, a U.N. humanitarian official in Cameroon.

Relief supplies en route to Kousseri include sleeping mats, blankets, tents, soap and medical supplies, including 25,000 doses of vaccines against meningitis and measles, officials said.

"We are worried about the risk of epidemic," Giuliano said. "We are worried about getting food. We are worried about shelter."

The concerns were similar in eastern Chad, where hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced by the Darfur conflict live in camps. The fighting in the Chadian capital interrupted aid deliveries to the camps, and some humanitarian groups evacuated workers from the country.

Conditions continued to improve in N'Djamena as bodies of those killed during the fighting were collected and people moved about more freely. The conflict led to looting of shops and medical clinics but did not cause extensive damage to the city.

"It has been quiet for three days now, so people are increasingly coming out," said Inah Kaloga, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, speaking from N'Djamena.

Also Thursday, Chadian President Idriss D¿by called on the European Union to accelerate its plans to deploy 3,700 peacekeepers to eastern Chad to protect refugees there. The deployment was stalled by the rebel attacks last weekend.

"We want to launch a solemn appeal to the European Union and France . . . to make sure that this force is put in place as quickly as possible to lighten the load we are carrying," D¿by said in an interview broadcast on France's Europe 1 radio, according to the Associated Press.

D¿by also said he was "ready to pardon" six employees of the French charity Zoe's Ark who were convicted of kidnapping in a highly publicized case last year. It was an apparent gesture of gratitude to Chad's former colonial ruler, France, which vigorously opposed the rebel assault.

The charges resulted from an attempt to relocate to France more than 100 supposed orphans from the Darfur conflict. But most of the children had close relatives, and in some cases parents, still living.

"The Chadian children did not leave. They are with their parents. We were able to avoid the worst," D¿by said in the radio interview. "What does it bring me to have five, six French people in prison?"

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