Situation in eastern Chad worsens

The situation in eastern Chad, a region plagued by rebel incursions and refugee crises, has taken a dramatic turn for the worse as a rebellion against President Idriss Déby Itno gathers force, aid workers say.

Rebels from the United Front for Change (FUC) left their base in the east last week and three days later launched their biggest offensive yet on N’djamena, before retreating after losing hundreds of men in battles with soldiers.

Claire Bourgeois, a representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said those living here along the border with Sudan feared more trouble ahead and had fled in droves.

“It is not over. Since November we have had flare-ups followed by periods of calm, but we can feel that it is building up,” Bourgeois said. “The security situation is such that we can no longer send staff to the border zone and Chadian companies are refusing to go to certain areas.”

The UNHCR believes that up to 50 000 people living in villages near the border have left their homes in recent weeks to seek safety westwards, and that number is growing rapidly.

“Every day displaced people arrive and tell us there are more coming in their wake,” said Tahde Nzotunga, a nurse who works for the Italian aid organisation, Coopi, at Goz Beida.

Some 9 000 people have recently arrived in the town, which lies about 75km from the border that separates Chad from Sudan’s conflict-ridden Darfur region.

The combined effects of ethnic fighting and famine have claimed 300 000 lives in Darfur in the past three years and sent some 200 000 refugees across the border into Chad.

Those who have settled in Goz Beida say the border area has seen a sharp increase in raids by Sudan’s Janjaweed militia, a government-backed group fighting rebels in Darfur, who come to loot villages and steal cattle.

Abdoulaye Osmane, who was shot in the stomach during a raid, said the attackers were “Arabs from the Sudan”.

Adding to the confusion in the border area is the fact that there is no clear link between the growing number of militia raids and the mounting FUC rebellion to oust Déby.
The Chadian president has, however, accused Sudan of arming the FUC rebels and has severed diplomatic ties with Khartoum in retaliation.

If the civilians have not suffered at the hands of the rebels, the humanitarian workers in the region say they have had equipment stolen as the rebels made their way west to N’djamena. UNHRC representatives in Koukou, south of Goz Beida, said FUC fighters, on April 12 and 13, took both their car radios and walkie-talkies.

“I know their commander. He told me that they did not want to hurt us, they just wanted to stop us communicating,” a driver for the refugee agency told Agence France-Press.

Because humanitarian agencies have pulled out of the border region, reliable information has become scarce and rumours plentiful.

“We try to piece together the various bits of information that reach us. It is like a puzzle,” said Lindell Findlay, the head of the UNHCR office in Goz Beida. “But it is clear that there is a lot of military movement in the region right now.”

Another aid worker recalled that as rebels attacked N’djamena last Thursday, his team came across men in military gear flashing the victory sign.

“We did not even know whether they were rebels or soldiers,” he said.

The humanitarian agencies say it is all the more difficult to be sure what is happening as locals they deal with have left, some of them to join the rebels.—AFP

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