Darfur's Chadian refugees show extent of conflict

Hassan Abdallah stood in front of a group of young girls wearing bright dresses to greet the head of the United Nations refugee agency at Um Shalaya, a camp for Chadian refugees in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region.

Raising his arms high and urging the girls to repeat after him, he chanted: “This is our land. Long live Chad.”

“Yes, I know I am in Sudan,” the 35-year-old teacher later said. “But I sang this because I miss my country.”

Um Shalaya, established in May 2006, houses about 5 000 of 25 000 Chadian refugees who fled the violence between government forces, rebel groups, Arab gunmen and African farming tribes in the border area between Chad and Sudan.

Their presence is evidence of the regional character of the conflict in Darfur, which has spilled over to Chad and the Central African Republic, involving several armed groups that have forced people to flee their homes in all three countries.

Sudan and Chad trade accusations of supporting rebel groups on each side.
Ndjamena also accuses Khartoum of supporting Arab militias that attack African farming tribes inside Chad and are also accused of many atrocities in Darfur.

“This is not a local conflict,” Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said at the camp on Wednesday.

“It is becoming a very complex regional situation. We have Darfurians in Chad. We have displaced inside Darfur, displaced inside Chad and now we have Chadians also in Darfur, and this of course makes it very, very difficult for us all,” he said.

The UN says the majority of Chadian refugees in Darfur prefer to live nearer their country’s border to attend to their lands, but hundreds of refugees have fled the rising violence to the Um Shalaya camp in recent months.

“My house was burned and my money was stolen,” said Abdallah, a father of 10 who arrived at the camp a year ago.

He now teaches children at the camp and organises their activities. Nearby, two girls were playing on a swing next to a small volleyball court.

Not yet safe

Several refugees said they were feeling safer at the camp. “As long as we are not being killed, we are fine,” said 32-year-old Ismail Zakaria.

But many others, like 57-year-old Ismail Dawoud, said they fled the violence only to find themselves attacked and harassed by Arab nomads who roam around the camp.

Adam, a member of the Dajos African tribe like the majority at the camp, said Arab gunmen robbed a small store belonging to his son Ismail, stole his money and some sugar.

“They then fired three shots in the air,” he said.

Armed men also stole a car belonging to the UN refugee agency and tried in April to break into the compound of an aide group at the camp.

Many nomads on camels and donkeys could be seen around Um Shalaya on Wednesday. One young man was riding a donkey near the camp, holding a rifle in his hand.

The refugees refer to the attackers as Janjaweed, the Arab militia Khartoum is accused of backing. Khartoum denies it supports the Janjaweed. Aid workers, however, say many attacks by Arab nomads in Darfur were pure acts of banditry, another element of the conflict.

They say the Darfur crisis, which flared in 2003 when rebel groups took up arms against Khartoum, has become a free-for-all conflict with rebels, militias and tribes vying for everything from power to cattle and the declining water resources.

The UN says about 200 000 people have died and 2,5-million have been displaced in the conflict. Sudan, which insists only 9 000 people have perished, says security in Darfur was improving.

Leaders of the neighbouring Um Shalaya village, mainly from the African Tama tribe, have asked the chief of the nomads, with whom they have friendly ties, to keep his men off the camp.

As a sign of the commitment for peace, they shared bread with him, the UN’s Guterres and the leaders of the refugees.

“They have managed to find a way to live together,” Guterres said. “If this is possible here, it is possible in the whole of Darfur.”

For many in the camp, however, security was an item on a long list of demands.

“We want security, more water, soap, medicine, a school to educate the adults and home appliances,” one of the camp leaders told Guterres to the applause of the gathering refugees.

It was a tall order, the senior UN official admitted.

“We know that you have suffered,” he told them. “We will work together to help you in the best possible way.”—Reuters

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