UN refugee agency says situation after attacks in south-east Chad worse than feared

Habile camp

10 April 2007 – Following last month’s brutal attacks in south-eastern Chad, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said today that the humanitarian situation is far worse than it had initially estimated, with between 200 and 400 killed and thousands displaced during the offensive possibly carried out by Janjaweed militias from Sudan’s neighbouring Darfur region.

“Because most of the dead were buried where their bodies were found – often in common graves owing to their numbers – we may never know their exact number,” UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond said at a press briefing in Geneva.

“Many who survived the initial attack – particularly those most vulnerable such as the elderly and young children – died in subsequent days from exhaustion and dehydration, often while fleeing,” he added.

Over 9,000 Chadians from 31 villages have arrived the new Habile camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) since the attacks, joining 9,000 others who fled previous eruptions of violence.

However, the precise number of new IDPs is unclear. Aid agencies are registering new people daily, but there have been cases of previously displaced people attempting to pass themselves off as newly-arrived IDPs to receive additional assistance.

For many of the new arrivals to the Habile camp, this was not the first time they had been displaced, as some had moved several times over the past year. The majority of IDPs are women and children, while the whereabouts of many men are unknown.

Given the rise in tensions among communities, all IDPs were transferred within two days by UNHCR trucks or by their own means to the new Habile camp.

Mr. Redmond said that UNHCR led an assessment mission in Chad on Sunday to Tiero and Marena, scene of the 31 March attacks, and one agency staff member described the situation as “apocalyptic.”

Decomposing bodies were still being found in the area, but the security situation has stabilized with a massive deployment of Chadian military forces to the region, allowing families to return to bury their relatives.

Hundreds of homes had been burned to the ground, and an overwhelming stench emanated from the rotting carcasses of domestic animals, UNHCR said. Most people had little time to pack their belongings, as evidenced by the many essential household goods, food and animals left behind. Many abandoned belongings – left by those who collapsed or died where they fell – were also found along routes used by people to reach safety.

UNHCR said that while much remains to be done, the rapid response of humanitarian agencies has helped to reduce the suffering of thousands of Chadians affected by these attacks. UNHCR and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) provided plastic sheeting, soap and buckets to all new arrivals in Habile, and plans are underway to distribute blankets and mats in the coming days.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has provided a 45-day food ration to be distributed by the ICRC, and the NGO Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) has provided drinking water.

Chadian officials have offered their support, based on the gaps identified by aid agencies delivering assistance.

In a related development, representatives from the UN, the Government of Sudan and the African Union (AU) yesterday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia finalized an agreement on the UN heavy support package for the existing AU mission, known as AMIS, in war-torn Darfur. The AU mission has about 7,000 troops to patrol Darfur, where rebel groups have fought Government forces and allied Janjaweed militias since 2003, prompting 2 million people to flee and leading to the deaths of 200,000 others.

As part of a three-phase plan, a proposed hybrid UN-AU force comprising some 17,000 troops and 3,000 police officers will be deployed in Darfur.

Representatives at yesterday’s meeting agreed that all sides will move forward promptly, but consensus could not be reached on one item, and the Sudanese delegation “will further consult and hopes to provide a positive and expeditious response,” according to a communiqué issued by participants.

In New York, a UN spokesperson, asked about the outstanding issue, said she understood that it involved tactical attack helicopters.

Meanwhile, the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) today issued a statement strongly condemning the “unprovoked attack carried out today by unidentified armed men on an AMIS patrol team” in North Darfur. An AMIS soldier from the protection force died shortly after his evacuation from the injuries he sustained during the attack, while two others were seriously injured.

The mission said it “looks forward to the outcome of the investigation of the attack announced by AMIS in order to identify the perpetrators and to hold them accountable.”

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