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Fresh unrest at refugee camp slows efforts to block deadly virus

[Chad] Bredjing refugee camp in eastern Chad is already bursting at the seams with people who have fled the fighting in Darfur. September 2004.
There has been a meningitis outbreak in Chad's overcrowded refugee camps (Claire Soares/IRIN)

Unrest at the largest refugee camp in eastern Chad forced aid workers to suspend crucial efforts to prevent an outbreak of the deadly Hepatitis E virus last week, after Darfur refugee leaders were threatened and knives were brought out at a meeting with international organisations.

MSF-Holland figures for the Bredjing camp show that up to 31 October, there were 41 suspected cases of Hepatitis E, a deadly water-borne infection for which there is no vaccine and no treatment.

Oxfam workers had been visiting blocks of tents to educate the Sudanese refugees about hygiene and ensure latrines were being used properly and clean water supplies were available.

"We stopped our public health promotion activities for well over a week. They just restarted on Saturday," Shruti Mehrotra, the head of Oxfam at the camp, told IRIN by phone on Wednesday.

The spark for the latest bout of trouble at Bredjing was the distribution of gloves, rakes, shovels and wheelbarrows for refugees to clean the latrines and the ground around their tents.

"Some refugees saw it as an exit strategy by the international community rather than simply tools to clean up," Mehrotra said.

Even though calm has now been restored, Mehrotra said the knock-on effects were still being felt.

"We are being prudent with our activities, which is quite difficult given that we should be stepping them up for Hepatitis E," Mehrotra explained. "We are not deploying our local staff on their own... and this obviously causes delays."

Aid workers and UN officials said a refugee volunteer working for CARE had been physically threatened, other refugee leaders had been warned they would soon be replaced, and knives had been pulled out at a meeting last Wednesday when humanitarian workers were discussing how to combat Hepatitis E with refugees.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said Chadian police had arrested eight people after the disturbances at Bredjing, the largest and most overcrowded camp for Darfur refugees.

Some 200,000 people have fled across the border from western Sudan into Chad, to escape a campaign of slaughter, rape and pillaging being waged by pro-government Janjawid militia.

Philippe Douryang, who runs Bredjing for charity CARE, said refugees in Bredjing camp had been whipped up by outsiders.

"Some young guys came from the border to cause trouble in the camp. They were not registered refugees," he said. "They have been holding meetings during the night, telling refugees that tools have been handed out so they have to work and then the aid workers can abandon them."

UNHCR headquarters in Geneva said that the people responsible for last week's unrest were the same group that had stirred up trouble at the camp in July.

Humanitarian workers were attacked and two injured during riots at Bredjing and nearby Farchana camp four months ago. Chadian police subsequently entered the Farchana camp to search for weapons and shot dead two people during the ensuing scuffle.

"A particularly disturbing factor is that the recent problems began shortly after one of the main instigators of the July incidents was released from prison," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters.

MSF-Holland said their health clinic and feeding centres had continued to function during the last week's incidents, but the head of their Bredjing unit admitted fears were rife.

"It's very difficult to know whether it will calm down or bubble up again," Nicole Henze said. "But we have July in our minds."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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