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Grass, water and wood bring locals to blows with refugees

[Chad] Chadian gendarmes are introduced to leaders of Sudanese refugees from Darfur at Iridimi camp in eastern Chad, September 2004.
Preventing conflict - gendarmes are introduced to refugee leaders (Claire Soares/IRIN)

Ousmane’s mother thought that in Chad her son would be safe from the violence that engulfed their village in the Darfur region of neighbouring Sudan. Now he lies in a hospital bed, his right arm broken in two by an angry local farmer.

The seven-year-old boy had taken the family’s goat herd to graze last week. He dozed off under a tree as the animals nibbled at the slim pickings outside the Iridimi refugee camp in eastern Chad.

The next thing he knew an enraged villager from a nearby hamlet was dragging him along, beating his arm with a stick and yelling that Sudanese refugees should keep off Chadian land.

Ousmane’s arm snapped like a twig, but he managed to squirm free and escape back to the refugee camp.

“When they do things like this, it brings back memories of the terrible things that happened to us back home,” Abakar Atom, the chairman of the refugee community at Iridimi refugee camp, told IRIN at the weekend.

Chad shares a 1,000 km-long mainly desert border with Sudan. Over the past year, nearly 200,000 people have swarmed across seeking refuge from the campaign of slaughter, looting and rape being waged in Darfur by the Janjawid pro-government militia.

Before the international humanitarian machine kicked into action, the local Chadian population, which comes from the same ethnic groups and speaks the same languages as the refugees, shared what little food they had with the new arrivals.

Although the Chadians themselves are practically destitute, they even offered some of the refugees jobs.

But as Pierre Atchom, a protection officer for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, explained, relations are now more tense.

“Things deteriorated because the refugees are starting to manage on their own,” Atchom said at his base in Iriba, a town of mud huts, which has three refugee camps within a 40 km radius.

“Now, the refugees are more comfortably off than the locals, above all because they at least have something to eat,” he added.

Atchom explained that while the refugees receive food handouts from the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the local Chadian population faces a lean harvest next month after a poor rainy season.

”Sometimes the villagers just yell at the refugees, sometimes they confiscate their animals. In the worst cases, they come to blows,” he said.


Outside the Touloum camp last week, locals attacked one refugee woman, turning her face into a punchbag because she was encroaching on their resources.

After incidents like this, retaliation is always a worry.

“We have refugees going out armed with knives to avenge themselves. In one case they couldn’t find who they were looking for; in another we were there and made them go back to the camps,” Atchom explained.

The most common sources of conflict between refugees and the local population are disputes over access to grazing land, water and wood.

Chad, a landlocked country under threat from an advancing Sahara desert, has strict laws about felling trees to prevent deforestation and desertification. But the refugees from Darfur chop down whatever firewood they can find regardless.

UN officials say in some cases, Chad’s forestry officials have arrested offending refugees and fined them for felling a species on the forbidden list.

But most of the time, the local population’s anger simply stems having to share precious resources.

Aid workers are all too keenly aware of the serious conflicts which this situation could ignite.

“There’s the worry if we pump too much water for the refugee camps, that we’ll suck it away from the local population,” said Karl Skovgaard Moller of Norwegian Church Aid, which is involved in constructing the camps in the Iriba area.

Just three days ago at Touloum camp, which is home to more than 15,000 refugees, one of the boreholes was knocked out of action by a disgruntled Chadian neighbourl.

For weeks he had been protesting that the water source, tapped with the approval of Chadian authorities, actually lay on his own property and not on state land.

Aid workers said the man had been regularly sending children and youths to carry out minor acts of vandalism and harass refugees as they drew water from the borehole, but on Friday things turned more serious.

Four men appeared, armed with handguns, to cut the water pipes and shut the borehole down. They are now in cells at the police station in Iriba but the disgruntled local, alleged to have recruited the men, has since turned up at the UNHCR base, hurling threats and abuse.

“We are working to prevent this kind of thing,” Atchom told IRIN. “But it’s a situation that has the potential to degenerate.”

Gendarmes at the gates

As part of their drive to improve security, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has just installed a first batch of Chadian gendarmes at Iridimi, where Ousmane’s mother remains traumatised by the attack on her son.

The three military policemen are part of a contingent of 180 gendarmes that will eventually be deployed at refugee camps across the region under the terms of an accord signed last month between the United Nations and the Chadian government.

“It’s a strategy with a double aim – to deter the local population from doing anything stupid and to reassure the refugees,” Atchom said.

At Iridimi, the gendarmes are camped about 600 metres from the camp in the area where refugees come to collect wood and graze their animals. The policemen will only go into the camp if called upon by the refugees, who will eventually be provided with whistles to signal distress.

Eventually Iridimi should have a 16-strong protection force, including two policewomen. But this still means only one gendarme for every 1,000 refugees.

On Saturday, aid workers escorted the newly arrived policemen to to the camp’s community centre to introduce them to refugee leaders. At the meeting all sides expressed hope that people can pull together and work towards the same goal – safety for all.

But privately some participants expressed doubt.

“I think we need international gendarmes”, Atom, the chairman of the refugee community said shortly before the meeting. “If it’s Chadian gendarmes maybe they have families, maybe they are too close to the situation.”

And UN officials worry that the policemen may become to close to the refugees, particularly the women. They are at pains to prevent ‘sex for work’ relationships developing.

Too much to ask?

These tensions between locals and refugees at the camps around Iriba are mirrored up and down eastern Chad, but as one aid worker pointed out, it is easy to make snap judgments.

“If it was 200,000 people turning up in a European country, would people’s arms be open or would they start worrying about their jobs and playing the nationalist card?” he said.

[Chad] Some Darfur refugees in Tine-Chad believe the locals living around them act as protection against more attacks. September 2004.

Le Tchad accueille près de 200 000 réfugiés soudanais sur son sol
Claire Soares/IRIN
[Chad] Some Darfur refugees in Tine-Chad believe the locals living around them act as protection against more attacks. September 2004. ...
Monday, September 27, 2004
Le Tchad suspend sa médiation dans la crise du Darfour
[Chad] Some Darfur refugees in Tine-Chad believe the locals living around them act as protection against more attacks. September 2004. ...
Some refugees in Tine-Chad believe the locals living around them offer protection

In Chad the picture is not all doom and gloom. In the border town of Tine-Chad, an hour and a half’s drive east of Iriba, refugees from Tine-Sudan have set up home across the wadi that forms the border. They are full of praise for the local people.

“They’ve been very good to us. There have never been any problems between us. It’s like a mother looking after her children,” said refugee Ismail Ahmad Abdullaye, who left his home in Darfur with just the shirt on his back.

UNHCR is keen to move all the Sudanese refugees to camps situated at least 50 km from the border, to keep them well clear of the 19-month-old conflict in Darfur. This threatens to smoulder on for some time following the collapse of the latest round of peace talks between Khartoum and the rebels in Nigeria last week.

Chad has frequently accused the Janjawid of raids across the border and Tine-Chad found itself being bombed by Sudanese military planes earlier this year as the Sudanese government tried to dislodge rebel fighters from Tine-Sudan.

But some refugees in Tine are reluctant to leave the local population and head for the camps.

“Being in their midst we feel our safety is guaranteed. They surround us and protect us,” said Adjba Bachir, who is living in a ramshackle shelter of sticks and straw with her six children. “Aren’t we better off staying here?"

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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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