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Water shortage forces refugee camp dangerously close to border

[Chad] UN officials say at least another 100,000 Darfur refugees will likely join the 200,000 already in Chad before the next rainy season begins in May. Most are women and children. Oure Cassoni camp, September 2004.
The refugees are fleeing conflict in Chad (Claire Soares/IRIN)

Five kilometres of scorching sand and a shallow lake that will soon vanish are all that separate 19,000 Sudanese civilians in Chad's most northerly refugee camp from the troubled land they fled.

Relief workers fear that the vicious conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region could all too easily spill across the border and engulf them.

At the moment, rebel soldiers fighting for a better political and economic deal for Darfur, occupy the Sudanese side of the border. They are acting as a buffer zone between the refugees that escaped the campaign of rape, killing and looting and the pro-government Janjawid militias that waged it.

But nobody knows how long the fragile ceasefire in Darfur will last or how long the rebels will be able to hold on to their current positions. And for many aid workers, the camp at Oure Cassoni is just too close to the border for comfort.

"These areas around the border near Oure Cassoni are areas that are heavily used by the rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army. It's a stronghold and so it could be viewed as a military target and... you cannot guarantee the safety of the refugees," explained Kingsley Amaning, the UN Resident Coordinator in Chad.

"As soon as the rainy season is over, the refugees will have to be relocated," he said in an interview at his office in the capital N'djamena. "The roads become passable again and armed groups can circulate more easily."

Out in the field -- a desolate expanse of wind-ruffled sand dotted with the occasional tenacious shrub -- the UN refugee agency's point-man for Oure Cassoni maps out possible scenarios.

"If the Janjawid launched a successful attack, then the rebels would have no choice but to retreat across the border into the camps and the civilian character of the camps would be compromised," Jose Fischel, the UNHCR's chief representative for Oure Cassoni, told IRIN.

"By road the camp is 17km away from the border. As the crow flies, it's just five km, straight across the lake."

Aid workers are haunted by the ghosts of the August refugee massacre in Burundi, where 160 inhabitants of the Gatumba transit camp, mainly women and children, were hacked, burned and shot to death by attackers who scuttled across the nearby border from the Democratic Republic of Congo .

Repercussions for whole operation

"If there was an attack at this camp, the whole operation in eastern Chad would take a blow. Just look what happened in Burundi," Fischel said with a shake of his head.

Some charities working in the Oure Cassoni camp, which only opened at the end of July, say the location headache could have been avoided.

"There's definitely concerns having the camp so close to the border. Ideally we would have been 50km away in the first place," said Julia Zajkowski, of the International Rescue Committee.

"There's no reason why it shouldn't have happened to start with, there was plenty of time. UNHCR was slow to respond."

[Chad] The lake beyond Oure Cassoni refugee camp provides a important source of water but it also forms the border with Darfur and aid workers worry about the proximity. September 2004.

Claire Soares/IRIN
[Chad] The lake beyond Oure Cassoni refugee camp provides a important source of water but it also forms the border with Darfur and aid workers worry about the proximity. September 2004. ...
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
[Chad] The lake beyond Oure Cassoni refugee camp provides a important source of water but it also forms the border with Darfur and aid workers worry about the proximity. September 2004. ...
The lake beyond Oure Cassoni refugee camp provides a important source of water but it also forms the border with Darfur

But paradoxically the border was also a reason in favour of putting the newest of the 10 refugee camps in eastern Chad at this site.

The border runs through the middle of a seasonal lake -- a rare expanse of water in this dustbowl region. Once treated, this surface water provides the refugees with enough water for their cooking, washing and drinking needs.

"The location of the camp was dictated by the availability of water," Fischel said. So even if we want to move the camp, we have to tackle the technical obstacle -- where else is there water?"

Radar and satellite images have thrown up some possibilities and now technical advisors will embark on reconnaissance missions to check water supplies more thoroughly.

But even if the water issue is solved, there may be political hurdles to overcome before the refugee camp and its nearly 19,000 inhabitants can pack up and leave.

Local authorities in Bahai, a random collection of mudhuts and concrete shacks which make up the nearest town to the camp, may well protest about the aid workers going and taking their jobs and spare cash with them. And they have powerful allies.

"The President comes from the region and his brother is the local tribal leader in Bahai. So that means that local authorities who want to firmly anchor the camp here could talk to the president who could have a word with the authorities in the area we want to move to and the whole thing could be blocked," one humanitarian worker explained.

All this means, Oure Cassoni's inhabitants will be around for a while.

"Logistical considerations means the camp will not be going anywhere in the next three months," UNHCR's Fischel said. "But between January and June it's likely the camp will be moved."

R and R for rebels?

In the meantime, worries linger about whether the rebels are using the camp, which is spacious and well-ordered in contrast to the overcrowded and stretched camps further south, as a place to rest and recuperate.

UNHCR figures show just seven percent of the population at Oure Cassoni are adult males.

"It's a very low percentage which is significant in terms of the civilian nature but it does mean we are concerned about visits," Fischel said. He was quick to add that there have so far been no confirmed instances of armed rebels entering the camp.

The refugees themselves talked openly about people left behind in Darfur. But asked whether the male fighters come across the border to visit their families, they just smiled and shook their heads.

Some aid workers believe the rebels could indeed be sneaking into the confines of the camp for a break from the fighting in Darfur.

"You see more people on food distribution days," IRC's Zajkowski told IRIN. "And sometimes after food distribution you see people siphoning off supplies and going back to support people they have left behind. The question is whether those people are family members stuck in Darfur or rebels."

"There's plenty of support for the SLA in the camp and I think it's very possible that the camp is being used for R&R although I personally have never seen anyone identified to me as a rebel or anyone armed," she added.

A decision on moving Oure Cassoni has yet to be made, and for now aid workers are not even discussing the prospect with the camp's residents.

"It's traumatic to be put through relocation," Zajkowski said. "We've not mentioned the possibility to the refugees yet, they need time to catch their breath."

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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