September 26, 2005

Central Africans flee violence, face hunger in Chad

By Stephanie Hancock

MBALLA, Chad (Reuters) - Forced by armed raiders to flee
their home in Central African Republic, Monica and her four
children slept under a tree in neighboring Chad for four weeks,
living on peanuts and water.

The family are among thousands of refugees who have crossed
Chad's southern border in recent months to escape unidentified
gunmen whose raids have sparked an exodus that aid workers fear
could turn into a humanitarian crisis.

Local officials from the United Nations refugee agency
UNHCR say they have been overwhelmed by the numbers of
desperate and hungry people pouring into an area of landlocked,
arid Chad that is already suffering from food shortages.

"Currently we cannot respond to the needs of all these
refugees, so this is becoming a real humanitarian crisis," said
Georges Menze, UNHCR's co-ordinator in the town of Gore, near
the border between the two countries.

Since June, unidentified armed gangs have been storming
villages in the far north of Central African Republic, shooting
randomly, looting homes and terrorizing their inhabitants.

The violence, which comes just a few months after President
Francois Bozize won a May election that ended two years of
military rule, has forced at least 9,000 people to flee to Chad
since June.

This week, the United Nations said it was bracing for the
arrival of more refugees from Central African Republic, one of
the world's poorest countries which has been shaken by a series
of coups and mutinies over the past decade.

At Mballa village near the border, Monica and her children
are among 800 people who have been waiting for weeks to be
transferred to a refugee camp at Amboko, 4 miles from Gore. The
camp is already filled almost to capacity.

"Since we arrived we haven't eaten a single proper meal,"
Monica, who did not want to give her last name, said.

"Sometimes women take pity on us when my children cry, and
give us peanuts. I give these to my children though, I've just
been drinking hot water."


At Amboko, the refugees will receive food and medical
attention. But the camp's population has swelled to 26,000 from
just under 14,000 in a few months, and UNHCR officials say they
are struggling to cope.

"Our resources are inferior to the refugees' needs," said
Menze. "Should there be more new arrivals, we don't have the
resources to respond. We have an urgent need for shelter,
cooking equipment, medicine, water -- everything necessary for
an adequate life."

There are more than 45,000 refugees from Central African
Republic in southern Chad, including 30,000 who fled the 2003
coup that brought Bozize to power.

"We cannot exclude the possibility of new arrivals.
Therefore the only thing we can do is try to prepare for a new
wave of refugees," Menze said, adding that details of the
latest violence were sketchy.

Army officers in Central African Republic said in June
their troops had been attacked by unidentified gunmen near the
border with Chad, with heavy losses on both sides.

Bozize, a former army chief, was helped by mercenaries from
Chad in his 2003 coup. His election win in May confirmed him in
power, but some of the hired guns he used two years ago have
now turned to banditry in the remote border area.

Refugees said the marauders were evicting people from
villages and looting their homes.

"It was August 9. I was at home alone when the men arrived.
I don't know where they'd come from. They broke down the door
and began asking me questions I couldn't understand," said one
refugee, who asked not be identified.

"They took all our belongings - our food, our clothes, our
shoes. Then they forced me to carry the belongings they'd
stolen for some way into the jungle, before they finally let me
go. I fled immediately with my wife and children," he said.


This month, UNHCR and the World Food Program (WFP) said
refugees across Africa were suffering hunger and malnutrition
because donors were failing to provide needed cash.

WFP said lack of funds meant refugees from the Central
African Republic were receiving incomplete rations, which was
putting greater strain on the resources of the host population.

Before moving to the camps, the refugees in southern Chad
have been relying on handouts from local villagers to survive.

District chief Beosso Simon said a failed food crop this
year had added to the pressure.

"We're right on the border so we're obliged to take these
refugees in," he said. "But we've been hit by famine ourselves,
so it's very hard. There's nothing to eat. We're missing lots
of things. There's no millet; there's nothing to live off."

Chad, which is hoping to get rich from a southern oil
field, is also host to about 210,000 refugees from Sudan's
Darfur region in its barren eastern borderlands. There too
tensions have risen as locals vie with refugees for scarce

"Everything we eat, we've been sharing with the refugees.
But we must support them," Simon said. "Tomorrow it could be us
in this situation."