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Camp Out

Violence in Chad may send Darfuri refugees on the run once again.

Goz Beida, Chad

The Djabal refugee camp is a surprisingly green place. Its residents--15,000 Darfuris from an assortment of tribes and villages in western Sudan--have taken to growing crops in the camp to supplement their monthly food installment from the United Nations. Stalks of corn shoot up around the straw walls of the camp’s huts, and watermelon and cucumber vines curl across the scrubland paths. The refugees have lived here in Chad, 50 miles from the Sudanese border, for almost four years. When I was in the camp a few months ago, a meeting with one of the refugee leaders ended with an unlikely exchange of our cell phone numbers: The neighboring village of Goz Beida had recently installed a cell tower and, while coverage was spotty, Abdelrahim Abdelrasoul had purchased a pay-as-you-go phone to contact friends and family scattered throughout the other 11 camps that line the Sudanese border. Keep in touch, he said. Come back and visit.

But the past few weeks have given these refugees even more to worry about. In early February, hundreds of Chadian rebels who had been sheltered in western Sudan stormed Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, and were reportedly beaten back only at the gates of the presidential palace. The fighting led to the evacuation of humanitarian personnel from across the country. Most of the organizations that serve the refugee camps are now operating with skeleton crews; complete evacuation is likely if the fighting becomes worse. With Chad accusing Sudan of providing assistance to the rebels, and Sudan accusing Chad of aiding the militias fighting the Sudanese army in western Darfur, that is a strong possibility.

The Chadian camps have been one of the few relative successes in the international community’s response to the genocide in Darfur. But after fleeing horrific violence in their native country, the Darfur refugees--who have found some modicum of stability in Chad--are once again in danger.

The dozen refugee camps in Chad were never an East African Hilton: The logistical challenge of getting resources to camps spread across a landlocked country nearly twice the size of Texas has hampered the refugees’ access to necessities like potable water and waterproof roofing. The camps contain diseases that Western countries haven’t seen in decades: Playful groups of children with polio are a heartbreakingly common sight. Hundreds of rebels roam the area, forcibly recruiting children from the camps and stealing vehicles from aid workers. Four years of overcrowding in the camps has decimated the area’s stock of firewood, pushing the refugees farther into dangerous territory each day to collect what they need.

But unlike most African refugee camps--consisting of hastily assembled shacks scattered across a windswept plain--the camps in Chad were planned well in advance, and designed to last. Djabal resembles a neatly drawn city, a rectangle 1.5 km long and 1 km wide, divided into six well-organized housing sectors. When refugees first began arriving in June 2004, families were given gardens, seeds, and a nursery for trees, with some even receiving livestock. “Repatriation is the goal, but that will not happen with the refugees anytime soon,” says Emmanuelle Compingt, a community services officer with UNHCR. “What we want is sustainability. We want them to have some kind of income-generating activity.”

After some false starts--animal theft, conflicts over who owned the arable land--the sustainability strategy looked like it was paying off. The average number of calories consumed daily was climbing by the month, peaking at just over 2,100, and some resourceful refugees started trading their homegrown millet and sorghum for tomatoes and sweet tea in the Goz Beida market--relative luxuries for families that fled Darfur with the clothes on their backs. The population was stable and inching up--not from new arrivals (there have been virtually none since the camp opened) but from live births, about 70 each month.

The success of the Darfuri refugee population in Djabal was striking when compared to the state of the internally displaced Chadian population (IDPs) living just a few miles away. These people--Chadian nationals who fled from Arab attacks that have spilled across the Sudanese border--are subject to the joint jurisdiction of the humanitarian organizations and their own government (not exactly a paragon of efficiency or empathy) and they have not been given the same opportunity to development sustainable or profitable activities. “We've had IDPs trying to claim they are refugees because they know it means a better life,” says Compingt. Another UNHC staffer observed that cases of jaundice and malnutrition in the refugee camp health center mysteriously jumped when the IDPs arrived.

Perhaps the best indicator of how safe the camp had become was the number of celebrities that made it a point to swing through. Houston Rockets shooting guard Tracy McGrady was in town filming a documentary about his visit to the camps, entourage in tow, and Mia Farrow had passed through weeks before. George Clooney and Angelina Jolie have also visited the region twice (the college-aged French girls at the Doctors Without Borders compound swooned at the rumors that Clooney would soon return with Brad Pitt). For celebrities who want to show their international largesse, a relative bright spot in the Darfur tragedy has been easy to find in Chad.

But the stability of Chad's refugee camps is quickly fading. Fighting has erupted between the Chadian government and the rebels in the villages along the Sudanese border--the town of Adré, around which thousands of refugees live, was nearly overrun by rebels in early February--and the violence in the capital last month has disrupted food shipments to the camps. Somewhat ironically, the possibility of new conflict has also delayed the deployment of an already behind-schedule European Union peacekeeping force--3,700 troops who were intended to secure the refugee camps. Originally slated to deploy in November 2007, only a fraction of the forces arrived in mid-February 2008. The chronically belated mission has never seemed more necessary. A week after fighting broke out in the capital, the Sudanese army bombed towns in western Darfur, pushing 12,000 more victims into Chad. The ballooning refugee population and dwindling humanitarian presence has made the situation on the border so untenable that, on February 11, Chad’s Prime Minister said the international community needed to move the refugees back to Sudan, or the Chadian government would move them itself.

For the dozens of refugees I spoke with in Chad, returning to Sudan is a tragic prospect. Hawa Mohammed, a woman I met in the Djabal camp, had fled her Sudanese village four years ago with a single garment, was raped, and spent weeks wandering from village to village along the border before being picked up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. When I met with her in Djabal, she beamed with the pride of a hard-fought triumph, showing off the simple, long-lost amenities of her newfound life: porcelain tea cups, a finely knitted prayer rug, a new yellow headscarf. This hard-earned stability for Mohammed and her fellow refugees will be among the most devastating causalities of renewed hostilities in Chad.

Conor Clarke is a freelance writer and former editor at The Guardian.

By Conor Clarke