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Darfur Refugees in Chad Say Return Home Unlikely


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In western Sudan, there have been fewer attacks on villages in Darfur over the past few months. Some aid agency officials say that's because most of the villages there have already been destroyed. More than two million people who fled their homes are still in camps inside Sudan with about 200,000 more across the border in Chad. Most refugees say they have no intention of returning home anytime soon. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.


The Bredjing refugee camp holds some 26,000 people, and it's the largest in eastern Chad. The refugees live in what were once white tents; most of the tents are now coated in reddish-brown sand that the wind whips across this arid landscape.

Mr. ABDULLAH ADAM BEDA(ph) (Refugee): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Abdullah Adam Beda lives in one of the Bredjing tents with six members of his family. He says life in the camp is too difficult. There isn't enough food, he says, and what they get from the aid agencies is always the same.

Mr. BEDA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: `We have only three mats for sleeping,' he says, slapping the thin straw mats they roll out each night as beds. But asked if he'd prefer to go back to Darfur, he says that's impossible. He fled his home 21 months ago when his village was attacked by the Janjaweed and the Sudanese army. He recounts the attack as if it had happened just yesterday.

Mr. BEDA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: `Everything was taken by the Janjaweed and the Sudanese government,' he says. `They took our cattle. We had grown mangoes, oranges, bananas and they have taken everything.' His small thatched house was also burned down. The 70-year-old Beda says if Sudanese President Omar Bashir remains in power, he worries the government could attack him again.

Aid agencies say that refugees' fears about returning, coupled with the slow pace of Darfur peace talks, will probably keep the camps full at least through the end of 2006.

Ms. CLAIRE BOURGEOIS (Deputy, UN High Commissioner for Refugees): What I heard is that many of the refugee are here for two or three more years. Of course, we hope not.

BEAUBIEN: Claire Bourgeois, the deputy head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees operations in eastern Chad, says humanitarian groups are planning to be in the country at least for the medium term and possibly even the long term. She says currently only a few dozen of the 200,000 Darfur refugees have voluntarily gone back, and the UNHCR hasn't even started making plans to repatriate people.

Ms. BOURGEOIS: Still now we are more in a phase of planning how to improve the care, how to improve relation between the refugee house community and how in the near term we can also help the refugees to do something.

BEAUBIEN: Bourgeois says her agency is negotiating with the Chad authorities to allocate more land around the camps next year so that the refugees can plant crops.

This part of the Sahel is an extremely brutal and yet fragile environment. For much of the year it looks like a gravelly desert dotted with scraggly bushes and a few trees. Now it's the rainy season. Storms batter the area with intense downpours and the sandy soil becomes sticky, impassible mud. The two biggest problems facing the refugees are firewood and water. They collect dead wood from the plains around the camps, but the locals also rely on this wood to cook, and competition for this relatively scarce resource is causing tension. Reliable year-round wells are also scarce. Bourgeois says finding enough water for an additional 200,000 residents has been a challenge.

Ms. BOURGEOIS: It has been for us a headache, I can say.

BEAUBIEN: Two of the 12 camps rely entirely on water brought in in tanker trucks. Bourgeois says UNHCR is considering moving those two camps. The authorities in Chad, however, who at first welcomed the Sudanese, are now reluctant to allow the refugees to make use of even more of the region's scarce water.

(Soundbite of voices)

BEAUBIEN: Back in Bredjing, refugee after refugee says life in the camp is tedious, difficult and generally miserable. But they quickly add that returning to Darfur anytime soon is not an option. Many of the residents have erected small fences around their tents out of twigs and dried reeds. Behind one such fence, several teen-age girls are cooking porridge over an open fire. An older woman in the enclosure stares off into space. She's wearing a faded nightdress that's so tattered, one of her withered breasts is exposed by a large hole in the cloth.

Ms. KHALIN ADAM IBRAHIM(ph) (Refugee): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Khalin Adam Ibrahim says she lost everything when the Janjaweed attacked her village in Darfur. Government planes bombed their houses and then gunmen on horseback rampaged through the burning huts. Several members of her family were killed in the attack, she says, and after she came to Chad, she cried so much over what she'd lost, she says she became blind.

Ms. IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Despite the passage of time, the 60-year-old says she cries about Darfur every day. It's the only thing, she adds, her eyes can still do.

Ms. IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: `If I could go home to Darfur,' she says, `maybe my eyesight will come back.' But she doesn't know when that might be.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Chad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning Edition
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.