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Sudanese Refugees Place Strain on Relief Agencies - 2004-03-09

International relief agencies say they face a humanitarian crisis in trying to help nearly one million Sudanese who have fled their homes in the midst of a civil war in western Sudan.

Mohammad Ali, who is now in Farchana refugee camp, about 50 kilometers from the border with Sudan, says he is a lucky man. As he tells his story, he chops wood to make one of the small stools he sells for $2 apiece so he can buy food for his wife and six children.

In Sudan, the 45-year-old Mr. Ali was a farmer and herdsman. But he says he gave up that life and fled to Chad at the beginning of this year after his village was bombed by the Sudanese military.

Mr. Ali says he will not go back to Sudan until the war is over, and for now, he is just thankful to have a tent at the Farchana camp, run by the United Nations refugee agency.

"It is a million times better here because it is secure and stable," he said. "We have enough water and though we need more food, we can buy it elsewhere."

The Darfur conflict is a war between black African rebel groups and Arab militiamen backed by the Sudanese government. The fighting began a year ago, when the rebels accused the Arab-controlled government of neglecting Darfur's predominately black population.

The refugees say they are victims of ethnic cleansing, as the Arab militia, called the Janjaweed, drives them from their villages. They say the Janjaweed receives weapons and air support from the government of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The government denies the charge, and says the rebels have no basis for political grievance. Sudan says the rebels are really just criminal gangs.

President al-Bashir last month declared the fighting over, with the government in control of major population centers. Relief agencies dispute this, and say the government is hampering efforts to deliver aid to the 700,000 people inside Sudan who have been uprooted from their homes by the fighting.

The director of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Chad, Alphonse Malanda, says the Sudanese refugees are in desperate need of international assistance.

"What they are saying is that they fled because of the bombing by the Sudanese army, and they had to abandon their belongings," said Mr. Malanda. "They came into Chad without anything. So they need an urgent humanitarian response."

The UNHCR has issued an appeal for nearly $22 million from the international community for the refugees in Chad. So far, only $1 million has been pledged.

The program director of the Paris-based charity Medicins San Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, Michael Neuman, says only 7,000 of the 110,000 Sudanese refugees in Chad are housed in camps run by international relief agencies.

"The security situation is very difficult and unstable in the whole area and fighting is kind of reaching the Chad territory," he said. "We can see incursions of militias from Darfur into Chad, preying on the civilian refugees and this has led the humanitarian community to the relocation of those refugees into camps. So far, based on the three camps that have been set up, the move is very slow. And we are very worried actually about the remaining population that will stay in the border areas."

One of the refugees at the Farchana camp, Ahmed Abdullah Hussein, is a 55-year-old farmer. He says he and he family fled to Chad with just the clothes on their backs after the Janjaweed attacked his village near the Sudanese city of Geneina. He says he no longer trusts the Sudanese Arabs.

"Those people killed our mothers, our fathers, and they stole our property," he said. "How can we sit down with them again? We need our own separate country, our own government. If not, this conflict will just be repeated."

The United States has expressed grave concerns about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. The State Department says as many as one million people are at imminent risk of their lives.

Washington has called on the Sudanese government to disarm the Janjaweed, enter into peace talks with the rebels, and permit aid workers safe and unhindered movement inside Darfur.

There has been no public response from the Sudanese government to Washington's appeal.