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Growing Security Fears Worry Humanitarian Workers in Chad


International aid workers are expressing concern over what some describe as the worsening security situation in Eastern Chad. Aid workers say as the number of car thefts and armed assaults has increased, so has the fear of banditry in a complex region filled with rebel factions, refugees, and vulnerable communities. Brent Latham reports from our West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar.

Field workers from international humanitarian organizations have expressed renewed worries over their personal security in Eastern Chad, in light of what some call a severely deteriorating security environment for the international agencies that provide aid to hundreds of thousands of Chadians and refugees from neighboring Sudan.

Oxfam International, which supplies water and food to over 120,000 people in Eastern Chad, has been forced to pull out of one area because of attacks on its workers, says spokeswoman Judith Enriquez-Ferrano.

"We've seen through 2007 and 2008 a real increase in the insecurity in Chad, slowly. It's not a drastic change. But slowly it becomes more violent and more difficult to work. Three or four years ago there wasn't this type of problem in Chad. You could move quite easily wherever you wanted and quite freely. Now it's not the case anymore," he said.

Oxfam pulled its workers out of the town of Kerfi in southeastern Chad last week, along with Paris-based Doctors Without Borders, after the compounds of each of the organizations were attacked by armed local residents. Oxfam said in a press release the attackers had tried to burn down the workers' house with the workers still inside.

Enriquez-Ferrano said the attackers may have been disgruntled locals looking for money or employment. She says security concerns include inter-ethnic conflict and rebel movements, but that by far the biggest threat to humanitarian workers is armed banditry.

The toll of banditry this year has been high, Enriquez-Ferrano says. "Since the beginning of the year, January, we've had more than thirty cars stolen, compounds attacked all the time, three humanitarian workers die. It's increasingly dangerous and this banditry is really diminishing our humanitarian access," he said.

Stefan Beytrifon, Assistant Head of Delegation for the Geneva-Based International Committee of the Red Cross, says his organization also has seen workers assaulted by armed bandits, and its emblematic Land Cruisers stolen.

He says the Red Cross has taken measures to avoid problems. "For example in some zones we go there with trucks and small cars, and those vehicles don't interest the bad guys. So we avoid being targeted, because they are looking for Land Cruisers specifically, because they can sell them or they can use them as a technical vehicle. You put a machine gun on the vehicle and then it is useful," he said.

Beytrifon says the bandits have no intention of hurting humanitarian workers, and are looking for cars, cash, and other marketable goods.

Other workers say the bandits have been known to become violent. In May, an armed assault resulted in the death of Pascal Marlinge, a French national working for British based Save the Children. The attack occurred in the morning on the road between Abre, a border town, and Abeche, the regional capital and base in Eastern Chad for most aid agencies. Two Red Cross vehicles were hijacked in the same area in March.

The root of the security problem may be growing resentment towards the aid agencies among residents who have been overlooked as NGOs push to serve refugees from Darfur and internally displaced persons, or IDPs, from other parts of Chad, says Country Representative for Baltimore, Maryland based Catholic Relief Services, Christophe Droeven.

"The local population is as poor as the refugees, as poor as the IDPs. There is not a real difference and what we are struggling with is that we don't have enough resources to cover everybody. And you can imagine when a camp opens in your area and you see that the people receive food, receive water, proper potable water, they receive education and you, you are in the same condition and you are not receiving the same thing. So that creates a tension there. That is the real thing, it's competition for a resource and humanitarian aid is a resource."

Following the slaying of Marlinge, aid agencies stopped work for 48 hours to protest the security environment. The relief community sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Chad asking the government to take measures to tackle the root of the problem.

Droevan says if there is a solution to the problem, it lies with the Chadian authorities. "The key to have security in a region is that the government must do its job. We must have the formation of military in the area. We must have a judge, and a good presence of the justice system. There must be installed a certain justice in the region because if you have no justice then everyone does what they want. "

No one has been brought to justice in the Marlinge killing or in the attack on the Oxfam compound.

Despite the problems, Enriquez-Ferrano says she does not think humanitarian agencies in Chad are likely to be forced out. "We've seen a decrease of the humanitarian space in Chad. But Chad is not Darfur and Darfur is not Somalia. We do reach populations in Chad. It's diminished because of the three main threats, but we still reach populations. So in the future I don't see NGOs pulling out of Chad."

The United Nations reports there are 240 thousand refugees from Sudan in Eastern Chad. As many as 180 thousand internally displaced Chadians, who have fled armed militias and ethnic clashes, also inhabit the region. Beginning in 2004, the UN has operated twelve refugee camps in the region, and four more in southern Chad.

Dozens of international humanitarian agencies work in the region, providing refugees, internally displaced persons, and local residents with food and water, as well as other support and capacity building.