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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 March, 2004, 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK
Aiding Sudan's new refugees
Some 100,000 Sudanese refugees have fled fighting in the western Darfur region and crossed into neighbouring Chad.

A field officer for the United Nations refugee agency, Katy Grant, tells BBC News Online of her work in and around Iriba, a small town close to the Sudanese border.


Our little field office is one of the only non-mud buildings in Iriba.

Katy Grant
Katy Grant has spent seven weeks working as a UNHCR field worker in Chad

I am here because UNHCR is setting up an emergency response to the influx of Sudanese refugees.

The town is sand and silence.

Most of the male inhabitants are further south with their thirsty flocks, and this being a predominantly Muslim population, the women are invisible behind the baked walls of their compounds.

Twenty minutes by car from Iriba is Touloum, the first of the refugee camps that falls under our immediate responsibility in this field office.

The development of this camp, recently transformed from transit centre to long-term site, has been held back by the same constraint that has hamstrung all the refugee camps (currently five) along this stretch of the border - the lack of a sufficient natural water supply.

Map showing Sudan and Chad
Our NGO partners have been drilling like madmen, frantic all-night operations lit by truck headlights to depths of 80m or more to try to establish a sustainable water supply for the growing refugee population.

We have had to set up numerous, small camps (currently we have no more than 7,000 refugees at each site) instead of fewer, bigger camps, which would be much more manageable, and cheaper, in terms of logistics and staffing.

Until the natural water supply is tested and established in each site, the refugees depend on expensive water-trucking, a process that cannot be sustained in the longer-term.

The agony of this lack of water is that we have not been able to move refugees from the Sudanese border at the speed we would have liked, and there are therefore still thousands of families living in increasingly desperate conditions along the border, waiting to be moved and assisted.

Resilience

We drive the road to Touloum every morning, usually 11 people crammed into a land-cruiser, as our government partner, whose staff are responsible for camp registration, do not yet have their own vehicles.

We listen to Sudanese music and click our tongues in distress over the dying animals we pass; donkeys, sheep, goats, horses, and even camels, one by one settling sadly under a bush, against a sand-dune and giving up the fight to stay alive.

These are the flocks the refugees have brought with them, and there is nothing for these animals to eat; the bare sands have not even the minimum of grass coverage to support them.

UNHCR aid worker assisting a Sudanese refugee in Touloum
Despite an arduous journey, the refugees are generally in a good condition
The decomposing bodies of these precious and long-suffering beasts are everywhere around the camp.

Despite having spent a number of months in extremely difficult circumstances on the other side of the border, and in Chad as well, until arriving at the camp, the refugees are for the most part in quite good condition.

There are a few cases of malnutrition, there are vulnerable cases with particular problems, there are the very old and very young who always suffer the most and whose situation is the hardest to watch.

But in general, these are a resilient, uncomplaining, strong group of people who can create an impressive shelter out of just a plastic sheet and locally-gathered sticks in a matter of days.

Which is a good thing, as they are likely to be here in Chad for a while.

All pictures courtesy of UNHCR's Helene Caux


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