Cameroon – Chad: Refugees from N’djamena still fearful of returning

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Only a river separates N’djamena from Kousseri, Cameroon, where thousands fled last week’s violence. Fighting ended in Chad’s capital N’djamena almost a week ago but many of the tens of thousands of Chadians who sought refuge across the River Chari in northern Cameroon say they are not planning to return for now.

We are afraid to go back, 20-year-old N’djamena resident Patrice Djerane who is camping out near the dusty border town of Kousseri, told IRIN. He went there with his mother while his father remains in N’djamena keeping the family abreast of conditions there. “We’ll go back when peace comes. Until then, we’ll wait.”

Rebel groups who laid siege to the capital have since fled east. But the fighting that occurred in the city has evoked fears that ethnic rivalries could widen and erupt into a new type of violence.

“There was an ethnic difference in the violence [last week],” Rimwoyal Beasoe Charles, one of N’djamena’s younger refugees, told IRIN, “even enough to see a civil war”.

Ethnic cleansing?

Beasoe and his compatriots said when the rebels came they mostly pillaged neighbourhoods known to be Zaghawan, the ethnic group of President Idriss Déby. President Déby is accused of favouring Zaghawans at the expense of the Tama, the ethnic group of one of the main rebel leaders, Mahamat Nour. Last week, Amnesty International issued a press release warning that the Chadian president may be purging the capital of his political rivals. A handful of opposition figures are currently in detention, their status unknown.

One aid worker said he suspected many of the refugees currently in Cameroon were from either the Tama or Zaghawa ethnic groups, rather than the many other groups that make up the population of N’djamena. But humanitarian officials say they are yet to categorise the ethnicities, ages, and genders of the refugees with much accuracy. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that of the more than 30,000 refugees thought to have fled across the river, many have already returned, though the agency could not claim to know how many remained. Kousseri, the main town in Cameroon where the Chadian refugees fled to, is just a stone’s throw from Chad’s capital and the two populations are always crossing between the two cities. Many of the refugees have blended in, choosing not to sleep outdoors in the makeshift refugee camps designated by Cameroon’s local government.

Ever younger recruits

Yet they are no less reluctant to return home. Speaking off the record, officials in Kousseri have expressed fears that President Déby is tightening his grip on the capital and recruiting younger and younger soldiers to fill the army.

That is also a concern expressed by refugees. “There are young recruits in the national army now,” Katherine Ressum, who took her children and fled over the border by night last week, told IRIN.

In addition to ongoing violence, many of the refugees said they worry what has happened to the homes and livelihoods they left behind. Boye Roberts, a 30-year-old teacher from N’djamena, told IRIN he will only return once he knows he has something to return to. “Are there salaries? Water? Something to eat? It’s not possible for me to leave [Kousseri] now,” he said.

Providing for refugees

Providing for refugees upon their return is a crucial part of ending the crisis, spokesperson for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kousseri, Maurizio Giuliano, told IRIN. “We must make sure there is aid available for people when they want to return,” he said. Plans are under way for as many as 50,000 returnees, both from Cameroon and from within Chad.

Agencies say they will know more about the number of refugees and their needs by the end of the week when the Cameroonian government has asked that all refugees be moved to a camp in Maltam, 32km from Kousseri.

UNHCR spokesperson in Kousseri Francis Kpatindé said he expected many of the refugees would rather return to N’djamena but he acknowledged: “[Many] fear for their security [and they] know better than anyone. The day that things are stable, they will go. It all depends on how things are in N’djamena.”

Pictures: Elizabeth Dickinson/IRIN

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