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Visiting Desperate Refugees In Darfur

22 April 2005

Visiting Desperate Refugees In Darfur, UN Official Appeals For More Global Aid

On a visit to desperate widows and small children living under trees in a dry river bed and to families huddled in miserable tiny twig shelters in squalid villages in Sudan’s strife-torn western Darfur region, the top United Nations refugee official has called on the international community to contribute more money for humanitarian relief.

“These people desperately, desperately need the kind of assistance we provide,” Acting UN High Commissioner for Refugees (<"http://www.unhcr.ch/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home">UNHCR) Wendy Chamberlin said yesterday on the third day of a five-day visit to the region. “UN agencies simply do not have the funding to provide them the assistance they desperately need to survive.”

The group in the river bed and the villagers had been refugees in neighbouring Chad, which Ms. Chamberlin is to visit today and tomorrow, and mobile teams from UNHCR are fanning out into the countryside and the desert looking for displaced people and refugees who have returned to the country but are scared to go to their destroyed villages.

“We visited two villages, one Arab and one attacked by Arabs, but in both villages families had started to come back,” she said at the end of a gruelling day in the sweltering heat of Darfur, an area the size of France and where a rebellion that began two years ago, partly in protest at the distribution of economic resources, has been compounded by armed militia attacks on villages, uprooting more than 2 million people. Some 200,000 of these fled into Chad.

“They came back from Chad for a variety of reasons – because conditions were worse along the border there, because the Sudanese Government told them to come back to receive UN aid, because they wanted to be close to their land,” Ms. Chamberlin said. “Whatever the reason, they are desperate and they have no aid and we, as the UN refugee agency, have a duty to assist returned refugees.”

She added that she was haunted by the tales she heard. Zaina Abakar, a 35-year-old widow with three children, told her that she and others living in the river bed have to eat seeds they find on the ground, seeds that are so tough they have to be boiled for three days.

Ms. Abakar said all the women and their children live in fear and, ironically, were frightened even by the arrival of Ms. Chamberlin’s helicopter. “We are living here, yes, but we are scared,” Zaina stressed, cuddling her year-old baby boy Mohammed. “We are scared of everything. When we saw your plane (helicopter), we thought of running away. Whenever anything happens we think of running.” She begged the UN to bring food, water, and above all, security.

Ms. Chamberlin cautioned against hopes of any quick end to the Darfur crisis. UNHCR and other aid organizations “are here for the long term. People we have seen are terrified to go back to their villages.

“There was still a great deal of fear in their faces because of the things they have been through. Clearly they want and need more protection from the African Union troops, from the UN and particularly the protection the UN refugee agency is best capable of providing,” she added.

ENDS

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