Kousseri, Cameroon — Kousseri was just another dusty town in the heart of Africa 18 months ago. Its squat stone fort was a reminder of French legionnaires. Its thriving market shut down at noon to escape the heat. Its people made do with less than they needed.
That lazy rhythm changed abruptly when Libyan tanks rolled into N'Djamena, Chad's capital just across the Chari River, last December.
As many as a quarter million Chadians fled to neighboring countries then. Some 20,000 went east to the Sudanese border, 100,000 left for Nigeria and the Central African Republic, and 110,000 chose the quickest and most direct route to safety across the fast-flowing Chari, which separates Chad from the Cameroon.
The plight of Chad's refugees has not gained as much international attention as have others, such as the Vietnamese boat people. Nonetheless, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) considers them one of the most serious challenges of the year.
Unlike the Vietnamese, Africa's 5 million refugees are considered virtually impossible to resettle in third countries. The problems of assimilating so many people with so few skills would be monumental, and Western immigration laws too strict. Many therefore seem to waste away in camps and become burdens to the countries to which they fled.
Often the remote locations of the camps make it particularly difficult to supply food and water to the refugees. Kousseri is a thousand miles from the nearest West African port, Douala, Cameroon. And to the east, El Geneina in Sudan - temporary home to some 8,500 Chadians - is so far from Sudan's capital, Khartoum, that a truckload of milk powder took eight months to arrive in the camp.
UNHCR officials are keen to repatriate the Chadians as soon as possible. They began talks last summer with the Chad government of Goukhouni Woddei.
President Woddei quickly agreed to their repatriation, aware that the refugees' return would bring more credibility to his shaky government. Chad, Cameroon, and the UNHCR put the program into action Oct. 1.
Since then, 300 families a day have left the camps. They are taken in trucks to the river crossing, then ferried to the other side in a makeshift barge.
When they arrive in the Chad capital, the formalities are disposed of quickly - customs registration, a handout of food intended to last a month, and then return home.
Although the UNHCR is often criticized for being too passive in refugee crises, letting things drag on and on, officials say the reverse may be true concerning the Chadians. They may have pressured the Chadians to return home too soon.
Using a carrot-and-stick approach, food was halted on the Cameroon side of the Chari, but provided on Chad's side. Initially, this scheme fell foul of the US desire to refrain from helping Chad until Libyan troops left. The US succeeded in tying up 2,300 tons of sorghum in Cameroon for a month, despite UNHCR pleas that it be released.
''There was no question of us putting undue pressure on the refugees,'' said Blaise Cheriff, a Senegalese official who heads the UNHCR mission in N'Djamena.
''Things in N'Djamena were relatively quiet. The two governments (Chad and Cameroon) agreed. And anyone who doesn't want to return will be given the chance to remain in the Cameroon.'' He added that Chad has declared an amnesty for all who return, and that there is no evidence of reprisals.
Still, Mr. Cheriff and other officials acknowledge that the line between ''encouraging'' and ''pressuring'' refugees is sometimes narrow, and that it is obvious Cameroon wants the refugees to leave. Cameroon officials are alarmed at the huge increase in prices since the refugee camp, built on prime agricultural land, was erected. They also recall how bullets rattled on Kousseri's tin roofs during street fights just across the border in N'Djamena last December.
''Of course, we're worried the troubles could spill over once again,'' said Mahmadou Moussa, a senior administrator in Kousseri.
Therefore Cameroon has offered another site to Chadians unwilling to return home. It is at Poli, 500 kilometers (some 300 miles) to the south, and the refugees would be cut off from their tribes and Chad ties.
Almost 60,000 have signed on for the Poli site. UNHCR officials find this figure so high that they are preparing to interview the families who want to go to Poli.
In Nigeria, fewer than 500 of the 9,000 Chadians registered with the UNHCR have opted to return home.
But many Chadians have returned home from the countries to which they fled - often because they felt they had no other option. More than 50,000 Chadians have returned to N'Djamena under the UNHCR program. Another 80,000 unregistered refugees are believed to have returned voluntarily over the last six months.
The reason refugees are reluctant to go home is largely chalked up to economics: Anything, they say, is preferable to N'Djamena, where houses are demolished, food is in short supply, and health services poor.
Then, too, some Chadians are followers of former Chad Defense Minister Hissein Habre, President Woddei's enemy, who fought a guerrilla war against the Libyans. Habre remains a threat to Woddei.
''Until he (Habre) gives the word, we will not return,'' said one follower, who fled N'Djamena with Habre last Dec. 15 when Libyan tanks rolled in.
As with refugees the world over, the Chadians appear torn by uncertainty and deeply unsure about conditions in their home country. ''We just don't know what's going to happen over there,'' said one 60-year-old farmer with a family of seven. ''And until we know - we wait.''
With each successive delay in the arrival of the Organization of African Unity's peacekeeping force, many here feel it could be a long wait.