All in a day's work: 200,000 refugees and roving bandits
Few volunteers last six months in eastern Chad, but Claire Bourgeois has spent two years here for the UN.
Aid workers huddle over the breakfast table, visibly shellshocked by last night's shooting. A Spanish colleague is fighting for her life, after being shot by a man in military fatigues who made off with her Jeep.Skip to next paragraph
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It is the first time a United Nations aid worker has been injured in eastern Chad, where agencies are looking after thousands of refugees from neighboring Darfur, Sudan. To make matters worse, the shooting happened not on a remote road in the desert, but right in the middle of Abeche, the main town in the region and the hub for humanitarian operations.
Everyone is on edge. Some talk in hushed tones, others stare into space, running 'What if?' scenarios through their heads.
For Claire Bourgeois, the head of operations for the UN refugee agency out here, it is a reminder of the fortunate escape she had a few weeks earlier, dodging bullets when her car came under fire.
Not that she mentions the incident. It is her employees that offer up the anecdote, while Ms. Bourgeois deals with a barrage of calls – updates on the wounded woman's condition, inquiries from worried colleagues, questions from the head office, and feather-smoothing messages from local officials.
"This is the 24th vehicle that's been stolen. The first 23 times we were lucky and managed to avoid the worst," she says during a rare, brief interlude when her cellphone falls silent.
When the French doctor landed in Abeche back in August 2004, foreign visitors walked around Abeche untroubled, and aid workers slept in tents in the middle of the desert, and could take a jeep and drive out to the border to get the lay of the land.
Now the border area is off limits, many journeys have to be made in convoy, and aid workers live in compounds, walled off and topped with broken glass or barbed wire. And security issues are eating up more and more of Ms. Bourgeois's time.
"We arrived in an extremely calm environment and now it's an environment of total insecurity, partly because of Darfur and partly because of internal problems here in Chad," she says.
It is a confusing but lethal cocktail of assailants.
The janjaweed, an Arab militia widely considered to be backed by the Sudanese government, have been spilling across the border from Darfur into Chad to stage attacks, forcing some 50,000 Chadians to flee their homes in recent months according to the UN. Darfur rebels have been trying to swell their ranks by forcibly recruiting from the refugee camps, spiriting away at least 5,000 men and boys.
Meanwhile, Chadian rebels bent on ousting their own president, Idriss Deby, have clashed with government troops in the east. And then there are the run-of-the-mill bandits and thieves, taking advantage of the general insecurity and administrative chaos to steal a vehicle or a satellite phone.
Bourgeois wants the Chadian government to do more to ensure security for the aid operation. "With a vacuum of authority, comes a sense of impunity," she explains.
Bourgeois began her humanitarian career in 1980 by helping to set up the Belgian wing of Doctors Without Borders. But she decided to move away from pure medicine and into a more wide-ranging role, taking up assignments with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Afghanistan and now Chad. "I wanted to have a more global point of view," she recalls.
So what attracted her to eastern Chad, where only prickly thorn bushes break the barren landscape, and the most common mode of transport is a donkey?