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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Security has deteriorated

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.

What motivated her to go to Chad?

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?

"It was the challenge of setting up an operation," she explains. "At the beginning when the refugees were scattered along the border, it was about bringing them into camps and helping them in this arduous environment, providing water in the desert and setting up schools and clinics from scratch."

Now Bourgeois is responsible for 61 international staff, some 300 local employees and more than 200,000 Darfur refugees sheltering in 12 camps, spanning 400 miles near the Chad-Sudan border.

For many aid workers out here, isolation can be a problem. There is little to do in the evening, especially now that security has deteriorated so much and venturing out on the sandy streets after dark is dangerous. Aid workers hunker down in their houses, playing Scrabble, watching television, or working.

Many people only sign on for six-month assignments and few can bear more than a year of the searing heat, sandstorms, bucket showers, generator blips, monotonous food, and blister-bugs that make up daily life here.

But Bourgeois has clocked up almost two years. And she is dismissive of those who moan about conditions. "When you talk about hardship in Chad, it's not at our level. We are always better off than the refugees and the local population," she says matter-of-factly. "When you accept a job here, you know the score."

Bourgeois is usually the first to arrive at the office in Abeche – a town of squat, single-story concrete and mud buildings that seems to have been dumped in the middle of the desert – and the last to leave, regularly putting in 15-hour days.

But she is by no means a pen pusher, and is often to be found at the wheel of a jeep or boarding the small UN prop plane heading out to the refugee camps and villages to see first hand what needs doing.

"I think it's very important to be out there keeping up personal contact – to meet the people you're actually working for so you can better understand their problems, to encourage teams that are working in more remote places, and to keep the dialogue going with local officials," she says.

Bourgeois is always quick to praise regional officials and the national government in Chad for welcoming the vast numbers of Darfur refugees. It is the fifth- poorest nation on earth and the influx of new arrivals has put pressure on already-scarce resources like water and firewood.

"We must make sure we always have a double aim in mind – helping the refugees but also helping the local population. It's a terrific weight for them."

But that is tricky for a number of reasons. First, the current security situation means that UN workers are not allowed to travel to hard-hit border villages that are in dire need of assistance, and secondly there is the perennial funding problem.

UNHCR has only 37 percent of the money it requested for this year. "It's hard for everyone when we have to stop or scale back projects because of a lack of funds," Bourgeois says diplomatically, keeping the frustration voiced openly by many of her colleagues under a tight lid.

With a peace deal in place between the Sudanese government and the main Darfur rebel group, is it time for the UN operation in Chad to start planning for the refugees to return? Most Darfuris in the camps show no desire to rush home, and Bourgeois seems equally cautious.

"I'm happy that two groups have signed but I think the situation will remain extremely fragile and we need to see how it translates on the ground," is her verdict.

In any case, it is unlikely Bourgeois will be supervising any refugee return as her assignment is due to wrap up in December. So what will she do after eastern Chad?

"I don't know at the moment," she replies, enigmatic to the last. "There's still ... so much work to be done."

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