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Chad refugees head home after failed rebel coup

Tens of thousands of Chadians fled when rebels stormed the capital earlier this month. They're returning cautiously.

By Sarah SimpsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 2008

Back home: Refugees returned across the bridge from Cameroon to Chad this past weekend.

Sarah Simpson

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Kousseri, Cameroon; and N'djamena, Chad

Carrying a tired child and a large plastic bag of possessions, Mallon Dgirhoulalimbay and his family are among the thousands walking home to Chad's capital, N'Djamena, after a rebel attack on the city earlier this month forced them to flee to neighboring Cameroon.

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He's spent nearly a week in the Cameroonian border town of Kousseri, where he, his wife, and five children have squatted uncomfortably under a tree with their few belongings gathered about them. Though glad to be leaving Cameroon, he knows his troubles are not over.

"I'm going back, but I know it's not going to be easy," says Mr. Dgirhoulalimbay, as he begins the 15-mile walk to N'Djamena from the Cameroon border. "My house is OK, but I hear many things have been looted in town. And if the rebels come back, we'll be running to Cameroon again."

The attempted coup in Chad, which was repelled by government forces last week, has created yet another humanitarian emergency in a region already struggling to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees. Existing aid operations that keep some half a million people alive in eastern Chad could be jeopardized, says the United Nations. Meanwhile, Chad has threatened to force 250,000 refugees from its territory after blaming them for worsening tensions with neighbor Sudan, which it says backed the rebels who launched the attempted coup.

At the peak of the exodus from N'Djamena last week, more than 30,000 Chadian refugees were officially registered in neighboring Cameroon, though more were absorbed by the local community, making accurate head counts difficult. The UN estimates that 20,000 refugees will remain in Cameroon in the medium term, needing food, water, and other basics. More Chadian refugees are being looked after by authorities 300 miles farther west, in Nigeria.

Many of those returning say they are heading back to Chad because they cannot cope with the poor conditions in Cameroon, where thousands of other refugees are sheltered in crumbling schools or sleeping outside.

Father of three Bouahima Razaki says that he and his family have had nothing to eat or drink for days. "Our children are getting ill from sleeping out in the night. It's better to go home; security or no security." A crowd gathered to listen in agrees with him in loud voices.

Maurizio Giuliano, of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in N'Djamena, says that distribution of food and water for up to 50,000 people began in Cameroon on Saturday.

"We would encourage refugees who feel it is safe enough to do so, to come back," says Mr. Giuliano. "Whatever aid they receive in Cameroon should not encourage them to stay."

The UN aims to provide the same services slowly being made available to refugees in Cameroon to the population of N'Djamena – both those who stayed throughout the fighting and those who are just returning. But that will not be easy.

Even though government forces, with military support from former colonial power France, repelled the rebels within two days, many public buildings were shot at, broken into, and partially burned down.

Hundreds died in the fighting and thousands were injured, according to the Red Cross.