Chad refugees wait for tide to turn before heading home

The intermittent civil war that has plagued Chad for more than 15 years may be cooling. But the majority of the approximately 100,000 refugees who waded or boated across the muddy Chari River into neighboring Cameroon since the last outbreak one year ago are still hesitant about returning home.

"The situation is far from stable," noted an official with the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "They are waiting to see what is going to happen."

The presence of Libyan troops and Islamic legionnaires in Chad has complicated matters for many refugees. So has the proposed merger of Chad with Libya. "We will never accept to become party of Libya," said Abdel Kadel Bemba, a lanky high school teacher, now living in a 400 acre UNHCR refuge on the outskirts of this dusty frontier trading town. "We will fight if necessary."

Although a substantial number of refugees appear to be more concerned about simply reestablishing normal lives rather than agonizing over the political future of their country, similar sentiments were expressed by crowds of camp inmates, particularly Chadians in their late teens and early 20s, as they wait for food rations to be distributed outside a long, wooden barrack depot.

"The libyans must eventually leave because they will realize that we don't want them," confidently predicted Dogo Seit, a Chamber of Commerce employee from N'Djamena, the Chad capital that lies in partial ruin just across the river. He stands patiently with a battered black bicycle leaning against his waist."We will never tolerate any foreign domination."

An estimated 80,000 Chad refugees still in Cameroon, primarily urban shopkeepers, civil servants, and merchants from the capital, whose modern great mosque can be seen from the camp looming in the distance, have swollen the population of Kousseri to make it this country's third largest city.

The majority live in long rows of thatched huts, Red Cross tents, and wooden barracks that have been erected in a dried-out rice field exposed to desert winds that throw hot clouds of biting dust. Several thousand refugees have also pitched their shelters within the town itself, where the bazaars are crammed with looted merchandise such as office chairs, typewriters, radios, and stoves from N'Djamena.

Although health care is relatively good when compared to local facilities in Kousseri, the camp (the only official one in Cameroon for Chad refugees), suffers from a variety of serious problems.

Sanitation, in particular, is considered hazardous. Camp authorities have constructed rows of public toilets, but the refugees, who dislike such communal openness, prefer to use the water ditches that run through the camp as well as the outlying open areas for their private needs.

During the dry season, the dangers of contamination are lessened by solarization. But relief officials say outbreaks of disease may occur with the onset of the rains in June. Furthermore, women and children often use the ditch water for washing and swimming.

Large sections of the camp will have to be moved to higher ground before the short, but violent rains arrive. Camp authorities, who rely on foreign donations for funds, have begun constructing more wooden barracks to replace tents and thatched huts, now that it looks as if the refugees want to hang on. Tents are unsuited to the fierce desert winds, while the huts are vulnerable to termites and must be rebuilt every two months.

With the government troops of Chad President Goukhouni Woddei and his Libyan allies now firmly ensconced in the capital, possibly as many as 20,000 refugees have gone back. At the height of the fighting around the capital last November, well over 100,000 Chadians sought refuge in Cameroon with thousands more flooding across every week. A considerable portion of refugees return to work or check their homes in Chad on a daily basis, but prefer to continue living in Kousseri.

The instability in Chad is reflected by the fact that the refugees in Cameroon include supporters of both sides. Despite government appeals to return , the refugees prefer to see how the situation will evolve. Foreign observers recently in Chad say there is no more fighting in the capital itself. Libyan troops, however, are believed to be still engaged in clashes with members of former Defense Minister Hissein Habre's Forces Armees du Nord (FAN) along the Sudanese border. An estimated 400 FAN soldiers are said to be still in Chad. The rest have fled to Sudan.

According to well-informed French Sources, Soviet technicians have also been detected in certain parts of Chad where Libyans and Islamic legion troops are stationed. The Soviet advisers are apparently not engaged in active frontline positions, but are based in logistic supply centers outside the towns.

The sources maintain that the Soviets were brought in to service MI-24 helicopter gunships similar to those used in Afghanistan, combat and reconnaissance planes, and antiaircraft installations. The sources were not able to confirm reports of East German military personel operating in Chad.

Opposition to Libya's proposed merger with Chad appears to be growing both inside and outside the country. Algeria, which had initially abstained from condemning Tripoli's military intervention, has now publicly refused to condone a merger that lacks the support of the Chad people.

In his country's first official stance on the situation, Algeria President Chadli Benjedid recently warned that such a move would only cause political tension and lead to a cold war that might degenerate into an armed conflict among neighbors. France, too, declared Feb. 28 that it would refuse to deliver 10 patrol boats ordered by Tripoli as long as Libyan troops remained in Chad.

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