Chad refugees must choose to return or a permanent camp

Thousands of people have to choose between going back to N'Djamena and settling in a refugee camp.
Two weeks after N'Djamena's heavy fightings, it is time for thousands of Chadians who sought refuge in Cameroon to make a difficult choice. They had until now settled, often in makeshift conditions, in Kousseri, a town a stone's throw away from the border. In the past few days, several families have already made the choice to go back to N'Djamena, but since Saturday, the United Nations has started transferring the remaining people to Maltam camp, located about 30 kilometres from Kousseri. For thousands of people, this now means choosing between going back to N'Djamena or transferring to Maltam. Either going back home with its uncertainties, or going to live in a far away, but safe, camp. With this transfer, the authorities also hope to separate the refugees from the Kousseri and N'Djamena inhabitants taking advantage of the aid services. Insecurity is the main reason given by refugees hesitant to go back to Chad. Some are still too frightened after the extremely violent clash that shook the capital. "The rebels entered and broke down the city. There were bodies everywhere, even at our doorstep. It was like in 1979 [during the civil war] but even worse," remembered Fatima, a widow who sought refuge in Kousseri with two of her grandchildren. "I can't go back to the crossfire; I've had enough watching that. It's the fourth time that I've lived trough this kind of situation. I've already lost my husband and my big brother in previous events. Each time, we, the less fortunate, die." The fighting ceased 15 days ago, but fear remains. The wildest rumours are circulating. "The news we get from N'Djamena is not good," explained Madirome, a young woman, 24. "We hear that rebels are ready to attack N'Djamena again. They absolutely want power and Déby [the president] does not want to leave. If they don't reach a compromise, there won't be any cooling off period." Fear of retribution adds to the fear of fighting. For the past two weeks, gun shots have been frequent at night in N'Djamena. Moreover, Chadian authorities are chasing people who apparently participated in the looting during the fights. Many stories circulate concerning the powerful methods used by the enforcement authorities. "Military personnel have arms and are threatening people. They search the houses and take the goods," explained a man just arriving from N'Djamena. While it is time to decide to go back to Chad or not, safety is an important factor but not the only one. For the poorest, there is also a question of finding the basics that will keep them going. "I don't know yet if I will go to Maltam," explained Narcisse, a man in his 50s living in Kousseri with the five members of his family. Their food reserves have run out and they sleep in the open. "On one side, I have a house in N'Djamena, but in the actual context, it's not possible. On top of that, I am a carpenter and all economic activities have been stopped. If I go back and everything is still stopped, what will I do? In Maltam, at least, I will get food. I could stay there and see what happens in N'Djamena." Price escalations after the fighting affect mainly the most deprived. Henriette, a grandmother who has been living under a tree for the last 12 days with the 12 members of her family, ensured that if they get fed, they will go to Maltam. "In N'Djamena, there is nothing. Millet is very expensive now. What would we eat if we go back?" Last Saturday in Kousserri, people were scrambling to get on one of the trucks leaving for the camp, attracted by the idea of receiving food and assistance. For Siméon, a student who says he does not want to return to Chad, the situation is simple: "Those who have nothing prefer to go to Maltam and receive food." Until now, the transfer has been happening slowly. The first day, only 700 people managed to leave. Those who stay in Kousseri are still living in very precarious conditions. Even if blankets and sheeting are being distributed, many families still complain about the cold and the lack of food. In Madana, the main temporary site, where refugees have gathered, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) will maintain its medical consultation until most of the refugees have gone. Even if many refugees want to reach Maltam, most only see the camp as a transitory phase. Most of the refugees who were interviewed said they want to return to N'Djamena in the coming months, after the dust settles. "I can't go back now. If I go, I'll remember what happened. I'll stay until I feel rested. Once the dust has settled in N'Djamena, I'll go back," said Fatima.