Refugees in Birak, Chad, provide details of the violence in Darfur

They just escaped bombings in Darfur, but have no other choice than to return in order to get the most urgent supplies.

Sudanese refugees who recently arrived in Birak area, in Chad, remain in a critical situation. Their villages were burnt down, goods plundered and parents killed or wounded. They escaped and took refuge a few kilometres across the border, hoping to find a secure place to stay. Nevertheless, assistance in this very unstable region is extremely restricted. Today, they get limited resources and they risk their lives looking for food in the ruins of their village in Darfur.

Refugees in Birak describe particularly violent attacks. First aerial attacks, then intervention from the Sudanese army vehicles and from riding militias.

"It was Friday, we went praying," said Ibrahim, who lived in Seleah.

"Suddenly Antonovs bombings started. Right after, army pick-ups and men on horseback entered the village. They start shooting people and pillaging. We took refuge in our bedroom but some of the militias followed us and took everything. When they took my wife's blanket she refused to give it away, saying that it was for the children. They shot her. Then they took everything, even our horse and they left."

The first refugees arrived in Chad on February 9, escaping attacks on the villages of Seleah, Abu Shuruj and Sirba. A second wave of refugees arrived from the Jebel Moon on February 20, recounting the same kind of events.

"Bombings started on Tuesday with Antonovs and helicopters", explained Zara, a woman of 26 from a village in the foothills of the Jebel Moon. "We took refuge in the mountain, but militias followed us and killed many people. I was hiding in a cave. One of them entered to have a look. When he saw me, he shot. I got a bullet in my leg and one in my arm. My son died on my back. He was 18 months old."

They left without anything

In the panic that followed, several families where separated.

"Those who died, we left them behind. We even had to leave behind some of the wounded. Each of us escaped alone. You were lucky if you had enough time to take your child with you. We left without looking back", remembers Fatima, a woman of 60 who arrived in Birak on February 20.

Gradually, families gathered on the Chadian side. But one week after the attacks, some parents are still looking for their children. Families confirm that many old people who were not able to move still remain in Darfur.

Most of the refugees could not bring anything in their escape. Once in Chad, they gathered in different side along the border. As they are scattered on more than 30 kilometres, it is difficult to estimate their number. Around 10,000, maybe more.

They set up under the trees, behind branches or in dry river beds. Some of them receive assistance from the local population and the present organizations - amongst them MSF - but the majority of the refugees is still surviving in very precarious conditions.

Their situation is unfortunately not going to improve as long as they stay close to the border, conveying of relief supplies being, in this isolated and instable area, extremely difficult.

A dangerous return in Darfur

Without any other choice, several people are deciding to return to their village in Sudan in order to find some food, often risking their life, because of the militias still present in their village.

Generally, women return as men claim they would be killed.

They enter villages during the night in order to avoid armed people, but even like this the trip is very risky.

"Militias whipped us," said Hawa and Fatima, who recently went back to Gosmino. "If you only take a small millet bag then you can go through, but if you take a big bag or something else, then they take it. Some women suffered a lot."

During the last week of February, the MSF team working in the heath centre of Birak treated a man who got shot during his attempt to get food in Seleah.

"Normally women go there because it's less dangerous," explained his uncle, "However he has no choice, he didn't have anything left to eat and his wife is sick."

Despite their very precarious life conditions, the refugees' health status remains quite stable. However, it could deteriorate quite quickly if no assistance is given.

"As for now, we just suffer from the cold and our stomachs hurt a bit, nothing serious. But in a couple of days there could be a real problem," said Abdallah, a man who came from the Jebel Moon with his 13 children and who has survived until now thanks to the help of his parents and the local population.

A deadlocked situation

Caught in this buffer zone, the refugees' situation seems to be deadlocked. Many of them perceive their transfer in a refugee camp in a more secure area as the solution.

"We cannot return in Sudan because of insecurity. We cannot stay here because we don't have any food and water. If some organisation bring us to a camp, we will go," said a refugee who has set up shelter close to the village of Figuera. However, not all of them share the same opinion, particularly some cheikhs (community leaders) who prefer to remain close to the border in order to go back in Sudan as soon as the situation will permit.

For many of them who are tired of this endless war, to go back home is, for the moment, out of the question. For the large majority of the refugees who recently arrived in Chad, this is unfortunately not the first attack that they had to endure. Almost all of them claim to have been displaced in 2003 or 2004 following militias' attacks.

"Darfur is too bitter, I don't want to go back. Previously I was living in my village, but in 2004, militias made us leave to a camp and now, they made us come here. I don't want to leave one more time," declared Fatima, the grandmother who arrived in Birak a couple days ago.