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Chad villages overwhelmed with Sudanese refugees

Shola Lawal
May 29, 2023

As Sudan's warring generals make and break ceasefire agreements, tens of thousands of people continue to flee the country. People from the violence-stricken Darfur region in particular seek help — and hope — in Chad.

Women and children who fled the violence in Sudan are seen sitting in an arid landscape
This camp in Tomtoma is home to 6,500 refugees, and is only one of the smaller such facilitiesImage: Blaise Dariustone/DW

Bornon Khamis Haroun remembers the nice things she had: A lovely home with pretty mats and her own bed to sleep on. And then overnight, her country, Sudan, turned into a warzone, forcing the 25-year-old to flee.

Just over a month after heavy fighting broke out across Sudan, Haroun gathered her five children and left her hometown of Konga Haraza, a village in West Darfur. They walked for two days to cross the border into Chad with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

The shelter at a camp in Borota, a village in the hot and arid eastern Chad region, is a far cry from the life the family had known before. The structure comprises only tree branches dug into the ground and covered with colorful fabric. At best, it can be described as a tent.

Sitting in her new home, Haroun opens up. "My husband was killed," she says tersely. "In the bush. He went to look for firewood and he got killed."

An elderly man is seen walking in front of a burned-out bank building, surrounded by three other people
In Darfur, the streets are empty and critical infrastructure destroyed, as fighting keeps forcing locals to fleeImage: -/AFP via Getty Images

Another Darfur crisis

Haroun and her children are just a few of hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee Sudan into neighboring countries. According to the UN's migration agency, some 259,000 people have fled the country since the fighting began, and a further 1.8 million people have been internally displaced in Sudan.

The fighting between the heads of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has turned into a humanitarian crisis despite a fragile truce signed last week. That truce is now set to expire on Monday night. 

A man and his donkey are seen walking with a bag in an arid area
Chadian locals like this villager near Tomtoma camp worry that the influx of refugees from Sudan could result in scarcitiesImage: Blaise Dariustone/DW

Much of the fighting between the two factions has raged around the Sudanese capital Khartoum as well as the Darfur region, which is where most people escaping to Chad, like Haroun, come from. A restive region, Darfur was still reeling from its violent past when the civil war began in April.

Hundreds of thousands have been killed in Darfur since 2003 when Arab militias first turned on non-Arab populations to suppress a rebellion against Sudan's former dictator Omar al-Bashir. 

But with the recent surge in violence, Darfur has once again become a crisis hotspot. The UN says that at least 96 people have died in West Darfur state alone, as militiamen were reported looting and destroying entire villages.

Limited resources

Compared to others, Haroun is a recent addition to the camp in Borota. Women and children have been streaming across the border since fighting in Sudan started. 

Haroun is not yet registered at the camp, so she cannot receive food aid. For now, she has to rely on the generosity of her neighbors, who themselves have very little. 

Aid agencies say that at least 60,000 Sudanese people are now in Chad alone, many of whom are yet to register. The Borota camp is currently the biggest of a network of camps, where more than half of these new arrivals reside.

Resources for people like Haroun are limited; there is a well that aid agencies dug to provide water to these refugees, but it is always crowded there. Women cook meager meals over open fires in front of their improvised tents. 

Elsewhere, the conditions are even worse.

Refugees from Sudan in Chad face desperation

Chadians also suffering

Among those seeking safety in Chad are Chadian nationals, who for many years lived in Sudan. Since they originally come from Chad, they are not classified as refugees, as most humanitarian help is focused on Sudanese refugees. 

At a camp in Toumtouma village several hours away, some 7,000 returnee Chadians are trying to get by. A fast-drying well is their main water source, and food aid is slow to come.

Recently, a mobile clinic opened but is tightly packed with mothers seeking malaria treatments for their children.

Despite the dire conditions, many say they won't return to Sudan as long as there is no peace.

"My only wish is that they help us settle here permanently," says Sadie Idja, a mother of three. "What's happening is horrible."

A woman at a medical facilty receives a tissue from a medical practitioner, surrounded yz two children and three other women
Medical care is limited at Tomtoma camp, as scores of children continue to contract malariaImage: Blaise Dariustone/DW

Refugees upon refugees

Bachiaka Singare, a coordinator with the World Food Program, says that there were severe funding shortfalls even before the civil war and these are now affecting the current situation.

"I think it's one of the most urgent crises right now, where you really have to be sensitive as to where you deploy the means. Otherwise lives will be at risk," Singare says. "And right now, we don't even have the means."

Since the Darfur crisis began two decades ago, refugee camps have sprung up across Chad. They hold some 400,000 refugees, many of whom are still almost exclusively reliant on aid.

Those camps have long been semi-permanent settlements, which remain underfunded.

A woman and her son sit in front of their improvized tent in Borota camp
Refugees from Sudan like this woman and her son in Borota camp don't know what the future holdsImage: Blaise Dariustone/DW

Between life and death

Catching up with the funding gap won't be easy, as Chad's ability to care for people fleeing the violence in Sudan keeps shrinking.

Singare says that as more and more people try to escape the conflict, new locations with proper housing infrastructure need to be established in more secure areas. 

Most camps in Chad are positioned so close to Sudan that refugees have been going back and forth to collect their personal belongings from the same volatile villages which they fled in the first place. 

Last week, one such refugee who ventured across the border into Sudan was killed, an aid official, who was not officially authorized to speak to the media, told DW News.

Haroun says she will focus on rebuilding her life, despite the difficulties ahead.

"The war has driven me away from my home," Haroun says, her voice breaking. 

She wipes her tears and admits: "I don't know what to do."

Sudan crisis poses dangerous spillover risks for Chad

Blaise Dariustone contributed to this article

Edited by Sertan Sanderson

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the names of villages