Race to position food in CAR for Darfurian refugees

Published on 25 July 2007

Refugees fleeing Darfur are moving across the border into Central African Republic opening another front in the complex and deadly crisis, WFP spokesperson Marcus Prior reports.

Refugees fleeing Darfur are moving across the border into Central African Republic opening another front in the complex and deadly crisis, WFP spokesperson Marcus Prior reports.

Sam Ouandja is a place as about as difficult to reach as it gets for WFP.

The small town and its bumpy dirt airstrip is tucked away in a far northeastern pocket of the Central African Republic, only a few kilometres from the border with war-ravaged Darfur.

Few places on the continent are further from the coast – and few are more desperate.

On May 23 this year, a column of people from the town of Daffak in south Darfur started arriving in Sam Ouandja.

They had walked for almost two weeks to escape the bombs which fell on their settlement soon after five o’clock one clear afternoon.

The mothers carried their babies on their backs and their meagre belongings on their heads. There was no shelter on their 100 kilometre journey and little food.

Conflict crosses border

It was the first time victims of Darfur’s bitter conflict had crossed into neighbouring CAR, adding a new and worrying dimension to perhaps the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

We ran for our lives when the bombs began to fall on our homes. We were being attacked on the ground as well
Mariam Abakar Asballah,30

“It took me twelve days to get here,” said Mariam Abakar Asballah, a 30 year-old mother-of-five and one of nearly 3,000 Darfuris living in the camp.

“We ran for our lives when the bombs began to fall on our homes. We were being attacked on the ground as well. We just couldn’t stay there – I grabbed my children and ran.

“And it’s still far too dangerous for us to try and go back home,” she said.

Nightmare logistics

Logistical operations in CAR are a nightmare. A recent convoy of trucks carrying aid supplies took 16 days to reach the northeastern town of Birao from the CAR capital, Bangui.

One tortuous 11 kilometres stretch took three full days to complete and the trucks took a terrible pounding. On many nights the drivers slept on top of their vehicles, too scared to set up camp on the ground after a lion was spotted close to the roadside.

But food is getting through and the refugees are receiving supplies. High energy biscuits were flown in as a first emergency response although the narrowness of the airstrip at Sam Ouandja meant the cargo had to be delivered in two lots as only a very small aircraft could land there.

Two truck convoys have since reached the town carrying emergency supplies. The camp is now better organized with more effective shelters covered in plastic sheeting.

Copyright:2007 WFP/Marcus Prior

Essential medicines have been delivered and a further truck convoy is due to arrive in Sam Ouandja soon carrying seeds to allow the refugees at least some level of food self-sufficiency by the time of the next harvest in September.

Walking around the camp, the dusty orange tinge to many of the young children’s hair was a clear and disconcerting sign of malnutrition. A specialist medical NGO, International Medical Corps, will start work in the camp soon, and will be kept very busy. Until then the town’s small hospital is doing what it can for the refugees with the support of the UN.

Rains coming

The next aid convoy may also be the last for some time – the rainy season is closing in and the roads, already in a diabolical condition, will become completely impassable. WFP will have pre-positioned enough food for the refugees until the end of September, but the window of opportunity to get supplies through is closing as the rains approach.

And it is not just the Sudanese refugees who need help in this most remote part of Africa. The town of Sam Ouandja was itself attacked in November 2006 and again in March this year as a local rebellion sought recognition from the government in Bangui. Most of the residents fled into the bush, where about 10,000 – half the town’s population – remain.

A further truck convoy is due to arrive in Sam Ouandja soon carrying seeds to allow the refugees at least some level of food self-sufficiency by the time of the next harvest in September
Marcus Prior, WFP

WFP is delivering food to the most vulnerable, but the additional needs of the local population are considerable. This entirely unpredictable new influx of refugees has placed further stress on an already severely stretched WFP operation in CAR.

Civil conflict and banditry across the north of the country has forced up to 290,000 people from their homes, leaving many people living wild in the bush too scared to return. They may not have anywhere to return to as many of the villages have been burnt to the ground.

Funding shortages

The needs are enormous and WFP’s resources limited. The operation in response to the food needs of 365,000 people affected by conflict in CAR is only 63 percent funded makeing a shortfall of $US 16.3 million. The trucking and logistics operation has received no contributions at all and is being supported through funds advanced internally by WFP.

The WFP-operated air service, vital to the humanitarian operation in CAR, is facing such a funding shortfall it could be grounded as early as next month.

Despite these handicaps, WFP is fighting to keep feeding the hundreds of thousands of refugees in CAR dependent on international aid. The agency is committed to continue flying vital food and supplies into the north at least through to the end of the “lean season”, before which people cannot hope to be able to support themselves.

Sudanese refugees in CAR and internally displaced populations have lost their communities, their livelihoods and their loved ones; it is imperative that they be given the means to survive, rebuild, and eventually return home.