Angelina Jolie completed a two-day mission to a refugee camp in eastern Chad which enabled her to assess how the security situation has deteriorated for Sudanese refugees since her last visit to Chad 2004.
She visited both Chad and neighbouring Sudan’s Darfur region with UNHCR in 2004, said she was struck by the sense of hope she encountered at the Oure-Cassoni camp near this town and by the widespread desire for peace-keepers to be deployed in Chad.
She also reflected on the hardship and suffering she had seen at the camp, which is located less than five kilometres from the border with Sudan. “It’s always hard to see decent people, families, living in such difficult conditions,” she said. “What is most upsetting is how long it is taking the international community to answer this crisis,” Jolie added.
The award-winning actress had to travel through a sandstorm on Monday to reach the Oure-Cassoni camp, which with a refugee population of more than 26,000 is the northernmost of 12 UNHCR-run camps in eastern Chad housing more than 230,000 refugees from Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.
She was greeted at one of the camp’s many primary schools by singing children as the desert wind whipped against the plastic sheeting serving as the structure’s roof and walls. The encroaching sands and storms make their hard life even tougher, with many of the tents and mud-brick houses partially or completely buried. Wood for cooking and heat is scarce in the region, and competition for the resource causes friction between the refugee and local populations.
Refugee women are sometimes sexually and physically abused while out collecting the precious scraps of firewood beyond the protection of police provided by the Chadian government to help ensure refugee security.
At the school, Jolie listened to children’s tales of daily life, their concerns and their hopes of one day returning to their homes in Darfur. The room was filled with laughter as she and the children took turns drawing for each other. She later visited mentally ill refugees.
On Tuesday, Jolie visited a man-made reservoir that feeds the camp with water, but which is now almost empty following disappointing rains last year. Its shrinking reserves are a matter of concern for the refugees and UNHCR.
She then sat down with a group of women and discussed their desire for access to income-generating activities as well as their longing to return home. But the women, who were preparing celebrations for International Women’s Day on March 8, said it was still not safe enough across the border and many of the refugees she spoke to supported calls for a peace-keeping force in Chad.
In a report last week to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed sending a multi-dimensional peace-keeping mission to Chad to protect civilians and deter cross-border attacks.
The refugees Jolie talked to also drew comfort from recent radio reports saying that the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) had told the Security Council it had credible evidence of grave crimes against humanity committed in Darfur.
“Today, many refugees seemed to have a new sense of hope, and they want to see those guilty brought to trial.... In order to feel safe enough to return home, these people said they would need to know that the men who attacked them had been stripped of their weapons,” Jolie said. “This is a very important day for international justice. The decisions of the ICC could make a big difference in the lives of these women and their children.”
Jolie had high praise for the UNHCR staff and NGO workers that she met in the camp. “Years into this situation, now finding themselves coming under attack, humanitarian workers’ spirits are unbroken,” she said.
There are more than 230,000 refugees from Sudan in eastern Chad, while some 46,000 refugees from the Central African Republic have found shelter in southern Chad. In addition to these refugees, close to 120,000 Chadians are displaced in the eastern region of their own country.