EU peacekeeping mission ends amid growing fears over Darfur

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Refugees near border of Chad-Sudan rely on foreign forces for their safety

As he points fearfully towards the sky, a gust of hot wind and sand sweeps across the face of the Chadian police officer and the sprawling refugee camp behind him. A Sudanese plane came across the border illegally just hours ago, a sign of worse to come, says the police chief, Daniel Durandik. "These planes should not to be crossing into Chad. It's illegal. What if they start dropping bombs on us, like they did before?" he asks, turning to the European officers patrolling the Oure Cassoni camp. Located 700 metres from the Sudanese border, the camp provides shelter for more than 30,000 refugees from Darfur.

Ever since an international arrest warrant was issued earlier this month for the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, tensions along the Chad-Sudan border have run high, sparking fears of a fresh humanitarian crisis.

The arrest warrant issued on 4 March by the International Criminal Court names President al-Bashir as wanted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. He responded by ordering 13 aid agencies to leave Darfur – a move that paved the way for a fresh exodus of refugees into Chad. The timing could not have been worse: yesterday, the EU formally ended its year-long military operation to protect nearly half a million refugees from Darfur along with thousands of others displaced by a rebel insurgency inside Chad. Although about a third of its 3,700 soldiers will remain and serve under the incoming United Nations mission, the transition is threatening to create a security vacuum at a highly volatile time.

"The situation in Darfur is explosive right now", warns Oxfam's Chad director, Roland Van Hauwermeiren. "We don't know if Sudanese rebels will grab this opportunity to kick up trouble and cross the border into Chad, and vice versa. It's not the right moment for a change of guard."

Sudanese elders at Am Nabak camp, a sprawl of mud-huts that blends into the desert landscape, regret the departure of the soldiers of EUFOR, as the European peace mission in Chad is known. "People feel safer when they see the Europeans," said Abdel Malik, a majestic figure sitting cross-legged. "We're now very worried about the safety of our loved ones in Darfur. But no matter how bad it gets, we need this man who destroyed our homeland to be taken to trial." Outside, women in bright robes clamour for sacks of grain and canisters of oil, while children scamper about with emaciated donkeys. One aid worker helps a young woman balance a box of food on her head.

"We're lucky that we can go about our work fairly freely here thanks to the EU and the UN, not like our colleagues across the border," says an aid worker with the non-governmental organisation Care International. "But it will be hard if more people arrive. We only have room for another 2,000 here."

Aid agencies expect up to 100,000 refugees to arrive ahead of the summer's rainy season if tensions rise. EU soldiers have had their work cut out over the past year: a complex network of rebels and bandits criss-crosses the Chadian desert in pick-up trucks, brandishing machine guns and looking for possible recruits among the refugees. With few roads linking the towns and the string of refugee camps, it takes hours of backbreaking travel on sandy tracks to cover just a small distance – in a country larger than Germany and Poland combined. In the rainy season, the tracks are washed away and the entire operation relies heavily on just a handful of helicopters that the EU mission has its disposal.

Soldiers regularly camp out in the desert for night patrols around refugee camps. "We are always on standby. The heat is extreme, our lungs get filled with dust every day and getting anywhere takes time," says Major Darek Kudlewski, a Pole, as he clambers into an armoured personnel vehicle, puts on his night-vision glasses and prepares for the patrol. "There is always a very tense first minute when we come face to face with rebels, wondering if they will fire or not. But we are making a difference here."

Major Kudlewski's 400-strong Polish contingent, responsible for north-eastern Chad, has succeeded in creating security around the refugee camps without a shot being fired. "Our mere presence here helps keep things calm," he explains. The welcome the Poles receive bears out his claim. As the convoy arrives in Bahai, a border town with only a mosque, a school and shacks, residents leave the cool of the shade and step out to greet the soldiers, while children skip up to them hoping for goodies.

But there are critical voices too: "We hardly ever see them, and now that we need them to stop Sudanese planes flying above our heads, they don't," says Suwain Hassan Harun, a teacher. "Things are basically the same. As long as the problems between ethnic rebels don't change, our lives will not change either." His comments sum up the shortcomings of the EU mission: that its short duration, the vast territory it had to protect, and its restricted mandate undermined any hope it could bring about long-term stability.

"The situation is only better around the refugee camps. Elsewhere, criminal gangs and bandits are actually on the rise," says Oxfam's Van Hauwermeiren. "The root causes of the problem have not been addressed at all. The EU needs to engage politically."

The UN hopes to have 6,000 soldiers in place by the end of the year, but it will be hampered by the same restrictions, as Chad's President Idriss Déby blocked its political mandate. The UN mission faces a shortfall of helicopters and its multinational nature could rob it even of the EU force's effectiveness.

EUFOR: Protecting refugees

*The EU's military operation in Chad, EUFOR, was set up in late 2007 as an emergency mission under a UN mandate to protect refugees and humanitarian supplies. The French, Irish and Polish contingents are the largest. Deployment was delayed by fears the force would become implicated in fighting with Sudanese rebels.

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