With renewed fighting that has killed hundreds of soldiers and rebels in eastern Chad, and signs of more hostilities to come, aid workers there are adjusting how they assist the hundreds of thousands of civilians who depend on aid for their survival.
Heavy fighting broke out on 3 December between rebels and government forces in a mountainous area called Aram Kole west of Biltine, a regional capital in the east. They were the latest skirmishes in days of attacks and counterattacks in the region.
"All international staff have been pulled out of Guereda [close to the current fighting]," the head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Chad, Felix Bamezon, told IRIN on 4 December. "We have a 24-hour watch on the situation at Farchana." Both are towns with camps for tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees and sites for displaced Chadians.
"In general WFP is operating with reduced staff in the east," he said.
Under UN security regulations UN staff are prohibited from going to areas along the border with Sudan. "So we have to rely on NGOs there to provide services and give us information," Bamezon said.
Many NGOs in the area have the flexibility to shift operations in emergencies, aid workers said. “We are always on high alert here but we can take decisions on the ground and on the spot," the deputy head of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in Chad, Nicolai Panke, told IRIN.
Three civilians are known to have been killed in the crossfire in recent fighting. Most fighting is taking place away from civilian areas and to date rebels have not attacked aid workers or pillaged humanitarian supplies.
The ICRC's Panke told IRIN that even with the violent clashes between government forces and rebels, aid work is threatened less by that than by armed robbery in the region. "It may be hard to believe but even though there is such intense fighting going on around us, with hundreds of combatants being killed and wounded, the main threat to our ability to carry out humanitarian activities is actually banditry,” he said.
Still the banditry is thought to be linked to the military offensives, which WFP's Bamezon said are likely exacerbating criminality. Combatants from all sides are suspected of taking part in armed raids.
"We have also seen that local civil authorities and security officials in the east have deserted their positions," Bamezon said. "With no one to stop the criminals they are able to operate under perfect conditions."
He said a WFP convoy was attacked on 3 December on the way to the refugee camp at Breidjing. "The driver and his assistants were beaten and robbed of 500,000 CFA (US$1,100)."
On 30 November the ICRC sent a four-man surgical team to Abeche, a regional capital and the humanitarian logistics hub in the east. "We have treated dozens of soldiers with serious burns and wounds from bullets and shrapnel and there have been many amputations," Panke said.
Another ICRC team on 3 December went to a site 18 km west of Farchana to inspect the aftermath of fighting that occurred there six days earlier. "We found a lot of unexploded ordnance [UXO] on the battlefield," Panke said. "We will be going back there with a de-mining expert
in a couple of days to help develop a program for government de-miners."
"The ordnance poses a major danger for civilians," he said. "Many were killed [by UXO] after last year's fighting, especially children."