Geneva/Birak, Chad, February 13, 2008 – From February 8-10, the Sudanese army, assisted by militias, launched a large offensive in northwest Darfur. This military offensive, one of the most violent over the past few years, resulted in an immediate population displacement and the forced interruption of all medical activities in Seleia, where Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had been running a health center since 2006.
The MSF team present in neighboring Chad has confirmed that at least 7,000 new refugees, including Sudanese MSF staff, reached the area of Birak in Chad after fleeing the Darfur towns of Abu Suruj, Sirba, and Seleia, which are now emptied of their populations. This is only a fraction of the civilians directly affected by the offensive, which are estimated at approximately 50,000 people.
According to the refugees, the attacks began on February 8, with aerial bombardment by military planes and attack helicopters. Testimonies of refugees tell the horror of the violence they faced: “We saw the soldiers surrounding our town before they started looting our houses, setting them afire,” said one inhabitant of Seleia who arrived in Birak region.
The MSF team compound was attacked and looted, despite the fact that many women and children had sought refuge in the medical structure. Furthermore, the displaced population reported being further attacked, threatened, and looted by roaming militias while en route to Chad during the night.
The refugees in Chad have gathered around villages and under trees, and have nothing but the clothes they wore when they fled. The MSF team has started to take in some of the wounded in need of urgent medical care. The immediate priorities are to provide access to clean water and distribute blankets, as the area is particularly cold and windy, and to set up medical consultations.
“MSF is extremely worried about the fate of those populations that were left behind,” said Huub Verhagen, MSF head of operations for Chad and Sudan. “Many families have been separated during the attack and are without news of those who remain in Darfur.”
Access to the region north of El Genina in Darfur has been systematically refused to MSF international staff in Sudan since mid-December 2007, despite reports of deteriorating humanitarian conditions and the need to carry out rapid health assessments after the recent attacks. MSF is deeply concerned by the situation and requests to all belligerents free and unhindered access to the populations in dire need of emergency assistance.
MSF medical teams have been working on both sides of the border between Chad and Darfur,Sudan since 2004, providing care for populations directly affected by the conflict. In Seleia, MSF provided a range of medical services including antenatal and surgical care, with an average of 1,500 consultations per month. In mid-December 2007, the international staff in Seleia was temporarily evacuated but had since then repeatedly requested administrative authorizations to return to the area.