Tongori, 24 October 2023 – The air is dry, and the sun is beating down hard in Tongori, a small town in Eastern Chad near the Sudanese border. Under the shade of an acacia tree in front of her new house, Ache, her daughter Fatime, and her grandchildren are weaving plastic straw fans to sell at the local market. They are among the estimated 80,000 Chadians living in Sudan who have fled the conflict and returned to Chad, hoping to restart their lives back “home”.

And yet, just six months ago, their lives were peaceful.

Born in Matadjana, in Chad’s Wadi-Fira province, Ache migrated to Sudan in the 1990s where, up until recently, she was a successful cattle farmer. Her family also owned a small convenience shop there which helped them provide for their daughter and support some of their relatives on the other side of the border.

But their peace was upended when conflict broke out in Sudan six months ago. As the violence gradually spread across the country and drew close to her town, Ache only had one option: fleeing and returning “home”.

“Our village was stuck in the middle of the fighting,” she remembers. “Our shop was looted, and whenever they were shooting heavy weapons, it always fell on us.”

Terrified, she made the decision to leave and embarked on the uncertain path for safety. “We paid a driver 2,000 Sudanese pounds (roughly USD 3.33) per person for the journey across the border into Chad,” she says. They drove for an entire day from El Geneina in Sudan, to Adré, in Eastern Chad, through destroyed villages, and sometimes through “avenues littered with corpses on both sides.”

For weeks, Ache and her family sheltered in the Adré High School which became the epicentre of the displacement crisis, hosting over 50,000 Chadian returnees, Sudanese refugees and stranded third-country nationals at one point.

A view of the Adré High School in Eastern Chad which hosts tens of thousands of refugees and returnees fleeing from Sudan. Photo: IOM/François-Xavier Ada 2023

Like Ache and her family, most of the returnees from Sudan have settled in various locations across the Ouaddai, Sila and Wadi-Fira provinces which make up some of the 1,400-kilometre-long border between Chad and Sudan.

With the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Ache voluntarily relocated to Tongori, a community located some 20 kilometres away from the border, where IOM and other humanitarian actors are developing contextualized transitional shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure as well as health and protection services to help returnees reintegrate within communities.

“As the crisis in Sudan deepens and arrivals continue, we need to think about long-term solutions,” says Jonathan Baker, who leads IOM’s emergency response in Eastern Chad. “Relocation from the border area is an essential first step to decongest hosting areas, and to ensure returnees are safe and have access to basic lifesaving infrastructures.”

IOM staff help returnees load their belongings onto a truck in preparation for their relocation from Adré near the Chad-Sudan border to the locality of Tongori. Photo: IOM/François-Xavier Ada 2023

A woman climbs a truck ahead of her relocation from Adré. IOM has supported the relocation of over 6,000 returnees from the Chad-Sudan border. Photo:IOM/François-Xavier Ada 2023

Tongori is one of two communities in Eastern Chad where IOM has begun carrying out these initiatives to transition out of the emergency response and provide first steps towards the long-term integration of returnees. As part of these initiatives, IOM and humanitarian actors built 1,000 transitional shelters, six water points and 30 communal latrines to ensure people returning from Sudan can access clean water and sanitation. IOM and partners are also supporting community leadership and protection mechanisms within these communities.

In Tongori, Ache received a transitional shelter that offers some semblance of privacy and security while she awaits a longer-term housing solution. “Whenever we heard a plane, we would duck and hide because we were scared. But here, we feel safe,” she says.

Ache poses inside her shelter built by IOM. Photo: IOM/François-Xavier Ada 2023

Meanwhile, as the conflict in Sudan intensifies, more people continue to flee to Chad, where returnees are facing a bittersweet homecoming.

“When returnees arrive, host communities are kind enough to welcome them and share their food and resources with them,” explains Baker. As the situation continues, however, their prolonged stay risks stoking tensions with host communities who are already struggling to make ends meet due to a surge in prices of basic commodities.

Host communities in the region were already vulnerable due to a pre-existing protracted humanitarian crisis and years of underdevelopment, resulting in limited spaces in schools, and few markets, hospitals and livelihood opportunities.

More must be done to invest in durable solutions that integrate health, education, livelihoods, and community-based protection mechanisms for returnees, as well as support for hosting neighbouring villages.

However, the humanitarian response in Eastern Chad remains critically underfunded. “Of the USD 25 million we have requested, we have only received 6 per cent, meaning that we’ve only been able to cover a fraction of the needs,” Baker adds. “If additional funding is not quickly secured, we risk facing a humanitarian catastrophe.”

This story was written by François-Xavier Ada, IOM Chad.

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