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Painful cost of Sudan relief effort

Biro: Putrid smell is everywhere
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One of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today.

Thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Sudan have now crossed into Chad.

BAHAI, Chad (CNN) -- For 15 months violent conflict has been raging in Sudan's Darfur region, where U.N. officials have accused Sudan and allied Arab tribal militias of "ethnic cleansing."

Peter Biro, a 37-year-old Swede who works for the International Rescue Committee, was sent to Chad's northeastern border with Sudan to join the humanitarian organization's emergency response efforts to aid thousands of Sudanese refugees seeking safety. In the first of three installments, he describes the mission.

On May 8, I left the dusty and isolated trading post of Abéché in eastern Chad for the even more desolate northeast, where the International Rescue Committee is aiding Sudanese refugees that have fled the ghastly conflict in Darfur.

The desert road winding towards the Sudanese border cuts through a landscape scattered with shrubs, rocks and occasional trees. Now and again small groups of people mounted on donkeys appeared, slowly making their way through the trembling heat.

Elaborately wrapped turbans protect the men from the sand whipped up by the wind. The women wear colorful scarves and dresses that dramatically break the monotony of the sand-colored landscape.

When we approach Bahai, the IRC's little hub, the landscape shifts from the Sahel region's blend of rocks and desert to the orange-brown dunes of the arid Sahara desert. The vehicle skids across deep, sandy tracks, ripping up a huge cloud of dust in our wake. After a grueling 11-hour drive, we pull up to IRC's compound, housed in the local hospital.

Exhausted, I collapse on a stretcher in an old maternity ward, my new home. Less than 100 meters from the hospital gate, thousands of refugees are lighting fires to prepare for a far less comfortable night in the cold. They are living under scraggly acacia trees or thorn bushes with all their belongings -- most of the time only a bucket and some clothes, hanging from the branches.

More than 20,000 refugees have fled to Bahai and the nearby village of Cariari, a stone's-throw from the border with Sudan, and my colleagues estimate that 200 to 300 more are arriving every week. The influx has tripled the population of this remote place, stretching the resources of the already impoverished communities.

I wake in the morning to a gust of wind, which brings with it the stench of hundreds if not thousands of decomposing donkeys, camels and goats. The putrid smell is everywhere, I soon learned; when the wind blows, it only gets worse.

The refugees, most of them from families that have long been animal herders, all came here with their livestock. But now the animals are dying from hunger, thirst and exhaustion at an alarming rate.

Sudanese arrive at the Farchana refugee camp in Chad that already has about 7,000 inhabitants.

I spend the coming days with our carcass disposal team. Their rather unpleasant job is to prevent the outbreak of disease by collecting as many dead animals as possible, transporting them to a place in the desert away from any settlements and torching them.

So at 7 a.m., with the merciless desert sun already beating down on us, we bring the creatures to a designated spot, and with the flick of a match, hundreds of dead animals, once the livelihood, sustenance and means of transportation for their former owners, explode in a sea of flames.

Thankfully, we are wearing masks.

When we returned to the villages after these excursions, we were met with expressions of gratitude from the refugees. They told us they knew the remains of the animals could contaminate water and breed disease, but that they didn't have the means to remove them themselves.

What we didn't expect was the psychological relief the project was bringing. They told us that seeing the symbols of their heritage and wealth dying all around them was an added painful reminder of their desperate condition and one that they found difficult to bear.


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