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IT'S REFUGE - AND LITTLE ELSE

Refugees from Chad find safety but little comfort in Cameroon after fleeing from fighting.

The old school campus is dilapidated. There is little food, water from only a single tap, no toilets. Families sleep in the open or under tents made of scavenged tree branches and lengths of cloth used as skirts during the day.

To this have come thousands of refugees who fled Chad's capital when rebels advanced into the city. They found safety, but also squalor.

Home is just across the river, but they fear that going back would be just as bad, with markets burned, stores looted and reports that the rebels may be regrouping east of the capital, N'Djamena.

"If we go back, we're between the anvil and the hammer," said Ngarmbatinan Mbailemdana, a 23-year-old security guard who fled with his wife and two children to the Cameroonian town of Kousseri, just across the Chari River. "The country needs real peace before we go home."

The U.N. estimated that at least 30,000 people have fled the oil-rich country for Cameroon after fighting broke out over the weekend in N'Djamena, a city of about 1-million. No international relief efforts have been mounted.

Rebels who accuse President Idriss Deby of corruption and embezzling millions in oil revenue attacked Chad's capital Feb. 1 in pickups mounted with guns. The uprising appears to be a power struggle within the elite that has long controlled Chad.

The rebels had advanced in a matter of days from their eastern bases near the Sudan border but were repelled after bloody weekend battles. Refugees fear the fighting will erupt again.

Mbailemdana said Thursday he ventured back into N'Djamena two days earlier and found his house burned and saw bodies on streets. Others said they were going home during the day to check conditions, then returning to Cameroon to sleep.

Food in Kousseri is available only to those refugees who can afford it, and prices at local markets were rising because of refugee demand. A loaf of bread, which used to cost about 4 cents, has quintupled in price in recent days, residents said.

Refugee Mbaire Wanda said Chadian officials had visited Kousseri's makeshift camps to try to persuade people to go home.

"I don't think that people dare go home now," Wanda said. "How will people take care of their kids? The markets are burned. The pharmacies have been pillaged. There's no jobs and no money. There's no home to return to."

fast facts

Developments Thursday

Curfew: The government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew across Chad and said it was scouring the capital for coup plotters and their accomplices.

Peacekeepers: President Idriss Deby called for the swift deployment of a European force whose arrival was delayed by the fighting. The European troops would guard nearly a half-million refugees and Chadians displaced by violence in neighboring Sudan's war-ravaged Darfur region.

U.S. evacuations: In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the reduced U.S. Embassy staff in Sudan was still operating out of N'Djamena airport helping American citizens who want to leave. Seven were evacuated Wednesday, for a total of about 90 since the fighting began, he said.

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