by Eric Reeves
In recent months, human rights groups and journalists have begun to report an ominous development in central Africa: The Darfur genocide, now in its fourth year, appears increasingly to be spilling over into eastern Chad. Why is this happening? As in Darfur itself, the answer is complicated and simple at the same time: complicated because an interlocking array of ethnic interests and regional considerations are at [issue]; and simple because, despite these complexities, those bearing the greatest responsibility for the violence are, yet again, the leaders of the National Islamic Front in Khartoum.
The killing in Chad bears more than a passing resemblance to the violence we have witnessed in Darfur. Here again, the human targets are overwhelmingly from non-Arab tribal groups that straddle the Chad-Darfur border. And, once again, it is primarily a combination of regular military forces from Khartoum and marauding Janjaweed that are to blame. Human Rights Watch has reported attacks on civilians in Chad by Khartoum’s forces, including helicopter gunships. One survivor of the savage massacre of more than 100 men in the Chadian village of Djawara said that the Janjaweed “were wearing khaki military Sudanese clothing.” The United Nations has reported, on the basis of eyewitness observation, that identity papers and badges from two Janjaweed militiamen killed in a recent attack were those of the Sudanese national army. Janjaweed from Sudan are recruiting, or coercing the assistance of, tribal counterparts in Chad. And Darfuri rebel groups are forcibly recruiting boys and men from refugee camps in Chad. This threatens to militarize the camps, making them more likely targets for violence by the Janjaweed.
The chaos has left more than 350,000 civilians in eastern Chad vulnerable. Their ranks include Darfuri refugees who crossed the border during the past three years as well as internally displaced Chadians. As in Darfur, it is not the violence itself that is the main threat. Rather, the violence is making it increasingly likely that humanitarian groups will have to withdraw from the region–which in turn raises the likelihood that enormous numbers of civilians, stranded without food or medical assistance at the height of the rainy season, will die. Meanwhile, the Janjaweed–engaged in what one senior official of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in eastern Chad has described as a “Sudanese land grab”–are using the areas of Chad where they establish control to regroup and stage new attacks in Darfur. In other words, Darfur’s violence has spilled into Chad; and now that violence is spilling back into Darfur.
How did we get to this point? Khartoum is trying to punish the Chadian government of Idris Deby for its support of Darfur’s rebels–and convince Chadian military and political officials to end such aid. And so Khartoum has taken two main steps. First, it is backing the United Front for Change (FCU), a loose coalition of forces that are seeking to overthrow Deby’s government. Second, it has unleashed its Janjaweed proxies, as well as its regular military forces, against civilians in Chad–just as it did against civilians in Darfur three years ago. (Those targeted this time are primarily the non-Arab groups that live along the border, especially the Massalit and Dajo.) This combination–supporting Chadian rebels in their fight against Deby and unleashing the Janjaweed against Chadian civilians–has proven quite effective for Khartoum. As the threat from the rebels has grown–they attacked the capital N’Djamena in April–Deby has been forced to redeploy his own forces to garrisons and larger towns, leaving vast rural areas completely without security. (Here we should remember that Deby himself is a ruthless and rapacious ruler who has squandered virtually all of Chad’s oil wealth. In other words, he is no friend of human rights.) As a result, neither civilians nor humanitarians in much of eastern Chad have any protection against Janjaweed predations. Indeed, the UNHCR recently noted that “[J]anjaweed attacks against Chadians appear to have become more systematic and deadly over the past three months and there is no sign that this pattern will stop.” Amnesty International, in a recent report, describes the evolving nature of Janjaweed attacks:
“[A]s their incursions became more frequent, the Janjawid began directly to attack villages, sometimes repeatedly on successive days or over periods of months, until most of the inhabitants had been killed or forced to flee and the villages had been totally looted. … All the villagers’ possessions are taken. Sometimes repeat raids over several days ensure that there is nothing and no one left.”
As in Darfur, the international community is paralyzed. The African Union, which provides a minimal security presence in Darfur, has no presence in eastern Chad–nor any mandate to operate across the border. The recent Darfur Peace Agreement has done nothing to stop this violence. It merely invoked a worthless deal signed months ago by representatives of N’Djamena and Khartoum–the so-called Tripoli Agreement, which purported to end the border conflict between Sudan and Chad, but in fact did nothing of the sort.
The people of eastern Chad, meanwhile, are defenseless against the well-armed Janjaweed. The men of Djawara fought desperately with bows and arrows against automatic weapons. Many of these people have been displaced two, three, even four times; and this is in an extremely difficult environment, with little well water or arable land. The result has been severe tension between local and displaced populations competing for scare resources.
Hundreds of thousands of human beings in the one of the most difficult environments on earth, threatened with the loss of all humanitarian assistance, pleading for security from ethnically targeted violence: It sounds a lot like Darfur circa 2003. But now the site is eastern Chad. And it is three years later. And our response is precisely the same. Never again indeed.
[Eric Reeves is a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan.]