Darfur's violence spreads across borders

The chief’s story is dark and familiar. Attackers on horseback shattering his dawn ritual of tea brewing—shouting racial venom, killing men, raping women. The survivors fleeing to a makeshift camp, sheltering from the desert sun under lengths of cloth strung from thorn trees.

Chief Umar Kabayi is not one of Darfur’s tens of thousands of victims.
He and his fellow villagers are Chadian, and theirs is a story of western Sudan’s violence and passionate hatreds spreading across borders.

“This is an old, old story,” Kabayi said. “We’ve had disputes going back 30 years, but the chiefs would settle them. We’ve always lived side by side, we share the same market.”

Modern politics and weapons, though, have transformed age-old disputes over land and water in this bleak corner of Africa into something potentially explosive. Conflict is spreading south as surely as the march of the Sahara and is becoming increasingly violent.

Chad is being buffeted by violence on multiple fronts. The government is trying to quash rebels bent on toppling President Idriss Deby. Ethnic Arab Chadians are fighting ethnic African Chadians like Kabayi, mirroring the clashes in Darfur. Sudan’s Arab Janjaweed militias have been chasing refugees from Darfur pouring

into Chad—and there are reports they have attacking ethnic African Chadians as well.

There are 218 000 refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region, which neighbours eastern Chad, and about 90 000 internally displaced Chadians in camps close to the border.

Jan Egeland, head of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, summed up the complexities: “Fighters attack Chad from Darfur. Others attack Darfur and Sudan from Chad. And they all seek refuge in the Central African Republic. It’s a really dangerous regional crisis.”

Behind the scenes are shadowy players with a plethora of interests, some in Sudan’s and Chad’s petroleum, others with expansionist aspirations, still others in pushing south the belt across Sahelian Africa where Muslims from the north and Christians from the south meet.

“We risk a conflagration that will consume the entire region, we’ll be another Congo,” said Mahamat Nimir Hamata, a general in charge of Chad’s most affected eastern province, Sila. The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo drew in troops from more than half a dozen nations who looted the nation’s mines of diamonds, copper, and cobalt. It killed four million people before peace was negotiated in 2003.

The Central African Republic is fighting its own rebellion with help from French forces. Chad also said it was deploying troops to help the Central African Republic government, and has received support from France against Chadian rebels. A multinational African Union contingent is struggling to quell Darfur, and the UN wants to broaden that force.

Chad and Sudan trade accusations and denials that each is supporting the other’s rebels. Deby and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir were friendly until Sudanese members of Deby’s Zaghawa, an ethnic African tribe that straddles a border drawn by colonial rulers, revolted in Darfur after years of negligence by Sudan’s Arab-dominated government.

Al-Bashir is accused of responding by arming Arab militias in Darfur.

Libya’s Moammar Gadaffi is accused of supporting both Darfur’s Arab militias in Sudan and Deby in Chad. Gadaffi nurtured rebels from all over the region in the 1970s in pursuit of his expansionist agenda.

Sudan’s al-Bashir seized power with Libya’s backing. Debyalso had Libyan backing in his violent takeover, and went on to help install the Central African Republic’s President Francois Bozize.

Caught in the middle are millions of hapless civilians, some being armed by politicians fanning the flames of racial hatred.

In Darfur, at least 200 000 people have been killed and about 2,5-million of the four million people have fled their homes in three years of fighting. Tens of thousands have fled to Chad. Most of Darfur’s victims are African in a conflict former US secretary of state Colin Powell has branded genocide.

Some 90 000 Chadians have been forced from their homes in eastern Chad by violence linked to the Chadian rebellion and to spillover from Sudan.

In this region, everyone is Muslim and generations of intermarriage have blurred racial lines. Yet language, culture, history and the definitions people choose for themselves give meaning to the terms Arab, generally nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes and black sedentary farmers.

For decades, nomads have traversed this area twice a year, using well established routes through farmlands as they move south in search of pasture for their cattle and camels during the dry season.

But successive and severe droughts since the 1980s, and the steady march of the Sahara, has nomads on the move earlier and staying south longer. Some have given up and are competing with farmers for land to cultivate.

Their presence taxes already scarce water and arable land.

“Now the cycle of violence has escalated to such a level that no chief can get these people to sit together and talk. There’s only the language of guns,” the sultan said.

Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of Human Rights Watch, charged this week that “The Chadian government’s support to the Darfur rebels and select ethnic militias is exacerbating existing interethnic tensions in Chad.”

Chad’s government is accused of arming African militias known as Tora Bora, who attack Arabs from white vehicles fitted with mounted submachine guns, vehicles probably hijacked from aid workers.

The name Tora Bora has nothing to do with the Afghan mountains where al-Qaeda had subterranean bases. It means “fat hyena” in local Arabic.

Like the Darfur militias, Chad’s Arab militias are called also “janjaweed,” which means men on horseback.

“Arab communities in Chad and Darfur have been the silent victims of attacks by militias and are suffering from the stereotype that all Arabs are ‘janjaweed,”’ Takirambudde said.

Humanitarian workers and human rights organisation report systematic attacks on Arab settlements by African militias in Chad, some charge at the instigation of the government. It’s impossible to get any figures on how many Arabs have been killed, wounded and displaced, humanitarian workers say. Most live in areas aid workers cannot reach because of insecurity.

Refugees walk for days to reach Goz Beida, a small town of mud huts where the crackle of gunfire at night has become as familiar as the braying of donkeys. Goz Beida’s 8 000 residents have been overwhelmed by 10 000 Chadians displaced from elsewhere in the region and more than 14 000 Sudanese from Darfur.

The hospital is overrun with wounded, some camped in UN tents, others sleeping on mats in the open—a man who had his eye gouged out, another who lost a leg from an infected gunshot wound.

“What can we do?” Chief Kabayi, one of those seeking shelter in Goz Beida, said when asked how the conflict could be resolved. He drew his lanky legs up to his chin, hugging them with his arms and rocking himself, like a child, for comfort. - Sapa-AP

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