Op-Ed / Africa 28 February 2006 Refugee Crisis Grows as Darfur War Crosses a Border Originally published in The New York Times Share Facebook Twitter Email Linkedin Whatsapp Save Print The chaos in Darfur, the war-ravaged region in Sudan where more than 200,000 civilians have been killed, has spread across the border into Chad, deepening one of the world's worst refugee crises. Arab gunmen from Darfur have pushed across the desert and entered Chad, stealing cattle, burning crops and killing anyone who resists. The lawlessness has driven at least 20,000 Chadians from their homes, making them refugees in their own country. Hundreds of thousands more people in this area, along with 200,000 Sudanese who fled here for safety, find themselves caught up in a growing conflict between Chad and Sudan, which have a long history of violence and meddling in each other's affairs. "You may have thought the terrible situation in Darfur couldn't get worse, but it has," Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said in a recent statement. "Sudan's policy of arming militias and letting them loose is spilling over the border, and civilians have no protection from their attacks, in Darfur or in Chad." Indeed, the accounts of civilians in eastern Chad are agonizingly familiar to those in western Sudan. One woman, Zahara Isaac Mahamat, described how Arab men on camels and horses had raided her village in Chad, stealing everything they could find and slaughtering all who resisted. The dead included her husband, Ismail Ibrahim, who tried to prevent the raiders from burning his sorghum and millet fields. Like so many others in this desolate expanse of dust-choked earth, she fled west with her three children, much as people in Darfur have been forced to do in recent years. "I have lost everything but my children," she said, her face looking much older than her 20 years. She is now a refugee, with thousands of other displaced Chadians, in Kolloye, a village south of here. "We have three bowls of grain left," she said. "When that is gone, only God can help us." The spreading chaos is a result of two closely connected conflicts in the neighboring countries. In Darfur, rebels have been battling government forces and the janjaweed, Arab militias aligned with the government, in a campaign of terror that the Bush administration has called genocide. The United Nations Security Council has agreed to send troops to protect civilians, but they will take months to arrive. In the meantime, President Bush has said, NATO should help shore up a failing African Union peacekeeping mission there, but a surge of violence has chased tens of thousands of people from their homes in recent weeks. In Chad, the government is fighting its own war against rebels based in Sudan and bent on ousting Chad's ailing president, Idriss Déby. The rebels include disgruntled soldiers who defected and tribes tired of being ruled by members of the president's tribe, the Zaghawa, who represent just a small percentage of the population but have long dominated politics and the military. In a sign of how inseparable the two conflicts have become, President Déby has accused Sudan of supporting the rebellion against his government, and Sudan has long suspected members of Mr. Déby's family of supporting Zaghawa-led rebels in Darfur. Both sides agreed at a summit meeting in Libya in early February to stop supporting rebels on each other's territory and to tone down the belligerent talk. But Chadian rebels have remained on the Sudanese side of the border, and it is not clear whether Mr. Déby has the capacity to stop members of his clan from supporting Darfur rebels. If unchecked by international intervention, this complex and volatile mix of government forces, allied militias and at least a half-dozen rebel groups in a remote region awash with weapons will almost inevitably lead to disaster, said John Prendergast, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, and an expert on the Darfur conflict. "The principle strategy of all these actors, both state actors and proxy militias, is to displace people in order to destabilize and undermine the support base of your opponent," he said. "We are going to see an increasing spiral of displacement on both sides of the border and an increasingly dangerous environment for humanitarian workers." In Chad, the trouble began in December when rebel groups attacked Adré and two other strategic border towns. The Chadian Army repelled the rebels, but it withdrew its troops from garrisons along the border to fortify Adré. The withdrawal has left a security vacuum into which the janjaweed have rushed. The once well-traveled road between Adré, a bustling border town, and Kolloye has become a terrifying gantlet roamed by bandits and Arab militias. Dozens of villages have emptied; some have been burned. The few aid agencies working in this lawless region avoid the road, using a circuitous route farther west to reach Abéché, the regional capital. In six days of traveling along the frontier, a reporter and photographer for The New York Times saw just four policemen to keep the peace, equipped only with horses and armed with battered AK-47's. Outside of Adré, only one military patrol was visible. What appeared to be another military patrol just south of Adré, four soldiers commanded by an aging officer with thick glasses and rheumy eyes, was in fact a search party for the missing cattle of the commanding officer, Adoum Allatchi Gaga. His cows had been stolen by raiders across the border. Asked about the security situation in the region, Mr. Gaga said: "I don't have any idea. I am just looking for my cows." At the hospital in Adré, the number of gunshot victims in December and January almost doubled, to about 100 a month, relief officials said, a grim sign of the growing lawlessness. In one ward lay Fatime Youma, a 13-year-old girl with a tube draining the gunshot wound that had punctured her lung. She was shot, her father explained, by janjaweed who happened upon her and her 16-year-old sister, Zenab, who lay in the next room with a gunshot wound to her arm. "I was just looking for firewood with my sister," Zenab said softly. "When the raiders saw us we ran away but they shot at us." Adré's police chief, Mahamat Lony, said he was short of both officers and weapons. "We have a very catastrophic situation," he said. "We have a very long frontier with Sudan, and many heavily armed raiders on the other side. There have been many incursions, and they attack the population. We have many displaced, and no one is helping them." The man charged with defending Chad's border and protecting refugees and civilians is Gen. Abakar Youssouf Mahamat Itno, 38, a nephew of President Déby who was dispatched here the day of the rebel attack. "Sudan wants to export the war in Darfur to us here," General Itno said at his camp in the hills above Adré. "They want to use the janjaweed they armed to terrorize Darfur, to terrorize our population. We will not allow it." Even so, he acknowledged his inability to patrol the border areas. "It is a long border," he said. "We cannot be everywhere at once." That Chadian rebels have found sanctuary in Sudan is beyond doubt. Geneina, the capital of Western Darfur, resembles a garrison town; armed men from at least six forces are visible on the streets, as are Arabs in street clothes carrying AK-47's. Local residents identify them as janjaweed. In the market in the evening, Chadian Army deserters wearing their distinctive turbans sit drinking tea, submachine guns beside them. Freshly dug machine-gun pits surround the police and army stations, and aid agencies are putting sandbags around their offices. The Chadian rebels have new weapons, uniforms and vehicles, aid officials in Geneina said, leading many to conclude that they are getting support from the Sudanese government. With so much firepower on the Sudanese side of the border, residents in villages like Adé, south of Adré, have borne almost daily attacks. "There is no security here," said Hisseine Kassar Mostapha, secretary general of the local government in Adé. "We are out here completely on our own, with no one to protect us." The lack of security means little assistance from international aid groups. In Kolloye, 10,000 Chadians, refugees like Ms. Mahamat, live in roofless grass shelters that give little protection from the frigid night air and no shelter from the punishing desert sun. Water is scarce and food supplies are low, villagers said. The only assistance is a mobile clinic run by Doctors Without Borders that operates three times a week. One refugee, Kaltam Abdullah, cradled her year-old son in her lap; his head lolled on his neck, his eyes were glazed and his limbs slender. "He has had running stomach for 10 days," Ms. Abdullah said. "He is coughing. But there is no doctor." Meanwhile, Sudanese refugees continue to arrive in Chad. Last month there were 1,500 arrivals, up from 1,000 over the previous three months, said Claire Bourgeois, the deputy representative for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Abéché. She said all the camps were full except one, and that it was filling up quickly. Several camps holding tens of thousands of refugees will be moved further west, Ms. Bourgeois said, to protect the refugees from the violence. But safety remains a serious problem, she added, and "if there is no security, the humanitarian actors will leave." Sudanese refugees who have arrived in recent weeks recount grim tales of slaughter, rape and plunder. Ibrahim Suleiman Mahamat, a herder from the Masalit tribe who lived along the border, said janjaweed had stolen his livestock: 40 cows, 20 goats and sheep, 2 camels and 2 horses. Penniless and terrified, he had little choice but to cross into Chad with his two wives and six children. Dozens of relatives left behind plan to join him, he said. Even in the relative safety of the Gaga Refugee Camp, far west of the border, he said, he does not feel safe. "We are in a very dangerous situation," Mr. Mahamat said. "What happens if there is a war in the country you are from and the country you have fled to? We are nowhere. There is nowhere for us to go." Related Tags Humanitarian Fallout of Conflict Sudan Chad More for you Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia Women on the Brink Podcast / Europe & Central Asia Internal Displacement and Humanitarian Response in Ukraine Up Next Podcast / Africa Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?