Ongoing human suffering and destruction in Darfur have been largely eclipsed both by recent national elections in Sudan and by growing, if belated, international attention to the imperiled southern self-determination referendum (slated for January 9, 2011). Even more completely obscured by recent events in Sudan, however, is the continuing humanitarian crisis in eastern Chad.
Refugees from Central African Republic, internally displaced Chadians, and Darfuri refugees together make up a population of approximately 500,000 civilians, almost completely dependent upon international aid. Half this population has come from the east, fleeing the killing fields of Darfur and the predations of Khartoum’s brutal Janjaweed militias, and its regular military forces. Recently the fleeing has begun again, just as Chadian President Idriss Déby is preparing to expel the U.N. force tasked with providing security in the region. Once more, the U.N. and the international community are acquiescing before the supremely callous demands of a ruthless regime.
A great many Darfuris fled the early attacks of 2003-2005, and the refugee population in eastern Chad grew rapidly; many more fled subsequently, fearing further attacks and the ongoing, ethnically-targeted destruction of livelihoods. Perversely, in Chad, they again became the victims of genocidal assault. A January 2007 report from Human Rights Watch, or HRW, titled “‘They Came Here to Kill Us’: Militia Attacks and Ethnic Targeting of Civilians in Eastern Chad” remains our best contemporaneous account of violence perpetrated against Darfuri refugees and other civilians. In October 2006, Khartoum’s military aircraft “bombed villages in eastern Chad (…) [as] part of a broader pattern of indiscriminate bombing attacks against civilians in Darfur.” During its month-long field investigation, HRW also uncovered evidence “linking some attacks against civilians in eastern Chad with known Janjaweed militia commanders or with Sudanese government paramilitary forces known to include many Janjaweed militia members.”
Broader insecurity and more opportunistic violence came quickly in the wake of these attacks on civilians, as the growing refugee population required an increasingly comprehensive humanitarian response. Seven years after war began in Darfur, this humanitarian response remains extremely vulnerable and lacks adequate resources.
This is the context in which we must understand recent reports of intense fighting in West Darfur, particularly in the Jebel Moon area, between Khartoum’s forces and those of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement, or JEM. Although there has been only vague confirmation from the U.N./A.U. “hybrid” peacekeeping force, or UNAMID, a range of reports and statements from a variety of actors suggest that JEM has indeed lost its most significant military redoubt, and that during the fighting many more civilians have been displaced. Radio Dabanga reports from Kounoungo refugee camp that officials for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, are preparing for approximately 2,500 civilians who have already fled to Birak in eastern Chad. How many more are on the way is unclear.
These attacks are reminiscent of a major military offensive by Khartoum in the same region in early 2008. At the time, UNHCR reported:
“[U]p to 12,000 ‘terrified’ refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region have fled across the border to neighboring Chad after the latest air strikes by the Sudanese military and thousands more may be on their way. (…) Most of the refugees so far are men, [UNHCR spokeswoman Helene Caux] said. But the arrivals are telling UNHCR that ‘thousands of women and children are on their way’ to Chad, she added.”
Now, in the wake of rapprochement between N’Djamena and Khartoum, Déby is insisting that the U.N. force that followed an emergency European deployment to eastern Chad be removed. MINURCAT, as the U.N. mission is known, will have until July 15 to withdraw 1,400 troops, according to a report from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon; the remaining 1,900 must be withdrawn by October 15. This is an outrageous assertion of national sovereignty, and will put at dramatically increased risk both civilians and humanitarians, especially humanitarian convoys—a particular concern of the U.N. World Food Program.
Déby claims that his forces are capable of providing the necessary security; but this is patently false, even as Déby has shown no inclination in the past to use what military and police resources he has to protect refugees or aid operations. Much greater diplomatic pressure—especially from France, the U.S., and the U.N.—should have been exerted to forestall a development that clearly augurs near-term catastrophe. Yet again, before our very eyes, the people of Darfur have been abandoned.
Dr. Eric Reeves is a professor of English language and literature at Smith College. He has spent the past 11 years working full-time as a Sudan researcher and analyst, publishing extensively both in the U.S. and internationally.