As Army Pursues Rebels, Militia Massacres Fill the Vacuum

At a refugee camp near the town of Goz Beida, 90 kilometers from the border, officials expected to see around 500 new arrivals in April. More than 12,000 people arrived in just a few weeks. (Photo: Van Der Belen / AFP-Getty Images)

When the light breeze lulls in the trees around Djawara, a village in the far east of Chad, the thick stench of rotting corpses becomes unbearable. Locals say 75 of their brothers, fathers and sons are buried in 50 centimeter deep graves in this glade on the village's outskirts, killed they say by men on horses, and by their own neighbors.

The bodies were hastily buried in mid-May, days after a rag-tag group of men armed with guns, spears, and machetes overran the village in a dawn attack.

Arrows still lying on the ground around the trees are evidence of the futile fight the villagers said they tried to put up with primitive weapons. Six of the attackers were killed, and two taken prisoner. But the villagers clearly were no match for the better-armed attackers.

Witnesses interviewed by IRIN said around half of the 74 Djawara men and 1 woman, were shot and hacked to death while they were gathered together praying among the trees.

Testimony gathered by human rights investigators has confirmed that a further 37 people were killed elsewhere in the village.

"Some of them were just killed where they stood. But the ones who ran were killed in the trees," recalled one Djawara villager, who IRIN met at a camp for displaced people in Dogdore, a nearby town.

Two stray donkeys are now the only inhabitants of Djawara, which according to meticulous records kept by village elders in tattered notebooks they carefully took with them when they fled, was home to 1334 people before the attacks on April 13.

Smashed clay cooking pots, dozens of single sandals strewn in the sand, and trampled straw fences give some indication of the violence of the struggle that must have taken place before the people fled.

And for the villagers who did get away, the threat is far from passed.

Standing over the grave where he buried his cousins, showing investigators the shoes left behind as part of the local funeral tradition, Ahmed, 35, who lived in Djawara with his wife and three children before the attacks, said he would certainly be killed for daring to return if the foreigners were not there.

"If I had not come here with you, I would be dead," he told IRIN.

Djawara is one among dozens of pillaged villages which do not appear on most maps, but whose names can be reeled off by people in the shantytowns being thrown up by fleeing villagers all over eastern Chad.

Aid agencies estimate that more than 50,000 Chadians have fled their homes and villages throughout eastern Chad since a rapid escalation of cross-border attacks in December 2005.

According to the U.N., the largest number of displaced, over 30,000, are concentrated in the area south of Adre, a major border town with Sudan, 750 kilometers east of the capital N'Djamena.

The displaced Chadians say repeated waves of attacks mean some of them have had to flee across some of the most inhospitable land in the world, three or four times over.

And they repeat the same mantra: "we want security, and we will move as many times as we need to find it."

Chronology of a Crisis

Widespread attacks on villages in eastern Chad first started in January, after an attack on Adre by rebels opposed to President Idriss Deby in late December.

The rebel attacks prompted the Chadian army to pull back to reinforce key border towns, military intelligence sources told IRIN, leaving vast swathes of the 1,000 kilometer border that runs through the open desert between Chad and Sudan completely unprotected.

By March, when a U.N. mission drove south from Ade, a town 100 kilometers south of Adre, to Degeda, it found almost every Chadian village it visited was abandoned.

Then in late March, the Chadian army engaged the anti-Deby rebels again, sparking fierce fighting around Ade and Moudeina in which the army chief of staff was killed.

As battalions of soldiers rushed to Ade from around the region, attacks on villages further south again surged, with up to 150 militiamen each time heading inland, stealing cattle and ransacking houses.

The attacks even reached Koloy, a larger Chadian town 30 kilometers from the border, which had given shelter to perhaps more than 20,000 people from the first wave of attacks, according to UNHCR figures.

Chadians started pouring out of Koloy and other villages by the truckload. Sometimes the new arrivals quadrupled the population of small villages overnight.

Indicative of the overwhelming numbers, at a refugee camp near the town of Goz Beida, 90 kilometers from the border, where officials expected to see around 500 new arrivals in April, more than 12,000 people arrived in just a few weeks.

Janjaweed to Blame

Yocoub, 48, originally from Amdegi village, fled his home four months ago, since when he has moved another three times, he said because of Janjaweed attacks.

He left his home village after armed men on horses arrived around 1am, firing into the air, before riding off with all 850 of the village's cattle.

With most of his neighbors, Yocoub moved to another village believed to be less vulnerable to attack, even though it happened to be across the border in Sudan.

But soon after, he said the Janjaweed came there too.

"They destroyed everything, burned the houses, there was nothing left. So we had to move again, that time to Koloy. We got there on a Wednesday. On Thursday, the Janjaweed came there, and took all the cattle again. We heard there was security here in Goz Beida, so we came."

Even in Goz Beida, where Yocoub said he is glad not to have "seen or heard a gun since arriving," the succession of moves is not over. Aid agencies are relocating people to relieve pressure on overstretched water sources.

Yocoub's tragic story is a common one. And none of the other victims IRIN met suggested a culprit except the Janjaweed.

But experts say detailed questions about the accent, appearance, clothing and weaponry of their assailants, prove the Chadians are not necessarily describing exactly the same Janjaweed as has brought terror to villagers in Sudan.

"We use the term Janjaweed to describe the militiamen trained, equipped and armed by the Sudanese government who have been used by Khartoum as ground forces in attacks on civilians in Darfur," said Olivier Bercault, a senior researcher with the American N.G.O. Human Rights Watch, and who has investigated the massacres in eastern Chad.

"Now we have people definitely crossing the border with the same equipment as was used in Sudan. It is clear that some of these same Sudanese Janjaweed militiamen are also involved in the Chad attacks but we don't yet have sufficient evidence to say that the Chadian attacks are backed by the Sudanese government. We could clearly link the evidence with Khartoum in Darfur, but not in Chad, I mean, not yet," he said.

The assailants have even included some men wearing blue Sudanese army uniforms, witnesses said.

And identity papers and badges seized from two militiamen killed inside Chad, and seen by IRIN, clearly identified the attackers as members of the Sudanese national army.

Adding another more confusing dimension to the mix, Chadians also said their attackers included members of other Chad-based black African ethnic groups, especially the Mimi, Tama, and Ouaddai, as well as various Arab groups.

The villagers said they recognized their attackers from around their villages. Some had even prayed together at the same mosque, and were neighbors before the attacks started.

Murky Motives

The motivations behind the attacks seem to be even more muddied than the identity of the perpetrators.

The handful of investigators from the U.N. and human rights N.G.O.'s say they have barely begun the laborious process of gathering testimonials from survivors to try to piece together exactly what happened, and how it fits into the complex ethnic mosaic of the region.

The head of the UNHCR office in Goz Beida, Lindell Findlay, said she thinks many of the attacks are part of a "Sudanese land grab."

She said Janjaweed rebels are using their newly occupied areas of Chadian territory, to regroup before ducking back into Darfur to continue attacks on Sudanese villages.

Key in this analysis is whether villages are being occupied, or whether they are just being pillaged. The situation is too insecure for visits of longer than a couple of hours, making a definitive answer difficult.

Most of the Chadians IRIN met nonetheless said they believed their villages were occupied, and if not, they would anyway be attacked again as soon as anyone tried to go back.

Findlay also said ethnicity is determining which areas are purged and which left in peace.

"The Janjaweed is forming alliances with ethnicities sympathetic to them, forming alliances and protective allegiances with those groups," she said, adding that the situation is becoming more confusing because some of the persecuted groups have started forming self-defense forces.

"It was never a problem before, but now the ethnic issue is starting to poison the mix."

This analysis is certainly shared by the displaced villagers themselves, many of who come from the same ethnic group — the Dadjo.

"All the other groups have formed an alliance with the Janjaweed," said Souleymane, a village elder from Djawara, the scene of massacres in April, and a Dadjo. There are more than 36 ethnicities in the region, he added.

"We Dadjo have refused the alliance. Sudan is another country, it is not Chad, so why would we have an alliance with them? And it is an association of Arabs, and the Dadjo are not Arabs either."

Several of the other Chadian groups that have agreed to join the Janjaweed are not Arab either. But "they are scared of having their cattle stolen if they refuse to join," Souleymane said.

However, aid workers in Goz Beida who asked not to be named, told IRIN they believe the Dadjo might be being targeted by the Janjaweed for having close ties to the Masalit people of Darfur, who have been the target of attacks there.

The Dadjo reportedly provided most of the shelter and protection to the 200,000 Sudanese refugees that poured out of Sudan until the 12 formal refugee camps were built.

In another analysis, provided by an independent human rights investigator who asked not to be named, the attacks are motivated by the same racist ideology, which underpins much of the violence the Janjaweed has unleashed on black Africans in Sudan.

"There are still many unanswered questions about these attacks, but the conclusion is clear: Chadian civilians are in dire need of protection," Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said in a written statement.

Rainy Season Fears

But protection is likely to be in short supply during the near future for eastern Chad's terrified people, most of whom have already lost everything except their lives.

Few believe the Djawara massacre will be the last. And what little outside scrutiny there has been will be absent for the next three months.

Aid agencies say that by the end of June, torrential rains, which have already started flooding the dry river beds called wadis which snake all over eastern Chad, will make most of the region inaccessible to themselves and to the Chadian army, as both move only by jeep, until at least the end of September.

But the Janjaweed, which uses horses and camels that can easily cross the network of muddy islands, will be in its element, locals say.

Fearing an onslaught of attacks even more intense than they have already seen, some Chadians are pre-emptively fleeing their land.

Picking their way on donkeys and by foot through a forest of gum trees around 50 kilometers east of the border, one family said it was heading for Goz Beida, before the rainy season made passage impossible.

Nervously agreeing to stop their trek for only a few minutes, and glancing over their shoulders as they spoke, the family said they had not yet been attacked.

But "there's no point starting the planting, because we would probably have to leave before the crops came up," said one of the men, loaded down with spears and seeds.

Military Wanted

Once the rains have passed, diplomats and aid workers say the fate of people in eastern Chad depends on Chad's government redeploying its soldiers along the border and in villages in the region.

Although the government made promises to aid agencies and diplomats that more soldiers would be put on the frontier after presidential elections on May 3, aid agency officials told IRIN that there has been no evidence of a shift in policy.

And when armed horsemen — locals said Janjaweed — occupied and looted the village Kou Kou in mid-May, it was left to four jeep loads of Sudanese rebels from the anti-Janjaweed S.L.A. group, which shelters in Chad, to try to keep the peace and chase down the 1000 head of cattle the attackers made off with.

The Chadian national army was nowhere to be seen, despite having a major garrison less than 50 kilometers away.

Military analysts in N'Djamena estimate the military has less than 25,000 troops to cover a territory twice the size of France, of which just 10,000 are stationed in the east.

With a rumbling rebellion in the north, as well as the Janjaweed attacks along the 1,000-kilometer border with Sudan, instability in Central African Republic to the south, and an armed rebellion based in Darfur that has vowed to overthrow the president, the army has its work cut out.

It may also be facing a problem with resources. Military salaries in the cash strapped country are said not to have been paid for months, and in early June many public sector staff went on strike.

Opaque relations between the Zaghawa ethnic group dominated military and the Zaghawa-Bidayat President Deby could also be creating a disloyal streak in the armed forces.

As one villager from Djawara noted, "the government is nowhere here. They did not even help us bury our dead."

Unflattering Comparisons

No surprise then that most observers are sanguine about Chad's future.

A highly placed diplomat in N'Djamena described the spiraling process of infighting between clans and ethnic groups that is rending the social fabric in eastern Chad as "a process of Somali-ization."

The diplomat compared Chad to the surge in clan fighting and ethnic warfare in the east African country Somalia in the 1990's that led to the collapse of state authority there.

A glimmer of hope might come from a peace accord for Darfur signed in the Nigerian capital Abuja last month, which could see peacekeepers deployed in Darfur before the end of the year, and if Chadian President Deby has his way, eastern Chad too.

A mission to Darfur and Chad by the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council this week is likely to play a key part in deciding whether that will happen.

However, the Sudanese government is already dragging its feet in negotiations over the details of a U.N.-led force for Darfur, which the Security Council mission was supposed to get back on track.

Diplomats in N'Djamena told IRIN they believe Sudan might hold off on deployment at least until September, and possibly as long as January 2007. They said Sudan is trying to give its militias time to finish their deadly work, in Darfur and Chad.

In the meantime, Chad's persecuted villagers, far from information about the tentative diplomatic process that could hold the only hope for their survival, say their demand is simple: to go home.

"All we want is to work our land," pleaded a villager from Djawara, now squatting in Dogdore. "We just want to live peacefully, to cultivate. But now we cannot, because the Janjaweed is there." © IRIN

[This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]