Home | News    Monday 2 April 2007

Friendship gives way to hatred, as Darfur conflict spreads

April 1, 2007 (GOZ BEIDA, Chad) — The sultan of Silla looked worried: Arab-African violence spilling over from Darfur is threatening this part of Chad, too, in what is quickly growing into a regional conflict.

He pleaded with the visiting U.N. humanitarian chief to help stop it.

"The picture is so bleak," Sultan Said Brahim told John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, during Holmes’ visit here earlier this week. "I can’t even tell you how bad things are getting."

Holmes this weekend wrapped up a weeklong trip to Darfur in Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic — his first as the U.N.’s humanitarian chief — by calling for a strong political effort to end the region’s growing chaos. While on the trip, he forged a deal with Sudan designed to give aid workers’ greater access to Darfur.

But Holmes also cited worries that humanitarian efforts might collapse because of violence in the region. He said he would report to U.N. Security Council that Sudan, Chad and CAR are facing "a complex crisis, to which we cannot offer a simplistic solution."

Brahim was one example of the complexity.

As ruler of a vast Chad region that borders Darfur in Sudan, where Arab government forces and their allied militias have killed African villagers by the thousands, Brahim told Holmes he is watching, aghast, as the violence spreads rapidly into his own society.

Refugee camps have popped up across his lands. Raiders from Sudan have swept down on Chadian villagers, killing some and chasing thousands of others away.

Most pernicious, cohabitation and friendship between Arabs and Africans here has given way to distrust and thinly veiled hatred.

Brahim, an African from the dominant Dadjo tribe, pointed to one of his most trusted underlings, an Arab sheik called Sheik al-Mahdi al-Samani to whom Brahim is connected by marriage.

"He is being rejected, people are wary of him because he is an Arab," Brahim said. "Are politics going to destroy centuries of friendship?"

For his part, al-Samani said at least 10 of his tribe’s villages had emptied in the past two months, with whole clans packing up and moving away. He said he had given his men orders to shoot Sudanese militiamen who cross over into his territory looking for recruits.

"We are fighting to stop the fighting," he said.

The government of Chad has also gotten involved, arming Africans to try to fend off attacks from Arab militias in Darfur. Both al-Samani and Brahim said privately, when Chadian government officials had stepped away, that this policy was part of the problem, and blamed much of the increase in attacks on the newly formed African militias.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in Darfur in Sudan in four years of fighting, and more than two million have been forced into refugee camps.

Chad and Sudan trade accusations of harboring each other’s rebels. The United Nations has proposed sending an 11,000-man peacekeeping force to secure the border, but Chad’s president, Idriss Deby has backtracked on his initial willingness to accept the peacekeepers, saying he only wants a police force to protect the refugee camps.

Some Western diplomats and aid officials think Deby is worried that any peacekeeping force would only worsen his relations with the Sudanese government. Sudan’s government has stridently rejected any U.N. forces to help pacify Darfur, saying they would only make the situation worse.

Caught in the middle are Darfurian and Chadian civilians.

"The janjaweed (Sudanese-backed Arab militias) kill us if we leave the camp to collect firewood," one woman told Holmes, the U.N. chief, during his recent tour of her refugee camp near Goz Beida.

The woman, who did not give her name, said refugees are starving and have begun selling items distributed by aid workers, like mats and blankets, to buy food.

"We’re so hungry that we are falling ill," she told Holmes, crying. "Our elders have already died."

Holmes told the woman and other officials here that he would push for more aid: A scarcity of natural resources has contributed to tensions between Darfur refugees and local villagers, who now compete for such essential goods as water and firewood.

But Holmes also said his power and influence are limited, without a demonstration of political will to solve the crisis from the governments of Chad and Sudan.

He urged authorities in both countries to reach a political settlement that would restore peace on the border, and to allow the U.N. peacekeeping force in to stop the bloodshed.

"Otherwise, all the humanitarian aid in the world will be useless," Holmes said.