Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 4 February 2004

Darfur’s invisible refugees living rough in eastern Chad

KOURBILEKE, EASTERN CHAD, Feb 4, 2004 (IRIN) — Driving through the arid dustbowl around Birak in eastern Chad, just a few kilometres from the western border of war-torn Sudan, you could easily miss the influxes of refugees. Hidden away from the naked eye, only local people can point to where the thousands are gathering in scattered groups.

A wall of thorny branches marks out a family’s territory, cooking pots and bowls hang from the trees, a brightly coloured piece of clothing flaps in the wind, a dusty child sits playing in the dirt: through the scattered foliage and thicket, isolated signs of life become discernible.

Spread out across 600 km of desiccated desert, protected only by trees and bush, and foraging to survive in the scrub, are up to 135,000 people from the Darfur region of western Sudan.

Hidden from the outside world, and extremely hard to find for aid workers trying to assist them, refugees in Kourbileke (about 2 km from the border) told IRIN they had fled for their lives from Sudanese bombs on 16 January.

"The bombing was in the surrounding villages, then it came to our village [Habilah]," said Abd al-Karim Abbakar Anaw, who described himself as a Sudanese chief. "They are [still] bombing every day. We heard it today at 7.00 a.m. this morning."

First the army came in tanks with militias on horseback, then they stole the villagers’ cattle from near the well, he said. The next day a plane dropped bombs on the village, killing eight people and forcing the entire population - about 1,750 - to flee. In the chaos, seven people - four men and three women - were abducted, he added.

"The goal is to drive away the villagers so they can take over... They burn all the houses, steal everything, and the population flees because they don’t have anything left."

A teacher, Muhammad Husayn Ali, told IRIN that between 40 and 50 army vehicles had arrived in Habilah that day, accompanied by 500 militiamen, followed by "intense aerial bombardments" by Antonov bombers.

Ten women were raped, five of whom were carried off to Junaynah in western Darfur, added a young woman with four children, Samirah Hasan Salih.


Hounded by bomber planes and helicopters, their homes pillaged and burned by militias and the army, their women raped and shamed, pockets of Sudanese refugees have been entering Chad haphazardly ever since July. Numbers have peaked sporadically, with the vast majority - about 48,000 - arriving since December.

Most of the Sudanese who have arrived north of the Chadian town of Adre fled from bombing and fighting between Darfur’s main rebel groups - the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement - and the government, while further south militia attacks have driven them across the border, according to Robbie Tomson, a consultant with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

All of the refugees - as well as the over 600,000 displaced within Darfur - tell similar stories. Rumours and inaccuracies about dates or numbers are frequent, but the substance remains the same: The "Arab" militias and the army attack villages together or successively, burning them to the ground and randomly killing their inhabitants.


In Darfur, where the vast majority of people are Muslims, Arabic-speaking and share a mixed gene pool, the distinction between "Arab" and "African" is more cultural than racial. But for the victims of the conflict, the "racial" aspect to the attacks is a constant theme.

Armed raids on rich agricultural areas of Darfur, largely inhabited by the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawah ethnic groups, have historically been part of a way of life for the region’s Arab nomadic pastoralists.

The minority Arabs engaged in low-level skirmishes with sedentary farmers until the 1970s. But since the mid-1980s, following a prolonged drought in 1983, skirmishes with subsistence farmers developed into larger-scale battles as the nomads were pushed further south.

At the same time, successive northern governments began using Arab militias to crush rising dissent in the region, including a rebellion led by Sudan People’s Liberation Army rebels in 1991-1992. Analysts say this gave the Arab nomads leverage with the government, which rewarded them with local administrative positions, financial gains and arms, and lately a carte blanche to loot, steal and kill - all at the expense of the sedentary tribes.

"It’s a tribal problem. Black with black, Arab with Arab," says Muhammad Husayn. "There are no rebels in Habilah. It’s a black population, that’s why they came and bombed," he said. "All the blacks they find they kill."

Government bombs and attacks are indiscriminately killing both armed rebels and innocent civilians, who are all tarnished with the same "black" brush, say the refugees.


Most of the refugees in Kourbileke say their food supplies have run out, while their children have fevers and stomach bugs. Tired and hungry, sleeping in the sand with just a thin plastic floor mat to cover them, their resistance to illness is wearing thin.

Fourteen-year-old Fatimah Adam told IRIN: "It’s not good, we are here in the open, it’s cold...I want something to eat."

Sixty-five-year-old Khadijah Adam, who said her bones hurt everywhere, agreed. "We need food, drink, blankets, clothes, shoes, sugar, soap, mats and jerry cans for water," she said.

Hoping to remain in Chad, where extended families may be able to support them, the refugees are sending messages along the border to Kourbileke. But many of their loved ones are stranded hours away, while others were left behind in Sudan.

Meantime they live in fear of bombs "accidentally" falling on the Chadian side of the border - a number fell in Tine on 29 January - and further attacks. "We are scared that the militias will come here. We have no arms, if they arrive we will have to flee again," lamented Khadijah Adam.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has reported frequent incursions across the largely unguarded border.


UNHCR, which started giving some of the refugees food and blankets in December, plans to move them to an emergency transit centre in Kounoungo, about 18 km southwest of Guereda.

From there they will be transferred to one of six sites - one of which has already been set up in Farachana - before the rainy season begins in June and renders transport impossible.

But aid workers must first find sites with an adequate water supply. The lack of water, remoteness of the hostile desert environment and the difficulty in finding the scattered refugees are the main hindrances to helping them, says Helene Caux, a UNHCR spokeswoman. "It’s a great challenge to assist the refugees. You can drive for kilometres and kilometres before finding them," she says. "Then you have to drive kilometres to find any more."

Compounding this is the difficulty in ascertaining who is a refugee - i.e. has fled from conflict - and who is not, with little accurate data available.

The porous border, which was drawn up in colonial times, means little to the semi-nomadic Zaghawah, whose lifestyles and family connections on both sides have meant frequent toing and froing.


Despite the suffering, donations for the victims are few and far between, note observers.

Last September, UNHCR appealed for US $10.3 million for 2004 to provide assistance to about 65,000 refugees. No contributions have so far been received, while the increasing numbers mean more money is now required.

"Funds are urgently needed because we are in a race against time to relocate refugees from the volatile border area to safer sites farther inside Chad," said UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski.

Other organisations have had similar experiences. "We in the Red Cross, up to now we’ve found it very difficult to fund-raise for Chad," said Robbie Tomson. "It’s not headline news. Who in Europe or the US knows about this war?" he asked.

"This has the potential to become a real disaster if the international community doesn’t assist," he added.

Observers say the international community’s determination to focus on Sudan’s ongoing north-south peace process - at the expense of the victims of the Darfur conflict - coupled with a nonchalance towards events in one of Africa’s least developed countries, Chad, are helping to prolong the conflict.

Compounding this "indifference" has been the lack of media coverage. "People are dying every day, but nobody is diffusing the information because there are no journalists here," said the Sudanese chief, Abbakar Anaw. "Peace can only come back if the UN puts pressure on the government," he added.

The indifference of both the international community, and the Sudanese government towards the plight of Darfur’s civilians was pushing them to take up arms, added one of the victims. "What the government is doing is encouraging people to fight back," he said.