Why Chad isn’t Darfur and Darfur isn’t Rwanda

Jérôme Tubiana

Omar al-Bashir seized control in Sudan in 1989; Idriss Déby entered N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, the following year, with Bashir’s approval. The two men belonged to a new generation of ambitious African leaders whose fortunes prospered as the Cold War drew to a close. Déby was a secular head of state, eager for the US to befriend Chad; Bashir’s regime was Islamist. Nonetheless, they remained close allies for ten years or more, until the Darfur rebellion in western Sudan put a serious strain on their relationship.

The anti-Khartoum rebels in Darfur were drawn from different ethnic groups, but one, the Zaghawa, played a decisive role. Déby is a member of this tribe, which lives on either side of the Chad-Sudan border – and which, thanks to Déby, plays an influential role in the political, economic and military life of Chad. In 2003 rebels attacked the airport at El-Fasher, the capital of the Sudanese province of North Darfur, and war broke out across the region; the raid was led by Zaghawa commanders who had served in the Chadian army. Déby was trapped: although he wanted to remain on good terms with Bashir, he was unable to prevent his own people offering bases, men and arms to their kin in Darfur.

Bashir grew increasingly distrustful of Déby and in 2005 Sudan started to supply arms and recruits to anti-Déby rebels in Chad, some of whom had already joined the Janjawiid, the Sudanese pro-government militias fighting in Darfur. Soon afterwards, Chad began to support the Darfur rebels relatively openly. Bashir and Déby were still shaking hands and signing peace agreements in front of the cameras, but in fact they were at war. They relied not on their armies but on proxy forces: rebel groups and tribal militias, which saw a chance to acquire arms and booty, or even land and power, as well as a means to settle their own local disputes by force. This war took place mainly in Dar Sila in south-eastern Chad. In less than two years, around 180,000 Chadians were displaced – roughly half of the population of Dar Sila.

Having ignored the Darfur war when it was at its fiercest, from mid-2003 to mid-2004, the international press and the NGO community seized on the subsequent violence in south-eastern Chad, far more accessible than western Sudan, as an opportunity to speak about Darfur. The same misunderstandings, the same simplifications of the situation in Darfur – criticised by Alex de Waal and Mahmood Mamdani in this paper – have been repeated in relation to Chad.[*] They include the wayward comparisons with Rwanda which underpin the description by the campaigning NGO Save Darfur, among others, of Darfur as a ‘genocide’.

Jiddo was one of the Chadians displaced by the war; we were introduced some time ago in a Dar Sila market, where he was selling sweets to support his family. Shaking his hand, which he’d kept hidden up a large sleeve, I realised he was missing three fingers – the result of an accident when handling a rocket launcher in February 2006. He was 20, the eldest son of Hasan al-Kolle, who for a time was the most famous warrior in eastern Chad. Based at Tiero, 40 kilometres from the frontier with Darfur, al-Kolle had hundreds of militia under his command; their main duty was to defend the area against cattle-rustlers and other hostile forces, some of them crossing over from Sudan. Al-Kolle had managed to procure guns for his men, Kalashnikovs mostly, but also some heavier weapons. On 31 March 2007, he and many of his men were killed in fierce fighting that led almost all the 10,000 inhabitants of the Tiero area to abandon their villages. Their houses were ransacked and burned. ‘My father was wounded in the back,’ Jiddo told me. ‘So we put him on a horse and fled. After a few kilometres he ordered us to let him down and leave him there because he didn’t want to die too far from his village. That was the last time I saw him. My brothers and sisters have no clothes and I don’t have any work.’

The attack on Tiero and the neighbouring village of Marena was the most murderous the region had witnessed, at least on the Chadian side: in a few hours both villages and around 30 smaller ones were wiped off the map, and between 400 and 800 people were killed. ‘Apocalyptic’ was the word used by the UNHCR spokesperson – and it was repeated over and over by the media. UNHCR, who’d arrived on the scene a week later, brought back testimonies which made clear the complexity of the local situation, but the Tiero attack has been presented almost everywhere as a massacre of ‘African’ civilians by the Janjawiid, Arab militias crossing on horseback from Sudan: in other words, as a repeat of Darfur.

The conflict in Chad has been exacerbated by the wars in Sudan, but has in no sense been caused by them. Déby, who has held on to power since 1990 by means of fraudulent elections and an amended constitution, knows that it is in his interests to stick to the American line, which casts him as an ally of the West against Bashir’s ‘genocidal’ regime. Though the attack on Tiero had little or nothing to do with Darfur, the government in N’Djamena was quick to blame it on Khartoum, as it does the rising levels of violence in south-eastern Chad as a whole. In doing so, Déby downplayed his own responsibility: the Chadian army had withdrawn from the area months earlier, leaving it to local militias and Darfur rebels in a period of rising tension, caused largely by local factors such as drought and resettlement.

The Arabs of Darfur and eastern Chad belong to the same ‘tribes’, some nomadic or semi-nomadic, others sedentary; the labels ‘Sudanese’ and ‘Chadian’ mean little to either. Many Arabs from Chad have gone to Sudan to escape war and drought, while many ethnic groups, Arab and non-Arab, straddle a 600-kilometre border which for them is only a line on the map. They include the Zaghawa, a tribe which Khartoum identifies with the rebels in Darfur. A member of Déby’s family told me: ‘The Sudanese think that as long as we’re in power in Chad they’ll never be able to stop the rebellion in Darfur. What they want is regime change in N’Djamena.’ But the Déby regime has strong backing from France. In April 2006, rebels carried out a lightning raid on N’Djamena, which was repulsed with the help of French forces stationed in Chad. The raid was led by Mahamat Nour Abdelkarim, a (non-Arab) Chadian captain who had commanded Janjawiid forces in Darfur before being put at the head of the main Chadian rebel coalition by Khartoum.

In the race to recruit fighters there has been little compunction about playing on local ethnic rivalries. The area was originally an Islamic sultanate ruled by a non-Arab group, the Dajo – one of the region’s oldest dynasties. The Dajo founded a kingdom in Darfur in the 13th century but were later supplanted by other non-Arab groups and re-emerged in Dar Sila at the beginning of the 18th century. People from many ethnic groups coexisted peacefully in this precolonial state, as they had in the Darfur sultanate; there was extensive intermarriage. Chad’s Arabs are of ‘mixed race’, Said Brahim, the sultan of Dar Sila, pointed out to me. ‘But today people no longer trust them. If Sudanese Arabs attack us, why don’t the Chadian Arabs intervene? They’ve lived among us for centuries, so why such a sudden change? Have we ever refused them land, or asked them to leave? Since they got their Kalash from Sudan they have forgotten these old friendships.’

Twenty years ago the sparsely populated and heavily wooded lands of Dar Sila seemed remote and scarcely developed. Today there are still plenty of monkeys; in the evening you can pick out the bulky silhouettes of ground hornbills, and crowned cranes still cross the sky in V-shaped flocks. But the elephants have been wiped out by hunters, and the forest is gradually being replaced by crops and pasture. As in Darfur, especially since 1984, drought has forced northerners to move to the more fertile land in the south. Arab, Waddayan and Mimi tribesmen from north-eastern Chad found common cause in the experience of hardship. ‘The newcomers in Dar Sila had no clothes, but they were good farmers and good herders,’ the sultan recalls. ‘My father gave them land, and so did I. It’s only recently that people have become selfish about land.’

Like their counterparts in Darfur, the new arrivals in Dar Sila now want their own chieftaincies and their own land, and they are prepared to use force to get them. These ‘climate refugees’ were the first to attack the Dajo. Not all of them are Arabs, but they are all now known as Janjawiid – a term that doesn’t mean the same today in Chad as it does in Sudan. In Darfur it refers to Sudanese government militias recruited mostly, but not only, from Arab tribes. In Chad, it is used to describe ordinary cattle-rustlers. The sultan told me that when the war broke out in Darfur in 2003, no one in Dar Sila spoke of the Janjawiid. ‘Today everything Arab is Janjawiid, and everything Dajo is Tora Bora,’ he said.

‘Tora Bora’, another term imported from Sudan, is used as a nickname for the Darfur rebels, who, like bin Laden in Afghanistan, hid in the mountains from Sudanese Antonovs. In Chad, the name was applied to the Dajo when the war began to overwhelm them and they mobilised their traditional militias. Each Dajo village has a warnang, a leader, like Hasan al-Kolle, responsible for organising men of fighting age. In peacetime they are assembled mostly for collective work in the fields or to build houses. In times of war they come together to defend the village and to carry out raids, known as faza, against cattle thieves.

Once mobilised, the men put aside their jellabiyas in favour of their war dress: basketball tops, football shirts and fluorescent T-shirts, baseball caps and balaclavas, as well as leather pouches containing protective amulets. Some carry small bags of leaves known as ‘the herb of forty birds’, a drug which, when placed under the soles of the feet, increases the fighting spirit. They are armed mostly with bows and poison-tipped arrows, which are not particularly effective against the Kalashnikovs of the Janjawiid. Nonetheless, once the fighting began in Dar Sila, those who managed to foil or avenge attacks on their villages soon became famous across the country.

The story of al-Kolle shows how wrong it is to see Chad simply as an extension of Darfur. ‘Because he resisted, Hasan al-Kolle became a celebrity,’ the sultan told me. ‘After the first attacks near Tiero I asked him to stay with me as a wise man. He wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted to prepare his militias.’ In 2005, during a faza that took al-Kolle and his men as far as the border, the thieves they were pursuing – Arabs who could as well have been Sudanese as Chadian – invited him to form an alliance. ‘Twice he refused,’ Jiddo told me. ‘After the third time they started to attack us. One day near Tiero they killed two of my uncles and hung their bodies from trees to scare the Dajo.’ From then on, al-Kolle spent all his time mobilising the Dajo and trying to get hold of weapons.

At the beginning of 2006, Jiddo and his father travelled to Goz Beïda, Dar Sila’s small capital, to meet representatives of the Darfur rebels. Shortly afterwards al-Kolle took 400 Dajo to a camp set up on Chadian territory by the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the main Darfur rebel group at the time. For four months they were trained, mostly in the use of assault rifles. But the rebels refused to give the Dajo arms unless they made a clear commitment to joining the SLA’s ranks. ‘We went home empty-handed,’ Jiddo remembered, ‘but shortly afterwards my father started to collect money from the local population and from the Dajo living in N’Djamena.’ They bought most of their weapons from Chadian army officers; a few others were donated by sympathisers in the military. During the attack of March 2007 more than half of the Dajo militiamen based in Tiero, about 200 in all, had a firearm. ‘I had a Goryunov machinegun,’ Jiddo told me. ‘The others had bows, spears and sticks.’

‘All you young men must come together and make a choice,’ Achta Mahamat sings,
Hasan al-Kolle, war chief of the Dajo,
      he will make a choice!
Our land comes to us from our ancestors,
We have been here since our ancestors.
Even if we all die, Chad is our priority, Even if only one of us is left alive, Chad must
               develop!

It is a war chant, but Achta almost murmurs it, a capella. She composed it the day before the Tiero attack. ‘That day Hasan al-Kolle got us together and we sang a lot,’ she recalled. ‘He put ten radio-cassettes in front of me to record me.’ The cassettes and those of other singers were copied, recopied and sold in Dar Sila’s markets. ‘On the day of a battle we would play the cassettes to give the fighters courage,’ she said. ‘If you hear my songs you can only go forward, not retreat.’ Some militiamen had a small cassette player wrapped in cloth hanging from their amulets so they could listen to the songs during battle. Achta is about 40; war has made her famous. But since the battle of Tiero she no longer sings: ‘We’re hungry, looking for food. We have orphans and no land to cultivate. We have no time to sing.’ Nowadays she works as a sharecropper on a vast expanse of fields planted with red chillis, radishes, sweet potatoes and mango trees beside the Bahr Azoum, where camels are still taken to water; the Arabs who have settled on the southern bank of the river now forbid the Dajo to cross.

Tiero was ready for war long before the March 2007 attack. According to Jiddo the village had been attacked seven times since the end of 2005. ‘We fighters stayed on the hills around the town day and night, keeping watch.’ Down in Tiero there was now quite a crowd. Attacks had slowly emptied the neighbouring villages and the inhabitants had put themselves under the protection of al-Kolle and his men, who had made Tiero into a stronghold. ‘That’s why they wanted to destroy the village,’ Jiddo told me.

The Arabs, the Waddayans and the Mimi had a different explanation. While the Dajo speak of al-Kolle as a hero, other tribes consider him a criminal. A few days before the attack on Tiero two young Waddayans from the neighbouring village of Marena, returning on a lorry to Chad after working in Libya, stopped in Tiero on an errand. Al-Kolle’s men harassed their driver, who fled without waiting for his passengers. Later, news came through to Marena that the two men had been cut to pieces and their remains hung from the trees – the same fate that had befallen al-Kolle’s brothers. The Waddayans, Mimi and Arabs responded by combining their forces and attacking the Dajo in their bastion.

The assault was launched at around 5 a.m. on 31 March. The attackers were on camels and horseback. ‘They opened fire,’ Jiddo told me, ‘and we ran out to fire back. We managed to fight them off. They came back several times and each time we were able to repel them.’ He recalled that some were wearing Sudanese army uniforms. There were also people from Tiero. Among them were neighbours, friends, people who had little to do with Darfur but had scores to settle in Dar Sila. In mid-morning the Tiero militias could see a column of 20 vehicles heading in from the west, where between one and two thousand soldiers from the Chadian army were stationed, less than an hour away by car. It was, after all, inconceivable that the army hadn’t heard the firing, five hours into the fighting. ‘One of the vehicles was flying a white flag,’ Achta remembered. ‘The young men ran towards it, shouting: “Here comes peace! Here comes security!” But it wasn’t the Chadian army, it was the rebels. They started to fire on us with heavy artillery.’

Who were these well-equipped rebels? That same morning, the inhabitants of Dogdoré, a village between Tiero and the Sudanese border, had seen a column of Chadian rebels heading in the direction of Tiero. In the afternoon, according to one witness, they returned with prisoners and executed them. The same witness recognised one of al-Kolle’s men, tied to the back of a truck. ‘We never saw him again,’ he said. ‘We are sure that Tiero was attacked by al-Jineidi’s men.’ Al-Jineidi is the nom de guerre of Hasan Saleh al-Gaddam, leader of the Concorde Nationale du Tchad (CNT), a rebel group that recruited among the Arab population. Of the many such rebel movements, it was the only one controlling territory in Chad at the time, around Dogdoré.

Tiero was a well-defended community that the Janjawiid and the CNT both wished to weaken: the latter because they saw it as a pro-government stronghold, the former for plunder and revenge. In more vulnerable communities, the Dajo and other farmers had already realised that the relationship between the Janjawiid and the Chadian rebels was largely opportunistic. The CNT’s habit of disarming village militias allowed the Janjawiid to move in and plunder their livestock without a fight. I heard this from Jibril Ahmat Isak, the elderly head of a village in the area. Now displaced and living in Dogdoré, he had managed to keep hold of his bow and his spears, despite regular shakedowns by al-Jineidi’s men, who said they were searching for ‘Tora Bora’. On one occasion he was taken captive and freed for a ransom of sugar and tea, plus 150,000 CFA francs (£190), paid by his family.

In December 2007, al-Jineidi changed sides and joined forces with the Chadian regime; in return, he was put in charge of a ministry for ex-combatants and victims of war in N’Djamena. He went on to become the army chief of staff. I met him in the capital twice in 2008. On both occasions he denied that he and his men had played any part in the attack on Tiero. Yet Achta, Jiddo and other survivors remember seeing the rebels arrive, and the Janjawiid returning in their wake. The rebels positioned themselves on rocks and fired at the villagers as they fled. Meanwhile, the Janjawiid – especially the Waddayans – spread terror through Tiero. Achta told me that elders burned in their houses. ‘They called them “the fathers of Tora Bora” or “the mothers of Tora Bora” and they threw them in the fire. I was running through the bombs, like everyone else.’

Four days after the attack, Amnesty International, which had no one on the ground and depended on information from UNHCR, issued a press release arguing that ‘Chad must immediately permit the deployment of a UN force’ with ‘a robust mandate to protect civilians affected by the ongoing conflict’. The deluge of comparisons with Darfur, and even Rwanda, intensified. The objective was to resuscitate the possibility of a strong international military presence in the region: what the human rights activists had failed to achieve in western Sudan might be possible across the frontier in eastern Chad.

The outcry came as something of a relief to France. As Déby’s main supporter, Paris already had 1100 soldiers in place and was beginning to feel a little isolated in its former colony. The UN Security Council had recommended a ‘multi-dimensional presence’ in 2006 but had seemed in no hurry to do anything about it. In March 2007, just before the Tiero attack, Urgence Darfour, the French equivalent of the Save Darfur coalition, organised a large meeting in Paris. On the platform, Bernard Kouchner, chief agitator for the ‘responsibility to protect’, advocated the use of force if need be against Khartoum. Activists managed to get a commitment to back the idea from the main candidates in the French presidential election.

When Sarkozy became president in May, he made Kouchner minister of foreign affairs. The new president had been elected on a programme of rupture, but no one was sure whether he would break decisively with Françafrique, the network of financial and military ties that binds France to the regimes in her former colonies. Chadians who believed he might were quickly disillusioned. Sarkozy and Kouchner knew that they would get a better press by acting in Darfur than in Chad. The day after he was appointed, Kouchner invited his friends from Urgence Darfour to a meeting at which he repeated his ideas for ‘humanitarian corridors’ or an ‘air bridge’ to take aid into Darfur from Chad. The idea fell flat because the NGO workers on the ground couldn’t see the point. Khartoum had already consented to a massive humanitarian operation – since 2004, the biggest in the world – within its own borders. Kouchner’s military-humanitarian intervention was reduced in the end to extra flights between N’Djamena and eastern Chad.

If Kouchner was going to do anything for Chad, he would have to do it in a way that allowed him to claim he was helping Darfur. France duly set to work to convince N’Djamena on one side and its European partners on the other to deploy a European force, Eufor, in eastern Chad. The government of Chad had good reasons to accept. In February 2008, Chadian rebels had launched another lightning raid that reached the centre of N’Djamena, the second in two years, but were again defeated thanks to the help of French military advisers. The following month, at a press conference in Paris, Ahmat Allam-Mi, Chad’s minister of foreign affairs, spelled out what Chad wanted from the European force which was being deployed: ‘Eufor will be able to discourage rebels coming from Sudan and to discourage Sudan itself from attacking Chad.’

Most people in Chad believed that the real purpose of Eufor was to enable Paris to prop up the Déby regime more effectively. At least 2000 of the 3700 Eufor troops were French (although nominally more than 15 countries participated), which meant that Eufor was seen as a French force wrapped in a European flag. Eufor personnel worked hard to persuade the Chadians that they were there primarily to protect the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Dar Sila. But in French political discourse and the media, Dar Sila was routinely presented as a second Darfur, and Eufor as a deployment on behalf of Darfur refugees in Chad – 240,000 of them – although those refugees were far less often victims of violence than the Chadians living in the border area.

Kouchner’s priority was now to convince public opinion that France had not forgotten Darfur, even if this meant ignoring the local causes of violence in Chad. ‘I want to explain my conception of human rights,’ he announced on French radio in December 2008. ‘Eufor, in Chad, the biggest EU operation, with about 4000 men to protect the population, has allowed a quarter of the refugees to return to their homes. By March half will have returned.’ In fact, the number of refugees from Darfur in Chad had risen slightly in 2008. Three months later he presented a less eccentric balance sheet in Le Figaro: ‘On our initiative Europe has succeeded in bringing security to eastern Chad. Thanks to Eufor – 3000 men from 17 countries – a quarter of the IDPs have been able to return to their homes.’ Again, these figures, based on UN data, need qualifying. Several NGOs calculate that fewer than 10 per cent of the IDPs have in fact returned home. Other UN statistics show that the displaced Chadian population remains stable.

For the EU and France, this is neither here nor there. In March, a year after its deployment, Eufor handed over to a UN force. Like Kouchner, the EU spoke of ‘success’, and this note of self-congratulation was echoed by Darfur activists, who had been urging an intervention in Chad. The columnist Nicholas Kristof, a prominent member of Save Darfur and one of the first to talk of genocide in 2004, wrote recently in the New York Review of Books:

France took action last year and led a European military force of 3700 soldiers that moved into neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic. Sudan had previously dispatched fighters to raid both countries, so that in the past they were the scene of murders and rapes of people because of their race and tribe, just as in Darfur. The European force, which in March passed responsibility to a UN force, has stabilised that crisis and reduced the chance that Chad and the Central African Republic will collapse, so in some respects there is a lull right now.

Who is being lulled? Eufor was lucky. It was deployed just after the February 2008 rebel attack on N’Djamena and left before a new offensive in Dar Sila in May 2009, which was easily driven back by a better prepared Chadian army. But there is nothing to suggest that the cycle has come to an end. Europe failed to use the leverage it acquired as a result of the Eufor deployment to push for negotiations between the Chadian regime and the rebels. As for the security of humanitarian operations (one of the main objectives of the force), in spring 2009 the UN advised NGOs not to travel with the Chadian armed escorts they had set up: their presence would increase the risk of attack.

In Dar Sila, the calm is uneasy. The destruction of Tiero and the death of Hasan al-Kolle have weakened the Dajo militias. The fighters who survived have moved into IDP camps, put their jellabiyas back on and hidden their bows and spears. Many criticise the sultan for not having supported them or furnished them with assault rifles. In February 2007, shortly before the attack on Tiero, the Chadian government sought to mollify these ‘hawks’ by removing the old chief from his position and naming his son in his place. ‘I’ve lost 17 years of my life stuck in the mud of this sultanate,’ the old man remarked bitterly. ‘Everyone expresses regret, but there is no dialogue. I say to people: “Listen, not all Arabs are Janjawiid. The Arabs shouldn’t attack Dajo. But the Dajo shouldn’t attack Waddayans or Arabs either.” The tradition of a sultan is to treat everyone equally. That’s the message that I preach but no one listens to me – not even my own people, the Dajo.’

Reconciliation is not the order of the day. ‘If I get back to my village one day,’ Jiddo told me, ‘I’ll organise an army and find weapons. I want revenge.’ People say that the Janjawiid burned al-Kolle’s corpse, but Jiddo still holds onto the hope that his father survived. One rumour has it that he was picked up by the Red Cross and taken to a hospital somewhere. ‘All we know,’ Achta said, ‘is that he did everything he could to help his relatives. But his men had no more bullets and the Chadian army didn’t come to help him.’

This piece was translated from French by Colin Robertson and Liz Hodgkin

[*] Alex de Waal wrote about Darfur in the issues of the LRB dated 5 August 2004 and 30 November 2006; Mahmood Mamdani in the issue dated 8 March 2007.