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The Chad News Archive

Lawlessness and Banditry in Eastern Chad

The Guardian
Sitting among villagers who fled a wave of massacres in eastern Chad, Silai Nassour nodded towards the nearby mountain looming over the parched, semi-desert. "We can't go behind that mountain, two men were killed there, we can't go far to gather firewood or collect water, or work the fields. Men are killed, women are raped, that's the danger," she said. Four years ago, Nassour's village in eastern Chad was plundered and burned to the ground when bands of Arab militias from Darfur attacked local tribes. "My husband was killed in front of me and militia took two of my children, aged three and four. I never saw them again," she said. Now, years after she settled on a makeshift site of 10,000 displaced people far from her village, she fears another threat - the armed bandits and criminals who steal, rape and threaten civilians across a lawless area awash with AK47s and rocket-propelled grenades. The arid planes of eastern Chad are home to more than 280,000 refugees from the Darfur conflict in neighbouring Sudan. Another 180,000 Chadians, like Nassour, were forced from their villages when the violence spilled over the border and are now classed as "internally displaced". In recent days, humanitarian agencies in Darfur have warned that aid work will be severely compromised after Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, expelled 16 non-government organisations following the international criminal court summons for his arrest on war crimes charges. In eastern Chad, the massive aid effort continues and contingency plans are in place if more Darfuris cross the border looking for help. The biggest problem facing agencies and refugees in eastern Chad is the banditry, crime, robbery and rape plaguing the lawless, arid border area. Highway bandits, or coupeurs de route have been car-jacking and robbing aid workers, many of whom who have been shot at. Last year, a Save the Children representative was killed. An Oxfam report warned that 'on a daily basis [displaced people], refugees and civilians face rape, physical attack, beatings while working in the fields, robberies in camps and sites and the theft of livestock". Children also face recruitment into military or rebel groups. The biggest issue is lawlessness, with bandits unlikely to face justice - stolen aid vehicles are openly driven around on both sides of the border. Yesterday, an elaborate ceremony launched the UN's military mission to protect refugees and displaced people in eastern Chad – taking over from the interim European force, Eufor. Humanitarian agencies immediately called for the UN-trained community police to quickly tackle the crime wave. Under pressure not to leave a vacuum, the UN expects to have more than 5,000 troops in place over the next few months. Even before the Darfur crisis seeped over its border, Chad was plagued by lawlessness and its own inter-ethnic violence. The semi-arid country south of Libya is one of the world's poorest, most corrupt and least stable nations. Since independence from France in 1960, every new leader has come to power in a coup d'etat. The current president, Idriss Deby, was saved from being overthrown last year when the French army intervened. The capital, N'Djamena, already awash with troops, now has a vast trench dug around it in case the rebels attack again. A corrupt clan system prevails, and the World Bank recently dropped an agreement to part-finance a pipeline for Chad's newfound oil reserves after petrodollars meant to be spent on schools and hospitals were instead used to consolidate Déby's grip on power. Instability is made worse by a proxy cold war in which Chad and neighbouring Sudan support each other's rebel factions. "There is a culture of war in Chad which we still see at the highest levels of authority," said one western diplomat, describing a daily scourge of banditry and criminality, even among the military. "Impunity and lawlessness is Chad's cancer." In response to humanitarian pleas over the "lethal" security situation, the EU last year dispatched the biggest military operation it has ever mobilised. The "Eufor" force of more than 3,000 soldiers aims to ensure the safety of Darfur refugees, Chad's own displaced people and a new influx of refugees from the neighbouring Central African Republic. The force was deployed to bridge a gap until the slow UN could mobilise its own forces, in what Brussels hopes will set the standard for a new tradition of European rapid reaction operations. Eufor's command maintains it met obligations to "contribute" to a more secure situation in eastern Chad, but General Jean-Philippe Ganascia admitted that military force alone could stop not Chad's "proliferation of arms, impunity, inter-community fighting and need for development". Through the sand and dust of market day in Goz Beida, a large village that has become the centre for humanitarian operations in eastern Chad, Irish peacekeeping troops in armoured personnel carriers rolled past donkeys and stalls of dried spices on patrol. Captain Sarah-Jane Cromerford said her force, which will now work under the UN, was a "deterrent" to bandits in an area awash with arms. Aid workers argue that the only real way to deal with the shifting groups of criminals and attackers is not through heavy tanks and weapons but the new UN-trained police force of 850 people, which has been slow in reaching full deployment. "In this country, men only count if they have a gun," said Austrian Colonel Manfred Hanzl. One difficulty is knowing who is who, along a porous border area where rebels cross freely. Rebel groups are a shifting patchwork than can include disgruntled Chadian soldiers, or bandits who organise crime and desert raids. "These groups are heavily armed and operate like paramilitaries," said Victor Angelo, the special representative of the UN secretary general in Chad. "Twenty or 30 of them on camels can create panic." The word Janjaweed – the "devils on horseback" once used to describe the militia mobilised by the Sudanese government against Darfur civilians – is now often employed to describe any nomad on horseback, or used as a shorthand by villagers for people from different ethnic groups. The recruitment of child soldiers in the area has also alarmed aid workers agencies. Child soldiers are often seen manning the local Chad army's security points. Oxfam estimates about 7,000 to 10,000 boys are serving with rebels or the Chad military. Aid workers say it is hard to estimate how many boys from 10 to 16 were forced to enlist, or who joined because they saw no other future. On the refugee camp north of Goz Beida, Abakar Toum, a village leader whose home was destroyed in fighting near the Darfur border in 2005, said: "It's not safe for us to go back permanently. Even here, women don't dare to go far from the site to work the land or look for water. "There has to be peace in Darfur before the refugees can go back and we can rebuild our villages." He felt that was a long way off.
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