I spent a month wandering around eastern Chad, along the border with Sudan, where some 250,000 Darfuris fled a genocidal conflict to settle in massive refugee camps tended to by the UNHCR and a complex sub-network of international and local aid agencies. It has been more than four years now since the conflict erupted, killing anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people and sending hundreds of thousands more fleeing. While the UNHCR operates with a healthy mound of cash in its coffers, the unrest in Darfur has not ceased and it’s difficult to see how Chad will be able to sustain a quarter of a million people for much longer. It’s a country that suffers from dire poverty, a delicate and precariously plundered environment, and a security situation unlike any I have seen to date.
It turned out to be the wildest place I have ever been, a nation where “rule of law” takes on a new meaning, where cousins and brothers are an amorphous amalgam of relatives to whom one pledges loyalty based on a constantly shifting set of alliances, where security is a luxury few have ever known. The central government, led by Idriss Deby, who seized power in the 1990 rebel-led coup, seems barely to be holding on to dominion as numerous rebel groups unite against it. In the East, one might best describe the organization of sultanates as a sort of cosa nostra network that locals and aid agencies are basically at the mercy of.
To say that Chad is a poor country is something of an understatement. Numerous semi-nomadic peoples rove the Sahelian region, constantly in search of water and resources to eke out their living. 80 percent of the population depends on subsistence farming and yet arable land is hard to come by in a country that has been ravaged by drought, where the Sahara advances with the steps of a giant at the rate of 5 to 10 kilometers per year. Violent winds carry the barren sands of the desert south and eat up the nutrient-rich soils of the Sahel. Shorter and shorter rainy seasons leave the water table with dangerously insufficient levels. Animals die, people die, plants don’t grow, and conflicts are quick to ignite over the limited resources. It’s nothing new for Chadians, but the arrival of 250,000 Sudanese refugees has pushed the crisis level to a fever pitch.
Apart from the dire security situation, one of the biggest issues the east is facing is the endless search for firewood. The law of the land states that no tree shall be cut down, but it’s a rule that hasn’t always been respected, especially over the last four years with the arrival of so many people on the border. In the more northerly regions such as around Iriba, twice a day, a truck has to travel some 60 kilometers outside the camps, sometimes even crossing the border into Sudan, to fetch firewood for the refugees. It is estimated that within one year, firewood sources will be exhausted in Eastern Chad, and NGO’s have not come up with a viable solution. This pillaging of the earth has contributed to the desertification of the area, putting an even greater strain on the locals who have come to resent the refugees for their respectively “cushy” life.
It’s difficult not to see things all in black when you consider all the factors at play, and the only solution seems to be to contain the conflict in Sudan so that the refugees might return home, but the international community has been way too slow to respond, and whatever peacekeeping troops have been deployed to the area are, well, more or less inadequate. While the world sits glued to the TV in awe of Beijing’s resplendent display of Olympic power, the blood-stained sands of Sudan have China written on every grain. I have heard it said many times that China is a lesser sort among its neo-colonialist competitors because it doesn’t get involved in politics. I suppose you could say that’s true. Genocide is beyond politics.