by Anne Holmes
When the sun comes up in eastern Chad, the dawn of a new day brings with it a host of daunting challenges. Soon the temperatures will rise to 50 degrees Celsius. A patch of shade will be the only mercy one can find in these parts, and the quest for resources will dictate the day’s rhythm and trajectory. The distant sound of baying donkeys acts as a call to prayer to mother nature’s implacable disposition. Women wrapped in brilliant, shocking bolts of fabric dot the dusty horizon, riding their beasts of burden in tandem as evidence of their existence, the dry earth giving beneath each step, but giving nothing of what they need.
Chadians have been struggling for centuries to find water and arable land in this beautiful but foreboding landscape. Semi-nomadic tribes have battled each other for precious plots of earth in these parts for as long as anyone can remember, and unforgiving periods of drought have led to famine and mass migrations as far east as Sudan. The border between the two countries has never really existed in the minds of most native to this area, and the fact that the same tribes inhabit both sides is proof of that.
Not much has changed today in that regard, but the border looks distinctly different than it did in 2003. Today, there are 12 massive UNHCR refugee camps harboring 256, 970 Darfuris who fled the ethnic cleansing in their native Sudan, and another 180,000 Chadians languish in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps as a result of civil unrest. This complicates matters considerably.
The refugees themselves are, respective to local Chadians, well taken care of. If ever you wondered what a culture of dependence looks like, Eastern Chad would be a prime example. The world’s biggest and best NGO’s have all set up base here to deliver the necessaries to the camps: food, medicine, water, soap and so on. Not surprisingly, locals have cultivated a healthy jealousy as a result. Everyone wants a piece of the pie. It’s only natural, especially when scant resources, hunger, and malaria pose a constant threat to survival.
Chadians have found various ways to siphon off portions of the goods through acts of banditry, and by cutting deals with corrupted officials for handouts. The employees of all the NGO’s have suffered the consequences and sometimes paid with their lives in well-orchestrated offensives on their compounds and on their convoys as they make their daily journeys to the camps. This, however, is not the only menace to their security.
Numerous rebel groups, both Chadian and Sudanese, pass back and forth over the border at will, paying visits to their families in the camps, recruiting soldiers among the refugees (often much too young for conscription), terrorizing towns, raping women on their treks to the wells and crops, looting markets. The list goes on.
It’s difficult to comprehend who is who and what they want. First, it’s important to note that a proxy war is presently being waged between Sudan and Chad. Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir was once a friend to Chad’s president Idriss Deby. He backed his 1990 rise to power in a rebel-led coup in exchange for concessions, which he apparently never got. Though it is always referred to as an “alleged subsidy,” no one I spoke to in Chad would deny that Bashir is financing the rebels who are currently trying to topple the Deby government, nor would they deny that Deby is in turn funding the rebels who are trying to capture Khartoum. The famed Toro Boro Sudanese rebels, for example, provide a contingent of their forces to the Chadian army to fight the Chadian rebels in exchange for arms to fight Khartoum. It’s an endless web of insurgencies that is in constant flux, and it’s just business as usual.
Caught between all these militias are average Chadians struggling to survive, a quarter of a million Sudanese refugees, and the UN and NGO personnel working in the area. Something clearly needed to be done to address the security situation, but the UN didn’t have the troops available to deploy in a timely fashion, so France stepped in to “save the day.”
President Sarkozy has been itching to restructure the French military and to bring European defense to the forefront of France’s EU presidency, beginning in July of this year, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a show of strength. In September of 2007, a UN-backed European force, EUFOR, was mandated to deploy to Chad to take on the task of containing the security situation. The problem was, no one but the French wanted to go, and few countries in Europe currently have the military personnel to volunteer and are sorely lacking in experience on African soil. Concessions were made in order to coax the other member states to join the force, leaving the French the least paid, and living under the most rustic conditions, while the Polish, Irish, Belgians etc. enjoy better salaries and live in air-conditioned tents. The French troops on the ground in Chad jokingly refer to themselves as the “whores of EUFOR,” but never mind that, France is determined to make this mission a success.
It remains to be seen how successful it will be however, and many in Chad regard their presence as another way for France to impose itself and protect its interests in its former colony. France has maintained a military presence in Chad since 1986, and of the 3,700 troops deployed this February under the EUFOR mandate, France supplied 2,100. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise then, that Chadians remain extremely suspicious of the arrival of tanks and patrol units along its eastern border.
The goal of the mission is to maintain a vigilant presence in the east of Chad in order to deter criminal activity so that NGO’s can do their work in the camps, and to foster an atmosphere of relative stability and safety for the refugees and IDP’s. The mandate does not permit the troops to enter the refugee camps, nor to patrol the border. But that is a façade that has been difficult to maintain, especially since two French special forces were shot dead in Sudan earlier this spring when they purportedly “got lost” on a reconnaissance mission.
Chadians regard the French military with a hefty dose of mistrust, and see EUFOR as spies for Deby’s government whom the French have more or less propped up tacitly. This is especially true in the east where there is considerable support for the rebels among locals. There is a paradoxical nature to the relationship, however. Local government officials expect EUFOR to solve all of their problems, which they can’t, and at the same time they would rather they just vanish. Children come running when the convoys pass on the road, screaming “cadeau cadeau!”, which means gift, but sometimes they throw rocks when the handouts don’t come.
In Iriba, one of the more arid parts of the Chadian Sahel, NGO’s service three refugee camps with a total population of 58,000. This region has been heavily targeted in the last year by bandits, yet the Polish EUFOR troops stationed there did not start patrolling this area until after I left at the end of July. NGO’s were extremely frustrated at the lag time and heavily criticized the forces for sucking up resources without delivering on their mandate. Indeed, when one considers that they allot approximately 100 liters of water per person per day against the 6 liters each refugee gets, it’s hard to justify their presence.
The second base further south at Farchana is manned by a French contingent dubbed Les Chasseurs Alpins, a rugged artillery battalion that has been on patrol for several months already. It proved extremely difficult to get access to the base as I was repeatedly blocked by the press attaché in N’djamena, Colonel Jean Axelos. It was only after threatening to publish a negative report (which I suppose I have done anyway) that I started to get some results, but when I turned up, the press spokesperson, Lieutenant Candice Thomassin claimed never to have been notified of my coming. Upon my arrival and my departure, another attending officer said to me, “see, we have nothing to hide,” but by then I was rather suspicious that they did.
The Chasseurs Alpins at Farchana, go on patrols everyday, often meeting with village leaders to get a sense of what’s going on. One afternoon we drove to Molou and sat on a blanket with the village leaders as they told of the problems in the area. They said they noticed a difference when EUFOR came through, but the bandits would come back just hours after they had finished their patrol. UN and MSF officials in Farchana town said they felt a distinct improvement in security around Farchana camp, however, and were happy to finally have them there. Their main concern is always to appear neutral and not mix too much with the forces, “appear” being the operative word here, because it’s difficult to fathom how the UN could really be neutral when they regularly deliver arms to the Chadian army in UN airplanes.
The last EUFOR base along the border at Goz Beida, which I did not visit, is led by an Irish contingent that was caught up in a pretty fierce battle between the Chadian army and rebels on June 14. The rules of engagement for EUFOR are not quite the same as those of UN peacekeepers. They have the right to fire if fired upon without asking permission from HQ, and they got a taste of that in Goz Beida on the 14th. Corporal Thierry Pechberty who was present that day, corroborated rumors I had heard that the Chadian army fired on them in order to engage them in the battle. He also said a French helicopter was deliberately shot at that day. All this puts a spin on the false sense of security the French tend to have in Eastern Chad. “They’re afraid of us,” said Commander Eric Gentieu one day at the main base in Abeche. But then he added, the difference between us and them is that “Chadians are true warriors. But they have no structure and order to their operations.”
The EUFOR troops definitely have their work cut out for them and they only have one year to make a good show of it before the UN takes over next spring. Between the rebels and the bandits it’s difficult to see how they will be able to manage such a chaotic atmosphere and their mandate is not to rid the country of its problems, but simply to provide a deterring presence. The French Colonel, Laurent Michon, who commands the EUFOR base at Farchana told me one evening over dinner that in these parts, “a man must prove his manhood by stealing. It is only by successfully achieving this act that he gains the respect of his peers. It’s a cultural aspect of society here that we can’t change .”
EUFOR wants good publicity, and they want to show that Europe can unite under a common defense goal, but its critics abound both outside and inside the ranks. As I was chatting with Commander Gentieu in the scorching afternoon heat one day, he said “in my opinion we aren’t really here for humanitarian reasons. There’s no such thing in Africa,” he continued. “To keep straight on the path, we shouldn’t even ask ourselves the question: what are we doing here?”
To view more pictures on EUFOR in Chad visit my website.