Human Rights Watch researcher, Leslie Lefkow, discusses the escalating violence in Eastern Chad and its direct connection with the fighting in Darfur. The Sudanese government’s support of the Chadian rebels and the Chadian government’s support of the Darfur rebels have led to cross border attacks, and once again, it is the civilian population that suffers.
JERRY FOWLER: My guest today is Leslie Lefkow, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. She joins us to discuss developments in Darfur and Eastern Chad. Leslie, welcome to the program.
LESLIE LEFKOW: Thank you very much.
JERRY FOWLER: I should extend a special welcome because this episode marks the first anniversary of Voices on Genocide Prevention, so you are the first guest of our second year.
LESLIE LEFKOW: I am very pleased to be here.
JERRY FOWLER: And we are pleased to have you. Human Rights Watch has just issued recently a report about developments in Chad. Can you bring us up to date?
LESLIE LEFKOW: What we are seeing in Chad—there are links to Darfur, and then there are factors that have to do with Chadian domestic issues such as ongoing political discontent in Chad, but what we are seeing on the ground in Chad, in Eastern Chad in particular, is a massive escalation in attacks, intercommunal clashes between different groups living in Eastern Chad, as well as abuses that are directly connected to Darfur. There are several different patterns. It is not straightforward; there are several different patterns. You have for example, ongoing support from the Chadian government to Darfur rebels, and ongoing support from the Sudanese government to Chadian rebels. Now this relationship of the two governments using rebel groups as proxies is creating abuses on civilians; for example, the Darfur rebel groups, we have documented recruitment—forced recruitment by the Darfur rebels—in Sudanese refugee camps in Eastern Chad. Another offshoot of this dynamic is the fact that the Janjaweed militias, based in Darfur and supported by the Sudanese government, have been launching cross border attacks into Eastern Chad for about a year now. We have seen intensifying attacks into Eastern Chad with the result that at least 50,000 Chadian civilians have been displaced, have been targeted by these attacks and displaced. All of these elements are basically polarizing Chadian ethnic groups because in Chad you have a similar dynamic in terms of groups who are considered Arabized or Arabs and groups who are considered non-Arabs as you have in Darfur. The proximity of Darfur and the proximity of these different groups of armed actors in Eastern Chad is having a really vicious effect on local ethnic tensions in Eastern Chad.
JERRY FOWLER: Let us try to untangle that a little bit. That was a very clear description of what is happening, but obviously a lot is going on. Let us start with the rebel groups that you mentioned; Chadian rebel groups that are being supported by the Sudanese government. Who are these rebel groups and what is their agenda?
LESLIE LEFKOW: There have been sort of small groups of Chadian rebels present in Darfur for many years, ever since the current President, Idriss Déby, ever since he took power in 1990; there have been sort of small opposition groups based in Darfur and Eastern Chad. What has happened in the last year is that the Sudanese government has started actively supporting these groups. Basically, since late 2005, we have seen a massive deterioration in the political relationship between N'Djamena, Chad and Khartoum in Sudan. This relationship between the two governments has worsened in a very dramatic way, so the Sudanese have upped their support for the Chadian rebels, and in return, the Chadians have upped their support for Darfur rebels, so you have this proxy war basically happening across the border.
JERRY FOWLER: Do the Chadians rebel groups have a certain ethnic identity?
LESLIE LEFKOW: They are a mixture; you have Tama, a large group of Tama members in the Chadian rebel groups, but because there is also a lot of domestic discontent in Chad—the domestic discontent with President Déby and his government, we have also seen a wave of desertions from the Déby government and from the Chadian military to these Chadian rebel groups. So, for example, you even now have Zaghawa members of the Chadian rebel groups who were former allies to President Déby.
JERRY FOWLER: And President Déby is an ethnic Zaghawa, right?
LESLIE LEFKOW: Exactly, he is an ethnic Zaghawa himself, and this issue of President Déby being a Zaghawa, many of the Darfur rebels being Zaghawa, the Zaghawa presence; the Zaghawa are one of the ethnic groups that straddle the Chad-Sudanese border, and this is a very important element in the conflict in Darfur, and in the relations between Sudan and Chad because I think that fundamentally there is a deep distrust in Khartoum for President Déby and his government because he is Zaghawa, and because there is a perception that automatically there is an allegiance there to the Darfur rebels, and this was not necessarily the case initially, three years ago, when the conflict began. Our research shows that there was not necessarily a lot of official support going from Chad to the Darfur rebels groups at that time, but because of the developments in the last year and increasing suspicion on both sides, we now see a much more strengthened policy of support to rebels on both sides.
JERRY FOWLER: You mentioned that the Janjaweed, these militias in Darfur, government supported militias, have been launching cross border attacks over the course of the last year. What is the point of those attacks?
LESLIE LEFKOW: I think that these attacks are partly opportunistic, in the sense that when you look at the motives of these Janjaweed militias, a large part of their motivation has been economic, all throughout the conflict, both in terms of the attacks that they have carried out in Darfur as well as in Eastern Chad. Many of these groups, many of the people who have joined these groups come from perhaps two or three different motivating sources. One is, as I said, purely economic—the opportunity to loot, the opportunity to loot livestock, for example, which is one of the key assets in the region, in Darfur and Eastern Chad, the opportunity to loot other commodities—this has been a major incentive for many of these militiamen. Another incentive for a certain sub-group has been ideological; there are members of these groups who do have a very strong racial animus that motivates their attacks. Then, I think that the third issue is where you have a group who is not necessarily connected to particular militias but are pure bandits or criminals who have, again, joined the militias in an opportunistic way, and I think that one of the motivating factors for the cross border attacks is this purely opportunistic drive, but it is not the only factor. There is clear evidence as well in some of the attacks that it is a deliberate effort to, for example, move civilians who are perceived to support the Darfur rebels out of key areas, out of strategic locations.
JERRY FOWLER: That leads to the question I was going to ask. Who is it who is being attacked? Are they Darfurian refugees who are in Chad or are they Chadian civilians or perhaps a combination of both?
LESLIE LEFKOW: It is mainly Chadian civilians, although there are some Darfur refugees who have settled in the villages because again, along the Southern part of the Chad-Sudan border where many of the attacks are taking place, again you have ethnic groups that straddle and live on both sides, in both countries, but it is mainly Chadian civilians, and I think that one of the factors is initially, in the first part of 2006, we were mainly seeing groups of Dajo—this is one of the ethnicities that has been identified as non-Arab—and it was mainly Dajo who were being attacked, Dajo villages that were being attacked. However, this has evolved over the last ten months, and what we are seeing now is very clearly attacks on both sides, from attacks on Dajo, but also Dajo communities becoming militarized, trying to get weapons for example, and then also attacking Chadian Arab groups in the region. I think what we are seeing is a very worrying dynamic where the fear, and the suspicion, and the distrust on both sides have increased, and now both sides are both perpetrators and victims.
JERRY FOWLER: And the dynamic in Chad might be a bit different than in Sudan where you do not have the overwhelming force of the government on one side or the other.
LESLIE LEFKOW: Exactly, I think the issue with Eastern Chad is that to a large extent the Chadian government has basically withdrawn their military forces from much of this border area because of Chadian rebel attacks, so they moved out many of their military units and police presence along the border, and this has basically left a vacuum, and this is also another reason why these Janjaweed militias are exploiting this vacuum and launching attacks into Eastern Chad. Unlike Darfur where the Sudanese government continues to exert an enormous influence, and continues to actively support the militias in Darfur, and continues to actively engage in a policy of isolating and attacking civilians from ethnicities that they see as linked to the rebels.
JERRY FOWLER: I did want to ask about that; the relationship between the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militias. Human Rights Watch, obviously, has been at the forefront of documenting the ways in which the Sudanese government organized and armed and trained the Janjaweed militias. But what is your sense today of the level of control that the government has over the Janjaweed?
LESLIE LEFKOW: I think there is a fair degree of control. Having said that, it is very clear that at this point the Sudanese government probably cannot afford to alienate many of these militias. It is very clear that there is a continuing policy of support, and by that, I mean both financially—in terms of cash—also in terms of arms, and also in terms of political support—the impunity that the government has given to the militias; for example, the fact that they refuse to investigate or prosecute any of the militia leaders. These are all aspects of the policy of support. I think unlike, say, two years ago or three years ago, it is also clearer now that because of this three years of support from the Sudanese government, many of these militia leaders have become very powerful, in the region, on the ground, and that is what I think makes it very difficult—even if the government were to choose to, for example, try to disarm them—it would not be an easy task. That is very clear, but I think, again, the question that has to be put to Khartoum is, despite all the evidence and the predictions that things would develop in this way that they have continued this policy, and the fact that they continue to provide the support. They could, for example, cut off some of this support. It could have negative repercussions, but we have never seen any effort to turn this policy around.
JERRY FOWLER: The other side of the equation, I guess, is the Darfur rebel groups, and you said in particular, that they have been doing some forced recruitment in the Darfur refugee camps that are in Chad. The other thing we have seen is some fragmentation of the rebel groups, particularly after the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in May. What is your assessment, one, of the extent to which there is a coherent Darfur rebel group, and then secondly their strength as it were?
LESLIE LEFKOW: I think that as you say, it has been very clear that unfortunately the process leading up to the Darfur Peace Agreement and some of the terms within the Darfur Peace Agreement actually ended up exacerbating the divisions between the rebel groups, rather than uniting the rebel groups, and this has had extremely negative effects on the ground. A lot of the fighting that we have seen in Darfur over the last three or four months is linked to the fallout of the peace agreement, and we have seen a large amount of fighting between the rebel factions, both among different factions in the lead up to the peace agreement and then since the peace agreement, between the factions who have not signed and the government, and this is one of the key problems facing civilians at the moment in Darfur; again we are seeing the same patterns at work on the government side—in terms of aerial bombardment and militia attacks on civilians—and at the same time, the rebels, and the rebel positioning is certainly not helping matters, and they too have been responsible for abuses against civilians on their own part. In terms of, I think, the question of how united they are, there is a coalition at the moment of non-signatory groups who call themselves the National Redemption Front, and they are the ones mainly engaged with the government in the fighting that is happening right now. I think they are probably more engaged, at the moment, militarily than they are politically. I think there is still a tremendous amount of division and variety of views, politically within the different factions, and I think one of the big concerns is, of course, that the longer this conflict continues in Darfur, the harder it will be to find a sustainable political solution when you have so many different actors with different agendas.
JERRY FOWLER: Let me go back to this idea of a security vacuum in Eastern Chad that you mentioned. The French have military forces stationed in Eastern Chad—a small force—and I know when I traveled through Chad some time ago, they were at least doing some patrolling, and at various times they have made some efforts to at least assert that power. What is the status of the French forces now?
LESLIE LEFKOW: They are still present in Eastern Chad and there is a fair amount of evidence that, for example, earlier this year in April, there were Chadian rebel attacks on the capital in N’Djamena, and there are indications that the French forces have provided the Chadian government, the Chadian military, with some intelligence, for example, military intelligence and so on. So they are not playing an entirely neutral role in the region. They are there, but they are not doing much of anything in terms of protecting civilians in Eastern Chad. There is a lot of criticism leveled at them from some of the opposition groups in Chad who are critical of their support to the Déby government.
JERRY FOWLER: Also in Eastern Chad is quite a sizeable international humanitarian effort that is providing humanitarian relief to the Darfurian refugees, and to some extent, the local population. To what extent is the security vacuum endangering that relief operation?
LESLIE LEFKOW: At the moment, I think the biggest problem in terms of security has been the looting of vehicles and attacks on humanitarians in terms of looting of vehicles and other goods from the humanitarians, however, I think you raise an excellent point. There is a massive concern; you have more than 200,000 Sudanese refugees in Eastern Chad, plus of course, hundreds of thousands of Chadian civilians, and there is a real concern that the build up, the military build up and the tensions along this border right now could affect the refugee camps and other parts of the Chadian population in even more serious ways than what we have seen so far, because right now, in November of 2006, we are seeing an enormous build up of Sudanese militia on the Darfur side of the border and whether they are going to attack the Darfur rebels or whether they are going to launch an attack into Chad, it is not very clear, but from the patterns we have seen of these groups in the past, it is very clear that civilians tend to be the ones who suffer when these attacks take place, so it is a very big concern that the refugee camps in Chad could be targeted either deliberately or indiscriminately by some of these armed groups.
JERRY FOWLER: Leslie Lefkow is a researcher with Human Rights Watch. Leslie, thanks for taking the time to be with us?
LESLIE LEFKOW: Thank you very much for having me on the program.