A caravan of a hundred camels traverses the cracked Saharan plains on a several-day journey to the nearest water source in North Darfur as I barrel down the bumpy trail, crammed into the back of a 1960s-model pickup. Stony hills give way to patches of desert, golden grassy meadows, and parched fields of sorghum and millet. Villages of circular huts made of mud and straw are spread thin across the vast, empty countryside, far enough apart to allow the human population to maintain its delicate balance with the scarce resources of their fragile environment.
Many of the villages now look like tiny moonscapes of above-ground craters. The circular mud brick walls of their huts remain standing but their insides are charred and their straw roofs turned to ash. A thin layer of soot coats the cracked clay pots and bed frames that lie exposed to the open sky. Bits of animal bones, scraps of cloth, tin cans, glass, and rusted lanterns are strewn across the ground among empty bullets and one-foot-long mortar shells. Many of the villages remain intact, but they are slowly becoming swept over by sand as they come into their third year of standing empty, their residents having fled as soon as they saw the towers of smoke curling up into the clouds while nearby villages were engulfed in flames.
Separating Sudan’s Darfur region and Chad is a 30-foot-wide dried river bed that doubles as a border, but means little for the people living on either side of it. Like all borders in Africa, this one is a product of colonial statecraft, with no relevance to preexisting ethnic identities, linguistic groupings, or communities. Pastoralists move their herds across this unassuming frontier through the lands of their ethnic kin in search of fodder and water. The marauding Janjaweed militia cross into Chad to pillage villages and steal their livestock, while Chadian and Sudanese rebels skip back and forth depending on who and where their enemies are at a given time.
The only people held back by the border are the militaries of either country, so when the Sudanese government waged its genocidal campaign against Darfur’s black population, the Masalit, Zaghawa, and other ethnic groups living near the border came to Chad for safety while others fled to closer camps within Darfur. Ishaq Haron, the head of the Treguine refugee camp said, “When we initially fled Sudan, the first people to take care of us were the Chadians.” With no international aid agencies present during the first months of ethnic cleansing, he said their kin on the Chadian side of the border offered them food, water, and shelter when they had nowhere else to go.
East Chad may have been better off than Darfur before the war, but only just, and the influx of such a large refugee population put a serious strain on the resource base of Chadians living in the region, and in their ability to sustain themselves. The United Nations Development Project’s (UNDP) 2005 Human Development Report cites Chad as the fifth poorest country in the world, and the eastern region of the country is one of its most remote parts. Aside from the more fertile southern portion of the border region, it is mostly barren and access to water is extremely limited. According to the UNDP report, only two percent of Chadians living in provinces bordering Sudan have access to safe drinking water. Electricity, running water, and telephones are nonexistent outside the provincial capitals, and even in cities their availability is sporadic. People’s lives revolve around the collection and consumption of three natural resources: water for drinking and farming, firewood for cooking, and grass for grazing livestock, all of which are scarce.
The limitation of these natural resources has historically led to conflicts in the region between mostly black sedentary agriculturalists and Arab nomadic pastoralists. Desertification, which has brought about periods of severe drought since the second half of the 20th century, has pushed Arab tribes in Darfur into grazing their livestock on the rich agricultural lands and pastures of the sedentary populations. With the increased pressure of a degrading environment, cattle raids turned into full-fledged conflicts. Then, when armed rebel groups, mostly black Darfuris, rose up demanding that the Sudanese government end the economic marginalization of their people, President Omar Al-Bashir took advantage of these pre-existing conflicts by arming, financing, and training certain elements of the Arab tribes and using them to target the civilian populations from which these rebels were drawn.
After two million people flooded into camps in Darfur and over 200,000 took refuge in East Chad, the already frail environment quickly began to degenerate. Ouri Cassoni, the largest and northernmost of Chad’s 12 refugee camps, is surrounded by nothing but sand and scant shrubbery. The expanse of dusty tents and mud walls that house almost 30,000 people seems to be stuck randomly in the middle of the Chadian desert. During a visit to the camp, UNHCR’s environmental officer in Chad, Daniel Roger, said that the environment cannot handle the concentration of so many people in one place. “There are almost thirty thousand refugees in the camp, but no more than five thousand local Chadians in the area,” he told me.
Water is in short supply in northeastern Chad, said Roger, and “there is not enough wood to support the population. The small amount of natural resources [in East Chad] is being overexploited. These refugees also have basic needs to satisfy. They are consuming much more than nature is producing. It has created an imbalance.” This imbalance has pushed the environment to the point of crisis, he said, and when environments collapse, everything goes with them. In East Chad, the deterioration of the environment has already put severe stress on the relations between Chadians and the refugees and the more natural resources dwindle, the greater the risk of conflict between refugees and locals becomes. “[Chadians] have the impression that they are being invaded by these people who came from Sudan,” said Roger. “The main problem is the competition over the exploitation of resources, especially firewood and water.”
This competition has led to instances of violent attacks on refugees, and since women are traditionally the ones to collect wood and water, the bulk of the violence has come down on them. Fatima Abu Mohammed, 20-year-old mother of two whose name has been changed for her protection, said that she and other women don’t feel free in the camps and she is too afraid to collect wood anymore. Eyes cast down to the sand floor of her shack, she told her story with reservation. “Six months ago I was beaten by a group of men while I was searching for wood. There were three of them and they had a gun. Then after they beat me, they raped me.”
In Treguine, Haron spoke with poise and self-assurance when talking about the atrocities he and his family were subjected to in Darfur, but as soon as the topic changes to their current situation in the camp, his voice cracked and his eyes began to luster. “In Sudan, the Janjaweed would attack women, beat them, and rape them and here we deal with the same thing.”
In an effort to increase the security of women, protect the ecosystem from total collapse, and prevent a new conflict from forming between Chadians and Sudanese refugees, efforts have been made by international NGOs to relieve the strain on the environment. UNHCR has dedicated five percent of its budget in Chad to providing Chadian communities near the refugee camps with basic services, especially water facilities. To reduce the rate of deforestation, a new program has been set up at Ouri Cassoni to collect deadwood from designated sites about 20 miles from the camp. Women are taken by vehicles to collect the wood themselves, which is then brought back to be rationed to the entire camp. The rations however, still fall short of supplying the camps 30,000 people with their requirement of less than two pounds of firewood each. In some of the northern camps where deadwood is most scarce, fuel-efficient, enclosed clay stoves have been built into people’s huts as an alternative to the less efficient traditional three-stone fires and in Ouri Cassoni, people are given small amounts of kerosene to supplement their firewood. Refugees have also started to use small-scale kitchen gardens as a sustainable alternative to extensive agriculture in the surrounding areas, using wastewater from domestic activities.
Natural resources are still diminishing quickly though, and it is only a matter of time before competition erupts into inter-community conflict. Jessica Hyba, the assistant country director of CARE, a British NGO working on environmental issues in Chad, thinks that the single factor that will determine the stability of East Chad is the length of time that refugees will be there. “In a couple of years’ time, should the refugees still be here,” she said, “I would imagine that a lot of the peace-building activities would probably be around the deadwood collection.”
As the sun comes closer to the earth in Ouri Cassoni, I think back over all of the conversations that I have had with refugees about what they suffered in Darfur and the difficulties that they face today in exile. The sky turns grayish yellow and the cone-shaped roofs become silhouettes on the horizon while lone people walk along it, their loose garments fluttering gently in the wind. I struggle to put all the pieces together about Darfur. The conflict only grows in complexity as it continues to expand, pulling Chad further into it. As the environment erodes in East Chad, I wonder how much longer it will be before a new conflict begins. The war in Darfur has sent out ripples of calamity, producing new problems that seem disconnected from the first genocidal intentions. Bombs have fallen on huts and rape used as a weapon, millions have fled and still hope for immediate return, the natural world is being killed, and people wait, hoping that East Chad will be able to hold itself together through it all. In the end, the solution to the looming environmental crisis is the same as that which will stop the escalating conflict in Darfur: an end to the marginalization of the people of Darfur and a just peace that will allow people to return home, and once again spread out across the delicate landscape.
Shane Bauer is a freelance journalist in Chad.
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