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Chad-Sudan border conflict mired in confusion

Chad's civilians find themselves in a conflict so confusing that they have difficulty determining who is fighting whom.
Chadian soldiers patrol the Koukou Angarana refugee camp on April 19.
Chadian soldiers patrol the Koukou Angarana refugee camp on April 19.Karel Prinsloo / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In this desolate, sand-blown desert region of Chad near the Sudanese border, civilians are caught in a conflict so confusing that they -- and even the combatants -- have trouble telling who is fighting whom.

Or exactly why.

Chadian government troops are posted at key points along the border to halt what they say is a revolt by rebels based in Sudan. The soldiers wear red armbands to set them apart from the rebels, who wear similar uniforms and have an equally aggressive driving style, roaring through villages in pickup trucks, leaving behind clouds of billowing dust.

The insurgents, who are fighting to topple Chadian President Idriss Deby, represent at least 12 groups united under several coalitions. To make matters even more dizzying, some of them are Deby's estranged relatives, including a set of twin nephews.

Chad blames the Sudanese, saying they back the insurrection, an allegation that Sudan denies. An African Union investigation found this week that many of the captured attackers who invaded the capital April 13 had Sudanese and Central African Republic identification and said they were conscripted to fight by Sudan, which Sudan denies.

Sudan blames the Chadians, saying they support a different group of rebels in the Darfur region of western Sudan, some of whom have offices and villas in Chad's capital, N'Djamena.

And Chadians tend to blame France, Chad's former colonial power, which they accuse of being involved in the violence by backing the president.

Here in the inhospitable, rugged and lunar-like terrain of eastern Chad, where refugees huddle under thorn trees, two things are certain: The chaos in Darfur has extended deep into Chad, and a rapidly increasing number of civilians continue to suffer in one of Africa's most complex crises.

Spilling across borders
Across Africa, conflicts tend to spill across national borders and destabilize entire regions. Fighting in the central African country of Congo, for example, has flared off and on for about a decade, at times drawing in more than a dozen rebel groups backed by several neighboring countries.

Rebels in northern Uganda have been backed by Sudan as payback for Uganda's support of rebels in southern Sudan who were fighting the Sudanese government. The war in the 1990s in Sierra Leone spread into Liberia and Ivory Coast.

"For me, Darfur has become like West Africa and eastern Congo, where the war is exported and the region is inflamed and flowing over borders," said Olivier Bercault, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who was visiting N'Djamena this week. "It's just very sad for the civilians caught up in it all."

About two weeks ago, rebels drove across the vast desert toward N'Djamena. A French warplane fired warning shots at the rebels on April 13 as they marched into the city, where government troops thwarted the coup attempt. By the end of the day, more than 350 people were dead.

In Koukou Angarana, about 50 miles from the Sudanese border, witnesses said the rebels briefly stopped in the trading town on their way to the capital, killing one police officer and injuring two others. The rebels kidnapped 12 police officers and forestry service workers, local leaders said, and demanded satellite phones from U.N. workers.

The raid stunned the townspeople, who in recent months have been attacked by what they believed were Janjaweed, or militiamen backed by the Sudanese government.

"Were these rebels Chadians? Were they Janjaweed?" said Ibrahum Abdul Majaid, who witnessed the violence. "Maybe they were hired by the Sudanese government."

"There was also a Libyan, perhaps just a mercenary," added Philomena Santoro, who works for INTERSOS, an Italian humanitarian group that provides water and food to the refugee camps in the area. "Then again, maybe some of them were just bandits. We have a lot of that here in the lawless border, too."

More than 2 million displaced
The violence in Darfur has displaced more than 2 million civilians and forced nearly 250,000 into Chad. Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict.

While the Bush administration labeled the atrocities in Darfur a genocide nearly two years ago, no solution has been found to stem the violence, an example of the world's inability to solve such crises, experts and human rights activists said.

The United States has proposed sending several hundred NATO advisers to support an African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur. Sudan has rejected the idea as a Western invasion of a Muslim country, and some leaders have likened the scenario to the situation in Iraq. On Sunday, Osama bin Laden called for an Islamic holy war in Sudan, saying fighters should rise up against a Western peacekeeping force that would be sent to Darfur to protect African Muslims against government-backed Arab and Muslim fighters.

The U.S. ambassador to Chad, Marc M. Wall, visited this border town Wednesday to reassure the population of the U.S. commitment to protecting them and to deciphering the situation. Chadian military officials told Wall that some of the rebels who drove through the town last week wore Sudanese government uniforms and did not speak French, as Chadians do.

"Information of aid, indirect or direct, by Sudan is troubling to us," Wall told a group of local leaders, adding that the situation was "fragile and dangerous."

Many Chadians helped shelter Sudanese refugees, but the violence has pushed about 60,000 Chadians off their farms.

The devastation and suffering were in full view for Wall as he walked through the sand past a long row of thorn trees where Chadian women and children were living in the open air. Teapots hung from branches, and sweaty infants with blank stares sat in the sand in the hot sun.

"We are so confused. Who is rebel? Who is Janjaweed?" said Halima Mohamed, 25, a displaced Chadian, who was cradling a relative's baby under a tree with other women forced from their village five miles from the Sudanese border. "It's all mixed. Sudan's troubles have come here. We don't know when it will end. I don't feel safe."

Humanitarian workers from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said some of the Chadians want to live in the refugee camps. But because they are displaced people in their own country, they cannot be classified as refugees.

"If it wasn't totally out of control before, it certainly is now," Matthew Conway, a UNHCR spokesman, said as he looked at a group of Chadians living under trees. "There are many who have been seriously attacked. There is also a very poor population who may come in and want even a bowl or a plastic mat or bucket to help improve their lives."

Meanwhile, the Sudanese refugees, whose villages were burned when the Darfur conflict began, wonder where they can go next.

"What are we going to do now?" asked Fatih Younis Haroon, 39, a former clerk who fled Darfur two years ago with his five children.

War goes digital
While the civilians languish in misery, the war has entered the digital revolution. Rebels prefer a text message 15 minutes before arranging a satellite phone interview, and their plans are posted on a Web site in French.

The rebel commanders issue orders from satellite phones in Sudan, while the high-ranking leaders dash off daily e-mails from hideaways in Paris. One of Deby's nephews, Tom Erdimi, who had a falling out with the president last year, organizes a separate rebel movement from his house in Texas.

Chadian human rights groups say Deby is using the rebel attack to distract attention from serious domestic issues of corruption and desperate poverty. In an interview at his campaign headquarters, the president said the word "rebel" should not be used to characterize his opponents.

"Sudan mercenaries are what they are," he said. "There is not a rebellion in Chad. This is an invasion by Sudan."

Deby, who is seeking to extend his 16-year rule in elections May 3, said Chad was not experiencing any internal problems and denied any disputes within his family. "Sudan wants to export its fundamentalism and genocide to Chad and the whole of central Africa," he said.

Rebel leaders acknowledge that they are operating from Darfur. Some of the rebels arrested after their coup attempt told African Union investigators Sunday that one of the main Chadian rebel leaders, Mahamat Nour, an ex-army captain, was recruiting young boys from refugee camps in Darfur and fighters from Central African Republic.

"The Sudanese do not disturb us," Albissaty Saleh Allazam, a spokesman for an umbrella rebel group, wrote in an e-mail. "Because Sudan lost assurance in Deby who created part of the conflict of Darfur. In a word, Sudan chose neutrality. If neutrality means support, so, Sudan backed us."

The villagers along the border worry that the rebels, the Janjaweed, bandits or mercenaries will attack again, but they say their village has always been vulnerable to such violence. Koukou Angarana, translated loosely, means, "Your grandmother is telling you to watch out, take care." The border between Sudan and Chad, they say, is a very dangerous place.

Researcher Robert Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.