The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Between 2003 and 2008, while the war in Darfur raged on next door, Dar Sila, in eastern Chad, faced a devastating conflict of its own, one that simmers on today. It became the main theater of a proxy war between Chad and Sudan, which each used rebels and Janjawid Arab militias to destabilize the other’s regime. It was one of those African “small wars” that the world noticed too late and for not very long.
In 2003, Dar Sila absorbed some 50,000 Darfurians fleeing the violence across the border, but the refugees were not the only ones to come through. Backed by Khartoum, Janjawid Arab militias followed as well, pillaging far and wide across Dar Sila. These militias found local allies among the Chadian Arab population and also among like-minded non-Arabs who, beginning in the 1980s, came to Dar Sila from the country’s north. These migrants had been pushed south by droughts, much like the Arab camel herders who left Chad and became the Janjawid in Darfur.
Both Arab and non-Arab newcomers had a thirst for acquiring land—and, if needed, would take it by force. Beginning in 2003, Dar Sila’s main indigenous tribe, the Daju, tried to mobilize its own militias against the Janjawid, but, armed primarily with bows and poisoned arrows, it was largely defeated. By March 2007, the Janjawid and Chadian Arab rebels, both backed by Khartoum, were controlling a pocket of land within Chadian territory. From there, they attacked the villages of Tiero and Marena, the main strongholds of the Daju militias, killing hundreds of civilians. It was one of the deadliest attacks in the region. A European peacekeeping force and then a United Nations mission were deployed in 2008 and 2009, respectively, with much fanfare (as in Darfur), but they withdrew quietly in 2010. Humanitarian nongovernmental organizations also came and left—there was much less funding for rebuilding destroyed communities than for temporary emergency relief.
All in all, this “small war” internally displaced some 200,000 Chadian civilians in Dar Sila, out of a population of 350,000. In 2011, the Chadian government decided that it was time to move from war and poverty to peace and oil-driven development and declared that there were no more internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Chad, the only “voluntarily integrated.”
“We reject this label, but have no voice,” Yusif Ahmat, the chief of Gurukun IDP camp, told me. “We’re still displaced, and everyone here still calls Gurukun an IDP camp. We don’t want to return to our land because we still fear for our safety and because we want our kids to continue going to school.” According to Ahmat, Gurukun still houses 14,000 refugees out of an initial 18,000. Those who returned to their villages did so because they were afraid their land would be stolen. Their fears were not unfounded: many found their land occupied, either by the very communities who had provided recruits to the Janjawid and displaced them to begin with or by their neighbors. To prove their right to the land, some returnees had to search for the buried remnants of their burned-down houses.
Since then, both the state administration and the traditional local chiefs have spent much of their time trying to solve land disputes, both large and small. For Dar Sila’s sultan, Said Brahim, barely a day goes by without having to mediate a land conflict, which he does beneath the shade of the neem tree in the courtyard of his palace in Goz Beïda, Dar Sila’s capital. On the morning I visited, the sultan, a thin, white-bearded man in his late 60s, was beginning his day with a dispute involving Arab camel herders who had trampled a field of tomatoes, belonging to Daju farmers, that had blocked a passage to a watercourse.
“It was not a nice gesture,” Brahim said accusatorily, before telling the 50 men sitting on his carpet, “The Arab is no better than the Zurga, and the Zurga is no better than the Arab.” (Zurga,or “black,”is the Arabic term commonly used in Darfur for the non-Arabs, although their skin color is not necessarily darker than those of the Arabs.) “Let’s try to solve this problem together,” he continued. “We are like doctors and you are all our patients.” The sultan then suggested that the camel herders migrate north according to their usual calendar and leave the land for the farmers to cultivate. He added that the resolution of the land dispute should be postponed until after the harvest. Indeed, the rainy season had just begun, and Brahim believed that it was high time to focus on producing crops rather than on endless feuds that prevented people from planting. Every day he repeats this suggestion, but still the complaints come.
Brahim is not alone in his frustration. In Dar Sila, solving land conflicts is largely in the hands of the traditional leaders—but much like the leaders in Darfur, they have been considerably weakened by the conflict. The sultan himself, criticized as too peaceful by hard-liners from his own tribe, was suspended for eight years before being called back in 2015 to help resolve messy land disputes.
As happened in Darfur, the displaced population of Dar Sila, often feeling that their old leaders had abandoned them, appointed new ones to the camps, and some have now been officially recognized as chiefs. “During the conflict, the old chiefs didn’t care about the problems of the displaced, so those wanted to have new leaders,” explained one of the new chiefs, Daud Arabi. “Since I was appointed in 2015, I have spent my time solving problems created by my predecessor. For example, in Farida”—a village not far from Darfur—“[the old chief] sold 27 fields belonging to displaced people to Arab nomads from the north who found this land empty during the conflict. When the displaced asked for their land back, the Arabs nearly broke out in a fight. For now I only managed to get back ten fields.”
The mediation has worked with some newcomers who have agreed to leave the land that they had occupied during the conflict, allowing the displaced to return home. The negotiations were slow and sometimes involved persuading some settlers and newcomers to share land or threatening the most stubborn to confiscate their land. In Darfur, where the government has been backing land grabs by Arab proxies, repatriation is likely to be much more complicated.
Climate change threatens to drive even more migrants into the region, creating more opportunities for land disputes. In Dar Sila, annual rainfall decreased from 35 inches in the 1950s to 24 to 28 inches today, and forecasts predict only eight to 11 inches by 2030, given rising global temperatures. That means that over the next few decades, so-called climate refugees from the Sahel will likely continue moving south into Dar Sila and even farther into the still densely forested but sparsely populated Central African Republic (CAR). And where the displaced have arrived, woods have been razed by those in need of land.
Needled by wildlife conservationists who were worried about the possible extinction of the country’s 500 remaining elephants (from an initial 4,000 in 2005), Chadian President Idriss Déby created a special paramilitary brigade to protect the environment. Since then, the well-equipped force has driven away poachers, but it has also imposed heavy fines on farmers found felling trees or even cutting off branches. This punitive approach has had negative side effects: the brigade is now so unpopular that in Dar Sila, as in neighboring Salamat, many openly say that they hope for another power vacuum so that they can cut forests and kill elephants at will. In Darfur and northeastern CAR, where lawlessness has become the rule, an environmental catastrophe is already well on its way.
On top of the security and environmental threats is the fight over gold across Dar Sila’s porous borders. Since 2012, the growing availability of metal detectors and high world prices for the precious metal triggered a cross-border gold rush. In the first wave, 100,000 miners raced to Jebel Amir in North Darfur state, but among them were many Arab soldiers who quickly clashed with the other miners along tribal lines. The ensuing conflict left 1,000 dead and 150,000 displaced.
Then the gold rush came to Dar Sila. An Arab miner from Dar Sila, who had been to Jebel Amir, came back to Chad and found deposits of precious metal near his own village of Na’ame, or “the Place of the Ostriches” in Arabic. Once “an empty place only inhabited by lions, hyenas, and other wild animals,” said Mahamat Said, an elder from the village, Na’ame is now pockmarked by the holes dug by the thousands of miners—Chadian and Sudanese, as well as Darfurian refugees—who had flocked there.
The miners who came from Jebel Amir imported Sudan’s popular, semi-mechanized techniques: digging deep wells, uprooting trees, and removing rocks. The handmade wells often collapsed—that is how the site’s discoverer died. Others were more lucky. “No one became rich, but it changed our life because it brought us some cash to go to the market,” explained Said. Indeed, there is now a small set of stalls on the site of the gold mines, even though most miners have left to chase the next, more promising site in the Tibesti desert of northern Chad. Everywhere, gold is attracting armed men. Disgruntled rebels and Janjawidcrisscross the desert between Darfur and Algeria in huge convoys. Their very presence often sparks new rounds of violence.
That is why many in Dar Sila describe the current situation as an unfinished peace. In 2010, some Arab chiefs, including known militia leaders, asked the Daju for forgiveness in the sultan’s courtyard. While some Daju left abruptly, others signed an agreement with the Arabs. Among them was Yusif Ahmat, the displaced chief of Gurukun, who shook hands with an Arab war chief accused of having burned down Ahmat’s village. “Since then, we don’t have conflicts with those Arabs, but it is not really a reconciliation,” he explained to me, now six years after the signing. “What is difficult is the crimes were not committed only by Sudanese Janjawid, but by people we know, people who were living among us.”
Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that in Ahmat’s area near Sudan, Arabs continue to travel back and forth across the border, joining Janjawid militias that are known to attack non-Arab communities in Darfur. They also do not hide the fact that while they are keen to keep a foot in their Chadian homeland, they find more opportunities in Sudan. In an Arab border town in Chad, Manzul Ihemir, an elder and one of the few inhabitants who had not sought a better life in Darfur, told me, “Our relatives who left for Sudan were given abandoned land. The government just shows them the land and says, ‘Take. It’s empty.’ The government of Sudan wants to attract us. They allow us to vote, give us Sudanese IDs, integrate us in their forces as much as we like.” Since 2014, hundreds of Arab youths from Dar Sila, and across eastern Chad, reportedly rushed to join the recently formed Rapid Support Forces, a ruthless new military group of the Sudanese regime, who are fighting rebels all over the country. It is notably commanded by Mohammed Hamdan, known as “Hemmeti,” originally a Chadian Arab. “When we arrive in Sudan, we’re welcomed because we are seen as hands for fighting,” said Ihemir. “But the result is only to create widows and orphans.”
Sultan Brahim is anxious, too. “The government has been disarming people in Chad, but what for?” he remarked. “I’ve been to Sudanese markets just across the border and saw bullets sold openly in bowls, as if they were grain.” Until the Sudanese government makes an effort to reverse this trend, by promising to develop a country that produces and sells grain, not guns, peace will remain elusive on both sides of the border.