IRIN recently went to Goz Amir to meet the refugees who had been asking the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to move them to a safer location west of Dar Sila an area where some of worst violence and mass displacement has occurred in eastern Chad, which borders the Darfur region in Sudan.
The representative of the refugee camp, Ibrahim Haroon Diridj said he was sure of the identities of the perpetrators. He called them 'janjawid', the name for Arab militias in Darfur. The janjawid were the reason these refugees had fled Sudan in the first place he said. "Now our attackers are crossing the border and attacking us again here in eastern Chad."
But not everyone in Goz Amir was so sure the attackers were really janjawid. There is no question that janjawid have at times crossed over from Darfur and they are certainly exacerbating the violence in eastern Chad, but many aid workers and other observers say they are realising that a big part of the violence in eastern Chad is in fact home grown.
If true, proposed solutions such as moving the refugees westwards away from the border with Darfur or protecting the Chad-Sudan border with peacekeepers as has been proposed by the UN Security Council, is unlikely to ease the violence in eastern Chad where not only 235,000 Sudanese refugees are under threat, but where at least 140,000 Chadians have now been displaced from their homes because of violence.
Uncovering who was behind attacks like the one at Goz Amir may shed light on what the international community is up against if indeed it ends up sending a mission to try to keep the peace.
Blacks on Arabs
While tensions between the governments of Sudan and Chad has recently led to their two armies fighting each other directly and a myriad of militias and rebel groups circulate between Darfur and eastern Chad, it is the fighting between local communities which humanitarian workers say has had the most detrimental effect on civilians.
These localised inter-communal conflicts have become more frequent over the last 12 months. They have no overt political agenda. Most are between so called 'Arab' and so called 'black' communities. But as both groups are dark-skinned and both groups are Muslim it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference.
"Outsiders don't realise that our black and Arab identities are often fluid," said the former Sultan of Da Sila, Said Ibrahim Mustapha, who is well respected by many international humanitarian workers in the area. "We see ourselves as either Arab or black - or even both at the same time sometimes - depending on circumstances," Said said.
These circumstances have clearly changed recently, in part because of the presence of the janjawid. Diridj, the head of the Sudanese refugees in Goz Amir, told IRIN that while the army is busy fighting rebels, the janjawid now roam freely in eastern Chad attacking villages on the border all the way to Goz Amir, which is 90 kilometres away, and even further west into Chad.
He spoke of the pandemonium in Goz Amir when 2,000 armed men on horseback suddenly appeared by the school at the edge of camp. He took IRIN to two mass graves where he had helped bury 15 bodies. "We were all so shaken we just wanted to remove the corpses as quickly as possible."
And he said an attack could occur again at any. "Many people here are so scared they have buried all their valuables in the ground so that when the next attack takes place at least those who survive will still own something," he said.
Other refugees at Goz Amir have simply fled, he said. "Legally the government doesn't allow us to move more than one kilometre beyond the camp but people usually have less problems with the Chadian authorities than the janjawid."
IRIN then drove outside of the refugee camp. A couple of kilometres west, IRIN stopped at an Arab village of mud huts, many of which had been destroyed. The village appeared to be abandoned apart from a group of men huddled under a straw canopy. One of them identified himself as Zakaria Yacob and said he was the village chief.
He said that most of the people had left the village because displaced black Chadians and Sudanese black refugees had been stealing their domestic animals and harassing them.
IRIN asked him about the janjawid attacks on the refugees nearby.
"It wasn't janjawid who attacked them," Yacob said. "It was us."
Arabs on Blacks
"It has been a very difficult year," Yacob started. "Blacks and Arabs had lived together peacefully in eastern Chad for generations, but not anymore."
Problems began in April 2006 when Sudanese janjawid attacked not Goz Amir but Koukou, a town further west. "From that day on local authorities in the area have indiscriminately arrested Arabs even though we have nothing to do with the janjawid," he said.
"They took our men to prison and beat them and tortured them," he said. Some were suffocated to death by having sacks filled with pepper power tied over their heads.
Yacob and other Arab elders had contacted local Chadian government authorities about the matter. "The governor even came here and he said that we had been wronged; that we should not be considered janjawid and that the blacks should leave us in peace."
But the black ethnic groups did not listen to him, he said. "Instead they formed their 'toroboro'." These are black militias who also ride horses and look much like janjawid, but while janjawid target blacks, toroboro target Arabs
"The aim of the toroboro is to wipe out all Arab communities in this area and they have plenty of weapons," Yacob said.
"One time the toroboro passed through this area picking up Arabs they found along the way," he said. "They cut off their ears, tied a rope around them and dragged them along the road in their trucks until they were dead. We have asked the local authorities to protect us but the authorities are all blacks and they too are harassing us," he said.
He said that many men in his village have also procured weapons. "And once, last December, when the toroboro attacked us, we shot back and chased them. They fled into the refugee camp and that is when many people on both sides were injured and killed."
"Afterwards we tried to take our injured to the clinics at Koukou and Goz Beida but the health workers there refused to treat them," he said.
Yacob even suggested that the mass grave Diridj had shown IRIN at Goz Amir may contain the bodies of Arab fighters, not refugees. "The bodies of some of our fighters who were killed at the refugee camp were never seen again," he said. "The refugees wouldn't let us collect them. We heard they were just buried in mass graves."
At that moment a Toyota pick-up pulled up with a machine gun mounted on top and sacks of rocket propelled grenades hanging off the sides. In the passenger seat sat the black sub-prefect of Koukou and he looked angry. "What are you doing in an Arab village," he asked IRIN. After looking through the pile of UN and government documents permitting IRIN to report in the area he said they were invalid.
IRIN bid the Arabs a quick goodbye
Back at the refugee camp, the leader Diridj still insisted that the Arabs who had attacked in December came from Sudan. Goz Amir is more than 90 km from the Sudanese border which may explain why UNHCR has been slow to move the camp: the international norm calls for refugee camps to be just 50 km from the border.
For Diridj, the norm is irrelevant as the border has shifted for all intents and purposes. "We have no buffer between here and Sudan. The Chadian army no longer controls the area. The janjawid can turn up on our front door whenever they like and start massacring us."
That is what he and many blacks say happened at the end of March in Tiero and Marena, two black villages about half way between Goz Amir and the Sudanese border. The towns were burned down, at least 300 men, women and children were killed and the remaining 8,000 inhabitants fled west, past Goz Amir, to Koukou were they have joined the growing number of displaced from all over the area.
But some humanitarian workers IRIN spoke with were not so sure about the identities of the attackers at those two villages also. Some said local Arab communities who had been provoked by people in the black villages may have simply been retaliating.
Also several humanitarian sources told IRIN that the Chadian army was in fact near the villages when the attacked occurred but looked on from a distance and did nothing.
One thing blacks and Arabs of eastern Chad can agree on is that each needs to be protected. "We are 19,000 refugees here and the government has left us just 15 gendarmes," Diridj said. "The Chadian army is busy fighting one or the other of the rebel groups; it's not concerned about protecting us from the janjawid."
IRIN went to the gendarme outpost, a tiny concrete building where indeed it found a handful of gendarmes, all blacks, taking an afternoon nap under a tree. None of them woke as IRIN's 4x4 approached or even to the sound of car doors slamming. Only a loud 'Salam Aleikum' aroused one and finally the others.
The commander, who refused to give his name to IRIN, supported the black version of events more than the Arab version, saying that it was the janjawid who had attacked the refugees of Goz Amir and he repeated what the refugee leader had said. "It could happen again at any time". But his men did not seem to be on high alert. If IRIN could sneak up on the sleeping gendarmes then why couldn't the janjawid?
What it all means?
Many relief workers in the area admit they are sometimes confused about the various conflicts in eastern Chad. "It seems like Chadians themselves are not sure who they are fighting," said one foreign relief worker in Abeche, the humanitarian hub in the east.
The UNHCR spokesman in Abeche, Mathew Conway, said even humanitarian experts who have been here for years are often still baffled. "For a while we think we have an idea of what is going on. Then suddenly one group attacks another group and we ask ourselves 'what was that all about?'"
One thing is clear: lack of protection is the single biggest humanitarian issue in eastern Chad today, said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' senior emergency officer, Daniel Augstburger; more than all the problems of water, food, sanitation and health care combined. "The fabric of the society is collapsing and no one is in authority," he said. "People are scared and they are arming themselves and killing one another and it is getting worse and worse."
He too said that the conflicts are often beyond his comprehension and the comprehensions of other humanitarian workers in the area. "We are studying the history of the region and the society. We talk to traditional authorities and we are bringing in all sorts of experts but there is still so much we need to know," he said
That is one reason that the prospect of UN peacekeepers coming to eastern Chad has him and many humanitarian workers concerned. The question they are all asking is this: How can you keep the peace when you aren't even sure who the conflict is between and what the conflict is about?