Background Briefing

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>


Long-standing tensions in Sudan’s western region of Darfur escalated into armed conflict between two Darfur rebel groups and Sudanese government forces in early 2003.  The government enlisted local militias, which came to be known as the Janjaweed, as proxy ground forces against the SLA and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), rebel movements that were drawn primarily from the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups.  The government of Sudan and the Janjaweed militias it armed and supported deliberately targeted civilians of the same ethnic origin as the Darfur rebels as part of their counter-insurgency strategy.1  Three years of massacres, summary executions, and “ethnic cleansing” left 1,800,000 Darfurians internally displaced2 and another 207,000 Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad,3  the vast majority of them Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa.4 

Although separated by an international border, Darfur and eastern Chad share many of the same ethnic groups, and the prevailing political dynamics in each region have a direct affect on the other. Chad’s current president, Déby, and former President Hissène Habré both took power at the head of insurgent armies based in Darfur that were backed by the Sudanese government.5 Many Chadians took refuge and eventual residence in Darfur during those years.


President Déby, himself a Zaghawa of the Bideyat clan, initially supported the Sudan government’s counter-insurgency campaign and refused to aid his fellow Zaghawas in Darfur. However, he isolated himself from many in his ethnic community with this policy.  Several of the Darfur rebel groups received unofficial support from Chadian officials and private individuals in the first two years of the conflict, and a May 2004 coup attempt is thought to have been instigated by Zaghawa members of the government.6 Déby also came under increasing domestic political pressure in the run-up to the 2006 presidential elections over Chad’s burgeoning fiscal crisis.7 

In October 2005, these pressures culminated in a wave of army desertions, and some in Déby’s inner circle, including elements of his Republican Guard, took up arms against him.8  Zaghawa deserters regrouped in Darfur under the banner of the Socle pour le Changement, l'Unité et la Démocratie (Platform for Change, Unity and Democracy, SCUD).  Several other small Chadian rebel movements were already based in West Darfur, including the Rassemblement pour la Démocratie et la Liberté (Rally for Democracy and Freedom, RDL), commanded by Mahamat Nour Abdelkarim, a Chadian from the Tama ethnic group. On December 28, the RDL and seven other Chadian anti-government armed groups created the Front Unique pour le Changement Démocratique au Tchad (Single Front for Democratic Change in Chad, FUCD), under the leadership of Mahamat Nour.9  Until late 2005 there was little evidence of Sudanese government support for these groups, despite a barrage of accusations from the government of Chad, but by October 2005 relations between N’djamena and Khartoum were seriously strained. In addition to the Sudanese and Chadian military, more than a dozen armed groups were operating in the volatile border zone, including Sudanese government-backed Janjaweed militias, at least four factions of the Darfur rebel movements10 and several Chadian rebel forces. Chadian demands that Khartoum put a stop to cross-border Janjaweed militia attacks met with little response.11

Tensions along the border came to a head in early December with a joint operation by Sudanese government troops, Janjaweed militias and Chadian rebels on the Changaya headquarters of SLA commander Khamis Abdullah Abaker in West Darfur.12  On December 18, Chadian RDL rebels led by Mahamat Nour attacked Adré.13 Although Chadian troops repelled the RDL assault, the Sudanese government appeared to have backed Mahamat Nour’s action14 and Chad declared a “state of belligerence” with Sudan on December 23.15

The Chadian government responded to the growing menace from Darfur by seeking defensive alliances with Darfurian rebel groups in order to protect the porous border, particularly the stretch south of Adré that was increasingly vulnerable to cross-border attacks—precisely where SLA commander Khamis Abdullah was strong.16  President Déby reportedly backed efforts to unite the increasingly factionalized Darfur rebels. Early in 2006, Khamis Abdullah, who is Masalit,17 joined a new rebel alliance between Minni Minawi’s SLA faction and the JEM18 and agreed to help secure the border inside West Darfur in return for material assistance from Chad.19

Despite continuing to build alliances and maneuver behind the scenes, Chad and Sudan signed the Tripoli Agreement, brokered by Libyan president Muammar al-Qaddafi,20 on February 8, 2006,  publicly vowing to cease all support for each other’s respective opposition groups and calling for African Union observers to monitor the agreement.21  President Déby sought to bolster his regime through arms purchases, which were facilitated in March by $65 million in taxes on petroleum operations that came due earlier than forecasted under a revenue management program coordinated by the World Bank.22

On March 14, SCUD, the rebel group formed by Déby’s Zaghawa relatives, attempted to overthrow the Déby regime by shooting down the president’s aircraft, but Chad immediately named Sudan as the éminence grise behind the coup.23 The following weekend, starting on March 17, individuals linked to SLA commander Khamis Abdullah conducted a major recruitment campaign in two refugee camps in eastern Chad.  An estimated 4,700 Masalit refugees, many of them children,24 were recruited into military service, some of them forcibly.25

In mid-April, Chadian rebels launched their most serious attack yet, hoping to oust Déby prior to the presidential elections scheduled for May 3. On April 12 an FUCD convoy swept hundreds of kilometers through Chad from bases in Darfur and Central African Republic, reaching N’djamena on April 13. At least 291 people died in the fighting, including civilians, government soldiers, and rebels.26  President Déby immediately accused the Sudanese government of backing the FUCD attack, which was repelled by Chadian military supported by Darfur rebels in eastern Chad,27 as well as low-key French military assistance in the form of logistics and intelligence28 and a warning shot (“coup de semonce”) fired from a Mirage jet at an advancing rebel column.29  Several hundred rebel fighters were detained and publicly displayed in N’djamena by the Chadian authorities, with Chadian officials claiming that more than half were Sudanese.30 On April 14, Déby unilaterally severed relations with Sudan.31

On May 5, the Sudanese government and the Minni Minawi-led faction of the SLA signed the Darfur Peace Agreement.  Initial optimism over the agreement, mediated by the African Union in Abuja, Nigeria, was quickly dampened by the fact that the two other Darfur rebel factions at the talks, JEM and SLA-Abdul Wahid, refused to sign.  Also of concern was the potential spoiler role of the Janjaweed militias, which were not party to the instrument that envisioned their disarmament.32 

Human rights consequences of deteriorating Chad-Sudan relations on eastern Chad

The Darfur crisis and the deterioration of Chad-Sudan relations over the past nine months has had a three-fold effect on civilians:

First, the fighting between Chadian rebel and Chadian government forces has had both direct and indirect effects on civilians. While civilians do not appear to have been specifically targeted by Chadian rebel forces, there have been civilian casualties during the fighting, particularly in N’djamena.  There are concerns that Chadian government forces have been implicated in a variety of abuses against civilians and captured rebels in connection with the Chadian rebel incursions.

Second, abuses by Darfur rebel groups operating in Chad, including the forced recruitment and mistreatment of Sudanese refugees in Chad, appear to be increasing and linked to the Chadian government’s efforts to secure its border from further incursions from Sudan.

Third, the cross-border attacks by Sudanese Janjaweed militias based in Darfur are worsening in both scale and in nature. Not only are these attacks penetrating deeper inside Chad and displacing tens of thousands of Chadian civilians, but they also appear to be drawing on alliances with Chadian civilians and potentially affecting the relations between different ethnic groups in eastern Chad.

Abuses by Chadian government forces in the context of the April 13 attack

On April 9, Chadian rebels based in Darfur launched attacks on Am Timan, Abou Deia, and Haraz-Mangueigne in southeastern Chad near the Central African Republic border.  These attacks were precursors to a broader invasion by FUCD Chadian rebels under the command of Mahamat Nour.  On April 10, the FUCD swept through the refugee camp at Goz Amer, killing a security guard and stealing communications equipment.  On April 12 at 3 p.m., an FUCD column reached Mongo, 320 kilometers east of N’djamena. 

On April 13, 1,200-1,500 soldiers in fifty-six pickup trucks reached N’djamena; major clashes also took place in Adré, on the Chad-Sudan border, and in the southern city of Sarh.  The fighting in N’djamena lasted from 5 to 11 a.m. and included armored personnel carriers, technicals (four-wheeled drive vehicles mounted with heavy weapons) and tanks, and was concentrated in the southeastern suburbs and at the Palais des Quinze, Chad’s parliament.

Further investigation is required, but civilians in N’djamena do not appear to have been specifically targeted or indiscriminately attacked by Chadian government or rebel forces during the April 13 fighting in N’djamena, with some exceptions described below.  Human Rights Watch is concerned, however, by unconfirmed reports that Chadian government forces may have taken reprisal actions—including arbitrary detentions and other abuses—against civilians on an ethnic basis, both in N’djamena and other locations in Chad.


Treatment of rebel fighters

Suspected FUCD rebels who were captured during the April 13 coup attempt were held at the time of this writing at the Gendarmerie Nationale in N’djamena in a single walled compound with a dirt courtyard and two cell blocks.  The detention facilities are clearly inadequate for the estimated 250 detainees who packed the courtyard and were forced to sleep hunched together in the cell blocks for lack of space to lie flat.33 

With the exception of two prisoners, both of whom said they were involved in a November 2005 coup attempt, Human Rights researchers did not receive or record evidence that detainees were subjected to torture or deliberately cruel treatment.  Of the two who were subjected to cruel treatment, one man, who identified himself as the chief of staff of the rebels, had  eight-inch-long metal pin inserted through his knee, perpendicular to the axis of his foot, which he said was inserted to keep him from escaping.34  The other detainee, who identified himself as the second deputy chief of staff of the rebels, was in manacles and leg irons, and said he had been restrained in this way since he arrived on January 8, 2006.35  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Chad is a party, prohibits the infliction of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in all circumstances, and status or alleged crime of the detainee cannot justify inhuman or degrading treatment.      

[1]  See “Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol 16, no. 5(A), April 2004, [online]; “Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol 16, no. 6(A), May 2004, [online]; “Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia  Support,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, July 20, 2004, [online]; “Empty Promises? Continuing Abuses in Darfur, Sudan,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, August 11, 2004, [online]; “If We Return We Will Be Killed,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, November 15, 2004, [online]; “Targeting the Fur: Mass Killings in Darfur,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, January 24, 2005; “Sexual Violence and its Consequences Among Displaced Persons in Darfur and Chad,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, April 12, 2005, [online]; “Entrenching Impunity: Government Responsibility for International Crimes in Darfur,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 17, no. 17(A), December 2005, [online]; “Sudan: Imperatives for Immediate Change,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol.18, no. 1(A), January 2006, [online]; and “Darfur Bleeds: Recent Cross-Border Violence in Chad,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, no. 2., February 2006, [online]

[2] “Operational Briefing on the Special Operations for Chad and Sudan,” UNHCR, May 2006.              

[3] Another 28,000 Sudanese refugees spontaneously settled along the Chad-Sudan border.  “Operational Briefing on the Special Operations for Chad and Sudan,” UNHCR.

[4] “Ethnicity of Sudanese refugees—Eastern Chad,” UNHCR map, January 2006.

[5] Déby, former presidential advisor on security and defense under Habré, seized power from Habré in 1990, who had himself seized power in 1982 from President Goukouni Oueddei, his historic rival.

[6] International Crisis Group, “To Save Darfur,” Africa Report, no. 105, March 17, 2006, [online]

[7] Discord within Déby’s inner circle was only worsened by his handling of oil revenue from a World Bank-sanctioned oil development project that made Chad the world’s fastest growing economy in 2004,  but failed to benefit more than a select few.  By June 2005, when Chad’s Parliament approved a constitutional amendment allowing Déby to stand for a third consecutive term of office, many of his closest confidants had turned to armed struggle.

[8] Among the defectors were soldiers trained by U.S. Special Forces under the Pan-Sahel Initiative, a U.S. State Department-funded anti-terrorism program. Human Rights Watch, confidential communication, April 26, 2006.

[9] The seven other groups are the Socle pour le Changement, Unite et la Democratie (Platform for Change, Unity and Democracy, SCUD), Front Nationale pour le Tchad Rénové (National Front for the Renewal of Chad, FNTR), National Council for Recovery (CNR), Force pour le Ratissage, le Regroupement et le Redressement du Tchad (Force for the Cleansing, Reunification and Resurgence of Chad, FRRRT), Groupe du 8 Décembre, CNT and FIDL.

[10] These groups are known to include two factions of the SLA, headed by Minni Minawi and Abdul Wahid Mohammed Nour, respectively, JEM and the Mouvement National pour la Réforme et le Développement (National Movement for Reform and Development, NMRD), a JEM splinter group.

[11] “CHAD-SUDAN: Déby accuses Janjawid of killing his civilians, vows punishment,” IRIN, September 29, 2005, [online]

[12] Human Rights Watch interview with SLA soldier who fought under Khamis Abdullah in West Darfur, Chad, May 1, 2006.  At the time, the soldier was in Chadian police custody.  All Human Rights Watch interviews with prisoners were conducted in a private location, out of earshot of guards. Khamis Abdullah was the deputy chairman of the SLA prior to the 2005 split between Minni Minawi Arkou and Abdul Wahid Mohammed Nour. Abdullah later aligned himself with Abdul Wahid’s faction and was present at the Abuja negotiations but left Abuja well before the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed on May 5, 2006. He appears to be uncertain about his allegiance as of the writing of this report.

[13] Human Rights Watch interviews, Chad, May 15 and May 22, 2006. Adré is strategic because both Déby and Habré before him seized power in Chad after successfully capturing Adré in attacks launched from Darfur.

[14] Mahamat Nour’s forces are based in several camps in West Darfur, some in close proximity to Sudanese military bases.  In addition to tolerating the presence of these Chadian rebels in Darfur, Sudanese government forces have also allegedly supported recruitment efforts among Sudanese Tama in order to strengthen Nour’s forces.  Confidential communications to Human Rights Watch, December 2005 – April 2006. See also International Crisis Group, “To Save Darfur.”

[15] “Chad in ‘state of belligerence’ with Sudan: official,” Sudan Tribune, December 24, 2005, [online]

[16] Abdullah suffered a string of horrific battlefield losses in West Darfur, starting in November 2005 with a siege of his positions near Masteri, continuing with the December attack on his headquarters at Changaya and culminating in late January and early February 2006 with stinging defeats along the Chad-Sudan border between Geneina and Habila in West Darfur that cost him 600 men. Human Rights Watch interview with SLA rebel, Bahai, Chad, May 21, 2006, and intelligence officials, N’djamena, Chad, May 17 and 22, 2006.

[17] Khamis Abdullah was by no means the strongest SLA rebel commander, but he was a strategically important ally because of his Masalit ethnicity and because of the importance of securing the border in Dar Masalit, the Masalit “homeland” located north and south of Adré, Chad, and Geneina, Darfur. By the end of 2005, Chadian rebel groups and Janjaweed militias were using the Masalit homeland in West Darfur as a launching pad for attacks into Chad.  Confidential communications, Human Rights Watch, April - May, 2006.

[18] On January 18, 2006 the Minni Minawi faction of the SLA and JEM signed an agreement as the Alliance of Revolutionary Forces of West Sudan.  “Darfur rebels unite as single group,” AFP, January 20, 2006,[online]

[19] Confidential communications, Human Rights Watch, April - May, 2006.

[20] Libya has been deeply involved in Chadian and Darfur politics for decades.  See Roland Marchal, “Le Soudan d’un conflit à l’autre,” Les Études du ceri, no. 107-108, September 2004, [online]

[21] “Sudan, Chad sign peace agreement in Tripoli,” Arabic News, February 9, 2006, [online]

[22] The World Bank determined that much of the $65 million tax payment, which has been disbursed in its entirety, was spent on military hardware.  An oil revenue management law designed by the World Bank and nongovernmental organizations reserves most revenue from royalty payments for priority sectors such as health and education, but indirect revenue such as taxes accrue directly to the government.  If oil prices remain in the $70/bbl range, the World Bank predicts $1.7 billion in tax payments will accrue to the Chadian treasury between now and 2008.  Tax payments are sensitive to price fluctuations though, and oil prices in the $40/bbl range would result in negligible tax payments.  Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with economic analyst in N’djamena, New York, June 2006.

[23] “Chad security forces foil coup attempt,” Mail & Guardian, N’djamena, Chad, March 15, 2006, [online]

[24] In this report, the word “child” refers to anyone under the age of eighteen.  The U.N. convention on the Rights of the Child states, “For the purposes of the present Convention, a child is every human being below the age of eighteen years unless the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.”  Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 1, adopted November 20, 1989 (entered into force September 2, 1990).

[25] “UNHCR expresses alarm over continuing reports of forced recruitment in Chad refugee camps,” UNHCR, May 16, 2006, [online]

[26] Human Rights Watch interviews with hospital officials and international humanitarian aid workers, N’djamena, Chad, April 24 -27, 2006.

[27] Elements under the command of Khamis Abdullah fought alongside the Chadian military in Adré where they were apparently instrumental in turning back an FUCD assault. 

[28] “Les rebelles sont entrés dans la capitale,” Le Nouvel Observateur, April 13, 2006, [online]

[29] “L’armee francaise minimise son action,” Le Nouvel Observateur, April 13, 2006 [online]

[30] Chadian military sources reported a total of 334 rebels were detained, 178 of them Sudanese nationals and 156 Chadian.  Human Rights Watch interview, N’djamena, Chad, April 25, 2006.

[31] “Sudan Given Notice of Break in Relations With Chad,” VOA News, April 15, 2006, [online]

[32] The government of Sudan, which officially represented the Janjaweed at the negotiating table, denies responsibility for and controlling influence over the Janjaweed.

[33] Chad is a Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 10, paragraph 1 of the Covenant provides that all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. Article 10, and the relevant United Nations standards applicable to the treatment of prisoners, including the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners apply to the treatment of rebel detainees.  See Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva in 1955 and approved by the Economic and Social Council by its resolution 663 C (XXIV) of July 31, 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of May 13, 1977.

[34] The detainee also said he broke his leg trying to escape capture.  It appears that the pin was inserted in his knee while his leg was in traction, and was then left in place in order to inhibit his movements.  Human Rights Watch contacted a physician who said that a traction pin could serve no conceivable medical purpose in the absence of a traction apparatus.  Human Rights Watch interviews, Chad, April 2006.

[35] Human Rights Watch interviews, N’djamena, Chad, April 26, 2006.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>June 2006