Background Briefing

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Abuses by Darfur rebel groups in eastern Chad

More than 200,000 refugees from Darfur are currently housed in twelve refugee camps in eastern Chad. The refugees fled abuses by Sudanese government and Janjaweed militia forces in Darfur in 2003 and 2004. Given the proximity of the camps to the border and the fact that many members of the Darfur rebel movements have ethnic and family ties to the camps, concerns over potential rebel activity in the camps have been present since their establishment.36 

While it was clear that rebels had links to individuals in the camps, until early 2006 there were few overt signs that rebel groups were actively recruiting or otherwise affecting the civilian character of the camps.37 However, in the context of the deteriorating relations between Chad and Sudan—and President Déby’s increasingly open policy of supporting Darfur rebel groups in the face of threats to his government from Chadian rebels— incidents of recruitment, including of children, and mistreatment of refugees have become much more blatant.38

A Human Rights Watch investigation in eastern Chad documented a serious incident of forced recruitment on March 17-19 in Bredjing and Treguine camps, as well as other abuses, linked to SLA commander Khamis Abdullah. Although these examples are unlikely to be the only examples of forced recruitment or other abuses perpetrated by the Darfur rebel movements, Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify any other reports of forced recruitment due to time constraints.

During the March 17-19 recruitment episode, UNHCR personnel were not present in Bredjing and Treguine camps—most humanitarian workers leave the camps on weekends and weekdays after 5 p.m.  This practice provides a predictable, recurring window of opportunity for Sudanese rebel groups to operate without international scrutiny in the camps—a window that was exploited to the fullest on March 17-19. 

By agreement with UNHCR, Chadian gendarmes are supposed to provide security and have a 24-hour presence in the refugee camps. Human Rights Watch’s investigation into the events of March 17-19 in Bredjing and Treguine camps gathered consistent and compelling evidence that the government of Chad is complicit with the activities of Sudanese rebel groups, both legal and illegal, in the refugee camps it is bound to protect. Numerous sources, including refugees, refugee camp leaders, national and international humanitarian workers, U.N. officials, intelligence experts, local and national government officials, gendarmes, and most significantly, the rebels themselves, described how the government of Chad—from the highest level to the most local—condoned, allowed and facilitated Sudanese rebel operations in the refugee camps.  Eyewitnesses saw Chadian gendarmes accompany rebels into the camps during the recruitment event, and, with the help of CNAR officials, select and forcibly remove refugees from the camps.  First-hand testimony described local government officials acting as facilitators, exercising the tools of the state to extend impunity to the actions of the rebels.  Well-placed sources name senior figures in the Déby administration as the architects of the Chadian government policy that condoned Sudanese rebel recruitment activities and instructed local government officials to permit and facilitate those activities.39

In response to concerns about refugee protection that have escalated in the wake of the March forced recruitment episode, UNHCR has contracted with the government of Chad to provide more gendarmes for each camp40 and has undertaken extensive campaigns to educate refugees and rebels alike about the civilian nature of the camps and the dangers of militarization. 

Forced recruitment of refugees

SLA commander Khamis Abdullah and his associates41 were responsible for a major incident of forced recruitment in Bredjing and Treguine camps beginning on the afternoon of Friday, March 17 and continuing until the afternoon of Sunday, March 19—a time of limited humanitarian staff presence.42  The camps are located approximately 50 kilometers west of Adré and have a combined population of 42,793, almost 100 percent Masalit, the same ethnicity as Khamis Abdullah.

The March recruitment appears to have been linked to efforts by Khamis Abdullah to replenish his ground forces following losses on the battlefield and ahead of anticipated attacks by Chadian rebel forces. Refugees who had been forcibly recruited consistently provided the same names of the men behind the recruitment drive: Bechir Djabir,43 an SLA sub-commander who appears to play an active role in recruitment efforts,44 and his superior officer, SLA commander Khamis Abdullah.45 A fifty-four-year-old refugee from Bredjing camp articulated the confusion felt in the camps by the actions of the top Masalit rebel, who had presumably enjoyed widespread support in the all-Masalit refugee camp:

There is a man, Khamis, who does the forced recruitment.  His full name is Khamis Abdulla Abakar.  [His soldiers] take people from the camps and treat them badly.  Initially the people in the camps supported the rebellion but some were forced to join and they took people and now the people think it’s the policy of [Sudanese president] Omar Bashir to mistreat the people in the camps so that they will not support the rebellion anymore.  This is part of Omar Bashir’s strategy to eliminate the rebellion.  Before it was always voluntary to become a rebel.

By UNHCR’s count, approximately 4,700 refugees were recruited from the two camps on March 17-19,46 most of them from Bredjing, which is situated ten kilometers closer to the Sudan border than Treguine. While UNHCR reports that some of those who joined the rebels did so voluntarily,47 Human Rights Watch’s investigation found that the recruitment drive was by nature coercive, and in some instances violent. 

UNHCR has compiled a partial list of 104 refugees who were recruited but remain unaccounted for, 61 from Bredjing and 43 from Treguine,48 and estimates that the total number of missing refugees stands somewhere between 300 and 400,49 which, if true, might represent a sizeable addition to the SLA forces.50   

At least 100 Sudanese rebels descended on Bredjing and Treguine camps on the afternoon of March 17; one of the first recruitment stops were schools, which were still in session.  Hundreds of students were rounded up and taken away that first day, many of them minors.51  Over the course of the weekend of March 18 -19, the rebels rode roughshod over Bredjing and Treguine, plucking combat-capable men and boys from markets and conducting house-to-house and tent-to-tent searches in the camps, beating those who resisted and warning fearful family members not to get in their way. 

Refugees recounted how men in military uniform (or partial uniform) armed with whips and clubs rounded them up in schools, markets and in their homes.  Some refugees report having been tied up, although most said this was not the case. Nevertheless, a 26-year-old teacher who was abducted along with a fellow teacher and four students on March 17 stated that he clearly understood that he had no option but to comply:

They didn’t have guns but they had knives and chicottes [whips].  I wanted to get my things together but they said, ‘Leave your things here; you’re not taking anything with you.’  There was one of them on each side of me.  They took me by the arms and said, ‘Let’s go.’  I had no choice but to go with them.52

Refugees were packed into pickup trucks and taken to a wadi outside the camps where men were waiting with firearms.  Refugees recall with remarkable consistency a long walk to Arkoum, a Chadian town 20 kilometers southeast of Bredjing, where Sudanese rebels had set up a training camp. 

Upon arrival at Arkoum, recruits were informed that they were now Sudanese rebels, their mission to liberate their country.  They themselves were not free to leave, though; armed guards patrolled the perimeter of the camp day and night. 

Recruitment of Children

Human Rights Watch spoke with four refugees forcibly recruited at Bredjing who said they were under the age of 18.  A fifth recruit was not sure of his age, but he looked to be 13 or 14 years old. 

A 15-year-old refugee who was forcibly recruited from Treguine camp recalled seeing many young children at the Arkoum training camp:

I saw many kids in the training camp, some as young as 12 years old.  The kids couldn’t take it so they let about 100 go, and they went back [to Treguine] on foot.  They couldn’t take the lack of sleep, no water, no food, hard work.  They were too young. 

Human Rights Watch spoke with an SLA recruiter in Djabel camp who said there was no fixed age limit for a recruit, although 15 was the youngest a soldier could be and still be expected to fight effectively, “14 if he’s a big kid.”53

SLA commander Bechir Djabir, who has been widely implicated in recruitment activities, has denied recruiting under-age refugees, and said that three recruits who had joined his forces from Djabel camp were too young to fight and would be returned to the camp.54 

UNHCR interviewed a 17-year-old boy at Djabel camp who said he had joined the SLA voluntarily, that he received training at Changaya, S udan, and that he was deployed to an SLA camp near Adé, Chad, until he was returned to Djabel because he was under-age.55 

Refugees and other sources at both Bredjing and Djabel camp reported that teachers were among the most aggressive recruiters, which raises concerns that the teachers are violating their relationship of trust with the students, and that some recruitment may be coerced, even if it is not physically forced.56  During the forced recruitment at Bredjing and Treguine, schools were prime recruiting grounds, and scores of refugees were seized from schools where the student population included eight-year-old children.  Several refugees reported that ten-year-old children had been forcibly recruited, though such reports were not confirmed.  In one case in which a refugee, forcibly recruited, was alleged to be ten years old, Human Rights Watch interviewed the individual and discovered that he was in fact twenty-five.57 

The prohibition on the use of children as combatants

Chad is a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (generally known as the Child Soldiers Protocol)58 which establishes eighteen as the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, for compulsory recruitment, and for any recruitment or use in hostilities by irregular armed groups.59 Chad is obliged to take all feasible measures to prevent this occurring. Chad is also a party to the regional, African Charter on the Welfare of the Child which requires states to take all measures that no child will take direct part in hostilities. 60 Chad and Sudan are both obliged under the main U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect children from all violations of international humanitarian law and assist the recovery and social re-integration of child victims of armed conflict.61

Torture and other mistreatment of refugee recruits  

Once recruited and brought to Arkoum, refugee recruits faced physical violence at the hands of SLA commanders.  Eyewitness testimony from refugees universally identified Sudanese rebels among their captors, but many recruits were very clear in stating the Chadians were present as well and helped manage the camps.  Chadian Arabic differs significantly from Sudanese Arabic, and many recruits recall hearing the Chadian version spoken at Arkoum.  Furthermore, some refugees recognized Chadian uniforms in the camp.  “All the military were Chadian,” said one recruit.62 

Training involved rigorous physical exercise, including some exercises possibly intended to cause pain.  One 16-year-old refugee from Bredjing camp showed Human Rights Watch researchers large wounds where the skin had rubbed off from “elbow walking.”63   They boy, who was abducted on March 17 along with fourteen children from his school, also had marks on his forearms from being whipped. 

A 25-year-old refugee from Treguine camp showed Human Rights Watch researchers where a chunk of flesh had been torn out of his ear with a pair of pliers—normally a punishment reserved for those caught trying to flee the camp.  In his case, his ear was mutilated because he had asked for permission to leave the camp:

After fourteen days of training the suffering was terrible—there was no food, no water—and I was sick and hungry and tired so I told the camp leaders that I wanted to go, that I should not be there at the training camp.  They told me, ‘If you talk like that, you will fight for sure.’  They tied my arms behind my back and buried me in the wadi for ten days.  I was buried up to my chest.  There were eight others in the same place, tied up and buried in the ground.  A man named Saleh beat me with a stick and kicked me until he was tired.  I was in so much pain I couldn’t sleep.64

Coercion and physical violence were common at Arkoum, and in some cases appear to have led to the deaths of refugee recruits.  One refugee, Mohammad Yahia Abakar, was mentioned by several independent sources as having died at Arkoum.  Human Rights Watch spoke with Abakar’s twenty-five-year-old wife, who said that three days after her husband was abducted from Treguine camp, a refugee leader came to her home to tell her that her husband was dead:

He gave me his shirt.  “I asked, ‘Where did he die?  What happened?’  I wanted to see the body.  [The refugee leader] said, ‘Just forget about him.  He’s dead.65

A fifty-four-year-old refugee at Bredjing, whose intimate knowledge of SLA activities and operational structures suggested that he was connected to the rebellion, which he denied, said he knew where Abakar’s body was buried.66  He and another refugee, who had been forcibly recruited and had escaped from the Arkoum camp, agreed on the cause of death: Abakar had been beaten to death.67 

Although consequences for being caught trying to escape were harsh, security at Arkoum was lax, especially at night, and within a month the vast majority of the refugees—probably 4,100 out of 4,700 who had been forcibly recruited—were able to escape and return to the refugee camps. 

The refugee who had been in the training camp for 42 days explained the puzzling fact that the vast majority of those who had been abducted were allowed to escape by noting that those who remained were tough, capable, motivated and unlikely to be liabilities on the battlefield. 

“[The rebels] want people who can fight,” he said.68

Complicity of Chadian Authorities in Darfur rebel abuses 

The responsibility for protecting refugees falls to the Chadian government,69 but eyewitness testimony suggests that Chadian officials have been complicit in abuses by the Darfur rebels inside and outside the camps.  Gendarmes are supposed to be present in the camps 24 hours a day. Several recruits in Bredjing and Treguine reported that gendarmes accompanied Sudanese rebels into the camps during the forced recruitment episode.70  Gendarmes were also reportedly present at Arkoum.  According to a twenty-five-year-old refugee from Bredjing camp, some of the officials who were entrusted with protecting the camp were actively involved in the abuses:

On the day of recruitment I went to the market.  The commander of the gendarmerie was there.  The people of CNAR [Chad’s governmental refugee agency] and gendarmes found me there at the market.  ‘You’re coming to Sudan,’ they said to me.71 

Local government officials are frequently seen in the presence of armed and uniformed Sudanese rebels,72 and have been reported to have aided rebel operations, including by shielding them from the scrutiny of international humanitarian workers73 and by releasing rebels detained for carrying arms inside of refugee camps or petty crimes from police custody.74 

Even if the government of Chad is not complicit in forced recruitment activities as many suspect, the ability of Sudanese rebels to operate overtly in refugee camps amounts to a gross dereliction of Chad’s responsibility to protect refugees.  In an interview with Human Rights Watch, the SLA’s Bechir Djabir, Khamis Abdulla’s lieutenant, denied any involvement with recruitment activities, but he did recognize that Chad’s policy toward the operations of Sudanese rebels on its territory had changed:

Before it was not easy to enter Chad, and it was not easy to enter the camps.  But now it’s possible to enter both the country and the camps.75

[36] UNHCR sent a team of experts to the camps in early 2005 to assess this potential.  “Perceptions of refugee security in Chad (based on information received during ESS mission, 12-17 July 2005),” UNHCR internal document, July 2005.

[37] In general terms, different refugee camps have come to be associated with rebel factions or individual commanders, though affiliations are by no means static, and are determined by a matrix of ethnic, political and geographic considerations.  The six northernmost camps (Oure Cassoni, Irdimi, Touloum, Am Nabak, Mile and Koundoungo) are majority Zaghawa and the southernmost six (Farchana, Gaga, Bredjing, Treguine, Djabel and Goz Amer) are in the majority Masalit; ethnicity is operational in determining camp loyalties, though it is by no means decisive.  For example, SLA commander Khamis Abdullah, who is Masalit, has connections in the Masalit camps, but JEM, which draws its members primarily from the Zaghawa (Kobe clan), also has links to individuals in Bredjing and Treguine.  Political allegiances are fluid in the wake of the leadership disputes inside the SLA that have produced two main factions and several sub-factions which compete vigorously for influence.  This is particularly true in the wake of the May 5 Darfur Peace Agreement, which produced intense discord in some of the camps.

[38] Refugee protection is governed by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 UNTS 150; and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 606 UNTS 267.

[39] Human Rights Watch interviews, Chad, April-May, 2006, and telephone interviews, Chad, Geneva, and Washington, DC, April - June, 2006.

[40] UNHCR’s agreement with the government of Chad for camp security calls for one gendarme for each 1,000 refugees.

[41] Khamis Abdullah’s senior deputies include Abakar Tula and Adam Muhammad Said.  Human Rights Watch interviews with refugees, SLA rebels, and western intelligence officials, Chad, April - May, 2006. 

[42] In November, 2005 after receiving reports of military vehicles seen at night in Bredjing and Treguine camps, UNHCR began conducting awareness campaigns about the civilian character of the camps.[42] 

[43] Bechir, a Sudanese Zaghawa (Wagi clan), owned and operated SOGEC, a construction company in N’djamena, until he took an SLA command under Khamis Abdullah.  Bechir, who has been identified by soldiers under his command as a colonel, is widely reported to maintain close ties with the Déby regime.  Human Rights Watch interviews, Chad, April - May, 2006.

[44] Human Rights Watch interviews, Chad, April - May, 2006.

[45] Forced recruits consistently mentioned Habashir Bara Abakar, or “Habashir,” a Masalit, in connection with the training camp.  Human Rights Watch was not able to identify or locate this individual.  Human Rights Watch interviews with refugees, Chad, Bredjing, and Treguine camps, April, 2006. 

[46] “UNHCR expresses alarm over continuing reports of forced recruitment in Chad refugee camps,” UNHCR.

[47] “Sudan/Chad Situation Update 53,” UNHCR, March 30, 2006 [online]

[48] Human Rights Watch, e-mail communication with UNHCR official in Chad, June 15, 2006.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview, U.N. official, Chad, May 23, 2006.

[50] A 16-year-old Masalit refugee who was forcibly recruited from Bredjing said that 162 refugees who had been forcibly recruited from Bredjing and Treguine, including himself, were deployed to Khamis Abdullah’s base at Changaya, in West Darfur.  Human Rights Watch interview, Chad, May 2, 2006.

[51] Students are not by definition minors, as many African schools count students in their late teens and early twenties.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview, refugee, Bredjing, Chad, May 1, 2006.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview, Chad, May 11, 2006.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview, Chad, May 14, 2006.

[55] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, UNHCR official in eastern Chad, New York, May 30, 2006.

[56] Teachers were among those forcibly recruited, but others occupy senior leadership positions within the camps.  Human Rights Watch interview, Chad, April to May, 2006.

[57] Human Rights Watch interview, refugee, Bredjing, Chad, May 2, 2006.

[58] Adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly on May 25, 2000, A/RES/54/263 of  May 25, 2000, entered into force on February 12, 2002.

[59] Article 4 of the Optional Protocol.

[60] OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/24.9/49 (1990), entered into force Nov. 29, 1999. Chad acceded to the Convention in March 2000. Article 22 provides: that States Parties  (i) undertake to respect and ensure respect for rules of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts which affect the child; (ii) shall take all necessary measures to ensure that no child shall take a direct part in hostilities and refrain in particular, from recruiting any child; (iii) shall, in accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law, protect the civilian population in armed conflicts and shall take all feasible measures to ensure the protection and care of children who are affected by armed conflicts. Such rules shall also apply to children in situations of internal armed conflicts, tension and strife.

[61] Convention on the Rights of the Child, Articles 38 and 39, ratified by Sudan on August 3, 1990 and Chad on October 2, 1990.

[62] Human Rights Watch interview, Bredjing, Chad, May 2, 2006.

[63] Human Rights Watch interview, refugee, Bredjing, Chad, April 30, 2006.

[64] Human Rights Watch interview, refugee, Treguine, Chad, May 30, 2006.

[65] Human Rights Watch interview, refugee, Treguine, Chad, April 30, 2006.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Human Rights Watch interview, refugee, Bredjing, Chad, May 2, 2006.

[68] Ibid.

[69] 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 UNTS 150; and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 606 UNTS 267.

[70] Human Rights Watch interviews, Bredjing and Treguine camps, April 29 - May 5, 2006.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview, refugee, Bredjing, Chad, May 1, 2006.

[72] Including by Human Rights Watch researchers, who were having tea with the sous-prefet of Farchana, near Bredjing and Treguine camps, when they were joined by a group of Darfur rebels.  Human Rights Watch interviews, Chad, April - May, 2006.   

[73] Human Rights Watch interview, international humanitarian aid worker, eastern Chad, May 16, 2006.

[74] Human Rights Watch interviews, refugees, eastern Chad, April - May, 2006.

[75] Djabir went on to suggest that this freedom of movement is an outgrowth of the working relationship that exists between his rebel movement and the government of Chad.  “There is no formal agreement,” he said.  “But we have a strong bond with the Chadian military, and if Chad is attacked, we are obliged to respond.”  Human Rights Watch interview, Goz Beida, Chad, May 12, 2006.

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