As part of a team from Physicians for Human Rights, John Heffernan spent two weeks on the Sudan-Chad border, visiting refugees from western Sudan's Darfur region. About half of the 200,000 people who have fled attacks in Darfur are in official camps established by international organizations away from the insecure border; the other half are in makeshift settlements that are subject to cross-border raids from Sudanese militias.
Heffernan spoke to AllAfrica's Margaret McElligott about his concerns for refugee health and safety, and his organization's call for intervention and increased humanitarian aid from the United Nations and other international organizations.
How did refugees react to you?
The people that we met - in every place - were more than willing to talk about their experience in Chad, and essentially what we asked is what happened to them. Why were they forced to leave? What happened to them on their way, and how did they get to the camps?
What are some of the common threads in the stories?
There were clearly common patterns of attack. When we talked to people, over and over again they spoke of some type of aerial assualt on their village, perhaps sometimes not firing. It would either be a fixed-wing aircraft - and they would even identify it as an Antonov, which has been used by the Sudanese military - or a helicopter that would essentially circle the village, warning folks that something was going to happen.
And typically what did happen was either that day or the next day, groups of people that were described as being both Sudanese army as well as "jinjaweed", which is the Arab militia, would enter the town by foot or by horseback or perhaps even in vehicles, and go from house to house, forcing people to leave, on occasion raping women, stealing all of their possessions and then quite frequently burning what was left.
A number of the people, particularly the men, said that upon the knowledge that the attack was imminent, the men would flee and the women would gather what they could, including their children and what possessions they could take, and would leave later - the feeling being that the men were at greater risk of being killed, and the women were probably not at risk of being killed, as much as perhaps being raped. And this is what people told us over and over - this pattern of attack was common.
As people were fleeing, what did their attackers do?
Clearly, there was an effort to destroy whatever livelihood these people had. Not only were their possessions taken, particularly their animals, which is a crucial part of this culture - in many instances, people spoke about their water supply, their wells being poisoned, their crops being burned. Destroying anything and everything that essentially were their means of livelihood. It took them a while to get to the border because they had to take various circuititous routes in order to avoid additional attacks from the government of Sudan and the jinjaweed.
You say refugees report seeing government forces and jinjaweed working together?
Before we had arrived there, most of the reports that I read referred to the jinjaweed militia as being backed by the government of Sudan, which they appear to be, given the testimonies that we received. But it seems to me, based on what we heard from a number of different sources, that it went beyond that.
It wasn't just the government supporting them with weapons or money - they were actually there in the process of attacking these folks. And they were the perpatrators as much as the jinjaweed were. They act in concert. This was told to us over and over again.
What reason did people give as to why they were forced out of their villages?
This was a question that we asked typically at the end of the interview, "So why you? What was it that you did or said that you felt was reason enough for these people to come in and destroy your entire livelihood?" And over and over, repeatedly, people said it was because we are ethnically black Africans and the people - Khartoum and the jinjaweed - simply do not want us on their land. So it wasn't really a matter of them saying that they want our land, but they want us - black Africans - off their land.
What was the security situation in the refugee camps in Chad?
In the ]official] camps that we visited the security seemed to be okay. That was the whole reason for the UN to really make a concerted effort to establish these camps a fair distance from the border. In terms of the militia or the government of Sudan making these periodic insurgencies across the border, it really didn't affect the camps that were internal.
But [security] certainly was a problem with people who were self-settled along the border, who continued to face periodic insurgencies from Sudan. There was very consistent response to our questions about whether or not they wanted to go to the UN-supported camps that were away from the border. They all very much wanted to. It was just a matter of the UN and other agencies moving these people as quickly as they could, particularly before the rainy season starts.
When you talked to people working for humanitarian aid organizations, how did they compare the situation in Chad to their previous experiences?
A number of people with whom we spoke mentioned this being one of the worst refugee crises that they had ever seen. A number of these people were old Africa-hands - seasoned people that had been in Somalia and other places, and they felt that the response from the international community was quite slow, so there's a constant catch-up feeling there. And it's exacerbated by the approaching rainy season and the fact that the rains will render these roads virtually inaccessible. So if there's not enough food or medicines in these camps or in these self-settled locations in the next couple weeks to last six or seven months, then there could be a real crisis.
Overall, what is your assessment of the human rights and health situation for these refugees?
Our findings are two-fold. Physicians for Human Rights has had a 20-year history of documenting human rights crises. Based on what we've seen elsewhere, there is a massive assault on the black African population in Sudan that would indicate that there are clear signs of genocide that necessitate a response from the international community. That would, first, stop this ongoing ethnic cleansing, as well as open up the lines of humanitarian access that is needed for people in the Darfur area.
Two, in terms of our overall findings, there is a real pending humanitarian disaster in Chad. Unless supplies are delivered to these camps and to these settlement areas in the next couple of weeks, there's a real danger and a real risk of these people not having enough to eat or the medicines needed over the next six months, when it will be really difficult to get to them due to the effect of the rains that will make the roads virtually impassible.
And what's happening in Chad pales in comparison to what's happening in Darfur, where there are something like 1.2 million people who are internally displaced. From the reports, from the testimonies of refugees, these people are not getting the type of assistance that they need.
What do you think the international community should do?
There needs to be some type of immediate intervention. What we're calling for is a UN Security Council resolution which invokes Chapter Seven - which supports intervention that would open up the lines for humanitarian access that would enable these people to survive what is clearly right now a major, major catastrophe.
Second is that the UN and international organizations need to ramp up their efforts within Chad. People continue to come over. In one town, there are something like 300 refugees coming over a week. These people don't have roofs over their head, don't have access to medical care, don't have food. Unless they are moved to camps where this type of stuff can be provided, they could die.
How important is the label of "genocide" to the ongoing debate of what to do in Darfur?
Arguing over the semantics of whether this is genocide, whether this is ethnic cleansing, does not do justice to the crisis. The fact is that hundreds of thousands of people are at risk, and if arguing over whether this is genocide halts some type of intervention that will enable them to get access, then there's a real problem.
But, with that being said, if, in fact, there are clear indicators of genocide, and this is what we say there are, then there needs to be some type of action as the Genocide Convention states, to prevent this genocide from happening.
So the Genocide Convention should be invoked even if genocide is not currently taking place?
It requires you to act to prevent. And in this case, I think there are clear signs that this is genocide unfolding and by waiting any longer, we risk the lives of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.