For a journalist, the upside of being shot at is that you know you’re onto a worthwhile story. Of course, that was small comfort back in June as I fled gunfire in the town of Abeche in desolate eastern Chad. Elements of the Chadian army had mistaken each other – and me – for rebels and for two hours chased each other – and me – around Abeche, killing at least one person. Sure, it was fairly silly as far as battles go. But after I’d recovered from the shock, I was grateful for the rare perspective on Chad’s (in)security situation.
And I’m grateful to my readers who contributed more than $1,500 to help defray the cost of traveling to and working in Chad. You helped me reach the battlefield. In a month of reporting I filed more than dozen stories with a wide range of news outlets including The Washington Times, C-SPAN, World Politics Review, Wired News, Inter Press Service and more. Without your support, this would have been impossible.
I’m off to Nicaragua this week aboard the USS Kearsarge. Before I shift gears, I’d like to take a look back at Chad. So what did I learn?
Chad is a country on the brink, surrounded and infiltrated by enemies real and imagined. Rebels based in Sudan cross the border to challenge Chad’s corrupt president Idriss Deby. Gunmen from Central African Republic chase their foes across the border into U.N-run refugee camps. The fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of Chadians. They join around 300,000 refugees from Darfur and Central African Republic in making Chad host to one of the world’s biggest refugee populations.
But Chad’s no innocent victim. The country harbors rebels groups fighting to topple the Arab-dominated regime in Khartoum. Rebels are said to operate out of the dozen large Darfuri refugee camps in eastern Chad near the border with Sudan. It’s hard to pity a refugee population that, under the cover of darkness, welcomes armed parties into their homes.
And it’s hard to pity refugees who are wealthier than the natives of their host country. That’s right: many of Chad’s refugees are more well off than the average Chadian, thanks to billions of dollars in foreign aid. The abundance of donated aid, plus the stress that refugees place on scarce water and wood resources, has resulted in growing conflict between Chadians and foreign refugees.
In the south of Chad, Central African refugees till fields next door to native Chadian farmers. The refugees’ land is donated by the government. The U.N. gave the refugees seeds and tools and access to tractors. The U.N. and aid groups also help refugee farmers sell surplus crops for profit. Native farmers, by contrast, usually grow just enough to feed their families. The disparity has grown so severe that the U.N. recently has begun providing some aid to native, non-refugee Chadians. It’s the only way to alleviate the tension.
See the problem here? Chadians are so poor that for the U.N. to help refugees, it must also help the native population. The implications for the aid industry are enormous. And the benefit to a corrupt, negligent host government such as Chad’s are just as huge. Every dollar that the U.N. spends providing basic services to everyday Chadians is a dollar that Deby’s regime doesn’t have to spend on its own people. At the same time, the E.U. has deployed a peacekeeping force tasked with protecting the civilian population of eastern Chad, another function that really should be the responsibility of Deby’s regime.
In Chad this summer, I witnessed what I believe is the beginning of a permanently dependent “international welfare” state. And with the region’s armed conflicts only getting worse, and natural resources growing scarcer, this dependency will only deepen.
Is there hope? In the short term, no. In the long term, yes, of course – but only if the region’s leaders can settle long-standing conflicts, return refugees to their homes and focus on the kinds of long-term capacity building that are necessary to eke a measure of prosperity out of an unforgiving land.