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The Ecology Of Genocide

Shane Bauer

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A caravan of a hundred camels traverses the cracked Saharan plains on a several-day journey to the nearest water source in North Darfur as I barrel down the bumpy trail, crammed into the back of a 1960s-model pickup. Stony hills give way to patches of desert, golden grassy meadows, and parched fields of sorghum and millet. Villages of circular huts made of mud and straw are spread thin across the vast, empty countryside, far enough apart to allow the human population to maintain its delicate balance with the scarce resources of their fragile environment.

Many of the villages now look like tiny moonscapes of above-ground craters. The circular mud brick walls of their huts remain standing but their insides are charred and their straw roofs turned to ash. A thin layer of soot coats the cracked clay pots and bed frames that lie exposed to the open sky. Bits of animal bones, scraps of cloth, tin cans, glass, and rusted lanterns are strewn across the ground among empty bullets and one-foot-long mortar shells. Many of the villages remain intact, but they are slowly becoming swept over by sand as they come into their third year of standing empty, their residents having fled as soon as they saw the towers of smoke curling up into the clouds while nearby villages were engulfed in flames.

Separating Sudan's Darfur region and Chad is a 30-foot-wide dried river bed that doubles as a border, but means little for the people living on either side of it. Like all borders in Africa, this one is a product of colonial statecraft, with no relevance to preexisting ethnic identities, linguistic groupings, or communities. Pastoralists move their herds across this unassuming frontier through the lands of their ethnic kin in search of fodder and water. The marauding Janjaweed militia cross into Chad to pillage villages and steal their livestock, while Chadian and Sudanese rebels skip back and forth depending on who and where their enemies are at a given time.

The only people held back by the border are the militaries of either country, so when the Sudanese government waged its genocidal campaign against Darfur's black population, the Masalit, Zaghawa, and other ethnic groups living near the border came to Chad for safety while others fled to closer camps within Darfur. Ishaq Haron, the head of the Treguine refugee camp said, "When we initially fled Sudan, the first people to take care of us were the Chadians." With no international aid agencies present during the first months of ethnic cleansing, he said their kin on the Chadian side of the border offered them food, water, and shelter when they had nowhere else to go.

East Chad may have been better off than Darfur before the war, but only just, and the influx of such a large refugee population put a serious strain on the resource base of Chadians living in the region, and in their ability to sustain themselves. The United Nations Development Project's (UNDP) 2005 Human Development Report cites Chad as the fifth poorest country in the world, and the eastern region of the country is one of its most remote parts. Aside from the more fertile southern portion of the border region, it is mostly barren and access to water is extremely limited. According to the UNDP report, only two percent of Chadians living in provinces bordering Sudan have access to safe drinking water. Electricity, running water, and telephones are nonexistent outside the provincial capitals, and even in cities their availability is sporadic. People's lives revolve around the collection and consumption of three natural resources: water for drinking and farming, firewood for cooking, and grass for grazing livestock, all of which are scarce.

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Posted: 16-Dec-06

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