If we hear of Eastern Chad at all, it is as a spillover of the genocidal slaughter in Darfur. But this swath of land along Darfur's border has become a full-scale catastrophe in its own right, and it is without the immense and effective humanitarian infrastructure which is sustaining millions of lives in Darfur.
When I first came here in November 2006, I met Abdullah Idris Zaid, who was lying in the tiny Goz Beida hospital. It was a terrible month in eastern Chad. The Janjaweed, Darfur's government-backed Arab militias, joined with Chadian Arab tribes on a rampage of destruction; 60 villages were burned and scores of people were killed, raped, and mutilated. Mr. Zaid's eyes were gouged out by Janjaweed knives.
This month I found him in the Gouroukoum camp for displaced people. He is 27-years-old, a husband and a father. His four-year old daughter Boushra led him to the mat outside his hut and gently placed a cup of water in his hands. He told me that this is the third place they have sought refuge, and still he does not feel safe.
"They will come again," said Mr. Zaid. "They said, 'we do not want you black people here.' The Janjaweed come from Sudan. If the United Nations does not send troops into Sudan and stop them, then they will return."
Eastern Chad has been plunged into chaos and lawlessness. In border towns, pick-up trucks outfitted with machine guns and loaded with armed, uniformed men careen through the dusty streets. No one knows who they are: the army, Chadian rebels, bandits? It makes little difference to the victims of the escalating violence. For about $5 dollars (U.S.), anyone can get a uniform in the marketplace. As I passed through the town of Abeche, a U.N. refugee agency guard was murdered and two staffers severely wounded. About 100 humanitarian vehicles have been highjacked in the last year; aid workers have been robbed, beaten, abducted and killed.
Eight months ago, 40,000 Chadians had been displaced by Janjaweed attacks. Today the number is 175,000 and rising. People have fled from their burning villages and the fields that sustained them to squalid camps across Eastern Chad. "Mortality rates of children under five are double what is accepted as the threshold for an emergency," says Johanne Sekkenes, a Doctors Without Borders program director. "The situation here is massively deteriorating. The needs are huge. Assistance has been too little, and it comes too late."
There have been years of debate as to how the tide of violence engulfing the region can be stemmed. Until recently, the excuse for inaction was the steadfast resistance of the Sudanese government to U.N. peacekeeping presence. Sudan's recent consent to a limited force under African Union command comes in the wake of countless broken promises and falls far short of what is needed. Nonetheless, it leaves the onus squarely on other countries that have the power to contribute troops, but lack the political will to do so.
And so the cacophony of voices continues, deliberating as to whether and how a force should be dispatched, and who should contribute the resources and troops. No one seems to be listening to the most important voice of all -- that of the people of Darfur and Eastern Chad, ringing loud and clear from refugee camps across the region.
Oumda al Fatih, is the leader of 20,000 Darfurians at Goz Amir refugee camp. Between the camp and the Darfur border there is nothing but the ashes of destroyed villages. "Twice, Janjaweed from Sudan came here and attacked us," he told me. The refugees had fled these attackers before, but now they were far from home. With no idea where to find water in the unfamiliar desert, they did not even try to run. "We sat on the ground and we held our children and waited for two days. And we were thinking, 'No hopes for us. No hopes for us.'
"We are the ones being killed, tortured and raped. We are the ones who have lost everything. We are refugees with no freedom, no rights, not enough food, no fields; we are living in terror. We accept the U.N. troops. We are asking for help."
This is the voice of the people of Darfur and Eastern Chad. It calls urgently for an international force with the resources and mandate necessary to protect defenseless civilians and the aid workers who are struggling to sustain them. These desperate pleas are what we should be hearing and responding to -- urgently.
This piece first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.
Ms. Farrow, a UNICEF ambassador, has just returned from her sixth trip to Darfur and its borders with Chad and the Central African Republic.