Eastern Chad after MINURCAT: Fears Mount

Amnesty International, Secretary General, Canada / Alex Neve

 “It is a very good thing when someone comes to protect you. But it is so hard to understand why they leave when you still need to be protected. Does that mean they had not really wanted to come in the first place?”

That was the reaction I received when I asked  Arnour what he thought about the likelihood that UN troops would be leaving Chad. He is a young refugee from Darfur who spent six years fighting as a child soldier against the Janjaweed and Sudanese military, but recently decided to lay down his arms and join his mother at a refugee camp in Chad.

He knew nothing about the debate at the UN in New York and the final vote that was to take place only a few hours after he and I spoke. He did say that he could not imagine how it would help him or his family feel any safer; and worried that it would mean that the day when they might all be able to go back to Darfur would likely be all the more distant.

A few hours after Arnour and I met the UN Security Council did indeed make up its mind and passed the resolution which has set in motion the withdrawal of its important mission here in eastern Chad, MINURCAT.

Troops will start leaving – one assumes – almost immediately, working towards a complete pull out by the end of the year. Packing up this mission, which has really only just truly got its feet on the ground and begun to spread out and get to work, will be no small challenge.

As such, while the withdrawal is underway, UN personnel will be inescapably focused on the many logistical hurdles they will face in dismantling the extensive UN presence in as orderly a manner as they can. And remaining troops will have a drastically reduced mandate, with very little authority to intervene to protect civilians and to instead focus very much on ensuring security for UN personnel until they are all gone by year’s end.

We have been discussing the MINURCAT situation widely over the past several days – both when it was an impending likelihood and now that its fate has been sealed in New York. We have talked with MINURCAT personnel and staff with other UN agencies. We have spoken with many of the humanitarian organizations working here; and also with local government officials. We have spoken with more casual observers, ranging from a nun who helps run a school to the various local drivers we have been working with.

None feel optimistic. At best we heard fatalism from some – a sense that they had managed to get by before UN soldiers were on the ground and would somehow manage again. Most are very worried. All are aghast that while there is a detailed plan about withdrawal there is no plan at all yet as to what the Chadian government is going to do to live up to its commitment to step in and play the role MINURCAT did in ensuring protection in this troubled, volatile region.

But most importantly we have spoken with Arnour and many other Darfuri refugees and Chadians, the very individuals whose security and well-being has been most endangered over the past several years, and for whom MINURCAT was set up to assist. Most were not even aware that the debate was underway. Some expressed a sense of despair that their views and perspective had not been sought while diplomats wrestled with their future thousands of kilometres away.

And meanwhile, insecurity and human rights violations continue in the region. More than one thousand newly arrived refugees from Darfur are about to be transferred to one of the camps near Guereda. There are fresh reports of child soldiers joining armed groups. Earlier this week, a criminal gang fired several shots on a humanitarian vehicle – fortunately no one died.
And the implications of MINURCAT’s withdrawal are being felt in other ways as well. Even in advance of this most recent decision a Norwegian field hospital that was operating in Abeché for quite some time has left.  While here it was able to provide medical assistance to numerous emergency cases every week. The Chadian government has done nothing to fill that void. It is difficult to feel confident that they are willing and prepared to fill the security void.

But that is precisely where we will now turn our attention. It will be vital in the coming weeks to maintain pressure on Chadian authorities to live up to their promise. And to remind the international community that the MINURCAT withdrawal cannot once again mean abandonment for the people of eastern Chad.

Arnour’s voice will stay with me. And Amnesty International must do all we can to ensure that his voice will be heard.