Chad no longer so welcoming to cross-border Darfur rebels
A possible detente between Chad and Sudan has implications for the conflict, writes Mary Fitzgerald, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, in N'Djamena
THE REBELS are smartly dressed and blend in easily with the guests milling around the airy lobby of one of N'Djamena's more expensive hotels. Their eyes dart about but only to anticipate the next passerby who will stop and shake their hands - and there are many.
The two men are leading members of the Justice and Equality Movement or Jem, one of the rebel groups involved in years of fighting with government forces in neighbouring Darfur. The business card of the first, Ahmed Tugod Lissan, identifies him as Jem's chief negotiator. The other, Bushara Suliman Nour, is Jem's secretary for foreign affairs. The two men, along with other Jem leaders and fighters, pass back and forth across the porous border between Darfur and Chad, the latter a place of sanctuary for the movement and its government a source of crucial support. That support works both ways. Earlier this year, when Chadian rebels opposed to the country's president Idriss Deby made an audacious swoop on N'Djamena, it was Jem fighters who helped Deby's forces repel the attack.
But there are signs that Chad's relationship with Jem may be about to change. The capital buzzes with rumours of a possible detente between Deby and his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir. Earlier this month the two countries restored diplomatic relations and Sudanese officials have claimed a meeting between the two heads of state is in the offing. Where that leaves Jem remains to be seen. But my run-in yesterday with Chadian police may provide some clues.
Minutes after I, along with a French journalist colleague, watched the Jem representatives walk away following our interview, two men approached. After identifying themselves as plainclothes police, they explained that their chief wanted to see us. At police headquarters my colleague, a TV reporter, had the tape of his interview confiscated.
Interviewing Jem figures would have been fine a month or so ago, the chief told us, but not now. "The situation has changed," he said gruffly, describing our two interviewees as "delinquents".
Led by the charismatic Khalil Ibrahim, known to his supporters as Dr Khalil, Jem is now acknowledged to be one of the leading rebel movements in Darfur, in part because other groups have been riven by infighting and factionalism.
The conflict in the northwestern Sudanese province broke out in earnest in 2003 when rebels took up arms against the government, accusing it of discrimination, marginalisation and neglect.
In response, Khartoum carried out bombing raids on Darfur and unleashed militias that laid waste its villages, plundering, raping and burning as they went. Five years later, it is estimated more than 300,000 people have died as a result of the conflict which has now broadened into inter-ethnic violence and prompted the deployment of an international peacekeeping force.
Tugod Lissan admits he never expected the government's response to be so ferocious. "What they have done is not simple war, it is crimes against humanity, genocide . . . and those who are responsible for these crimes should be held accountable by any means."
Earlier this month, al-Bashir declared a unilateral ceasefire and pledged to begin disarming militias, a move many believe was prompted by the pressure he feels since the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor announced moves to seek his arrest, accusing the Sudanese president of overseeing a campaign of genocide in Darfur.
Al-Bashir's promises carry little weight with Jem.
"We will not judge the government by what they say, rather by what they do and what they are doing on the ground is completely different from what they are saying," shrugs Tugod Lissan, claiming that government forces attacked rebel positions within days of the ceasefire.
A Qatari-sponsored initiative is the latest attempt to solve the Darfur conflict and Jem has said it is ready to participate in the proposed Doha conference or, as Tugod Lissan puts it, "talks about talks".
"If we are convinced that the government is genuine in wanting to solve the problem and bring peace to Darfur, we will respect the ceasefire . . . and then we will be ready for a constructive political dialogue to go into the root causes of the conflict," he says. "We believe that it is better for al-Bashir and his government to come clean, to sit and solve the crisis because we have the desire and the willingness to solve this problem by peaceful means, but at the same time we are ready for the other options."
Both he and Nour are frank about their ties with Deby. "The Sudan government believes the Darfur conflict cannot be solved if Deby remains in power so the battle of N'Djamena [in February] was also a battle of Darfur - that's the reason we came with our own forces to this city to defend Deby because we saw the Sudan government supporting, preparing and instructing the Chadian opposition . . . The game is obvious."