It had taken a United Nations team a week to get security clearance to visit the villages of Tiero and Marena in Chad’s Wadi Fira region, about 45km west of the border with Sudan. When their two vehicles finally arrived earlier this month, the silence was eerie and the stench of rotting flesh overwhelming.

The team of eight UN staff and aid workers had already passed the grim spectacle of two decomposing bodies of men killed by rifle fire as they neared the walled town, formerly home to thousands. Inside, they were greeted by a scene that could only be described as “apocalyptic”, says Matthew Conway of the UN refugee agency.

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Marena was empty but for a handful of people seeing what could be salvaged in the remains of the hundreds of burnt huts, picking their way through the smashed clay pots, cooking pans and clothes that littered the red-brown soil. Bodies had been buried immediately, according to the Muslim tradition.

But the images of destruction were everywhere. The scene in Tiero was similar, but it was completely abandoned except for packs of dogs, barking maniacally as though they themselves had been caught up in the madness. Around them lay the rotting carcasses of donkeys that had died where they were tethered. Flames still flickered on a tree.

The attack had taken place on March 31, thought to have been carried out by a coalition of Chadian rebels and Sudanese militias infiltrating from across the border. The killing, according to witnesses, had lasted several hours. A group of militia, some on horseback, some on camels and others on foot, came from the east at dawn. Another group of heavily armed uniformed men in pick-up trucks came from the west.

A six-year-old boy who survived described bullets falling like rain. A girl his age was shot in the head as she attempted to flee, he remembered. Many who survived the initial attack died later from exhaustion and dehydration. The number of dead may never been known, but the UN estimates between 200 and 400 perished.

It has become difficult to ascertain the exact motives for proliferating attacks such as this one. Sometimes they are the product of localised feuds, at other times there are larger forces at work. But the atrocity at Tiero and Marena was certainly one of the worst of the four-year conflict that has engulfed the western Sudanese province of Darfur and surrounding areas. The massacre of Chadian villagers also demonstrated how the conflict has escalated into an even more deadly regional crisis, which has been described as a “genocide” by the US and is still growing in intensity despite all international efforts to stop it.

What started in 2003 as a rebellion against the iniquities of Khartoum’s rule by a limited number of black African ethnic groups in western Sudan has now escalated into a proxy war between Sudan and neighbouring Chad, and is in danger of spreading to other states in the region. Shortly after the attack on the two villages, for example, Chadian forces in pursuit of rebels crossed into Sudan and killed 17 Sudanese troops – thought to be the first such incident since the conflict in Darfur erupted in 2003.

The fighting in Darfur has spilled into the Central African Republic, another impoverished, unstable state that borders Darfur and south-eastern Chad, acting as a convenient stepping-stone from one country into the other. Eritrean support for the rebels in Darfur has added to the volatile mix, as does Libyan influence, as rival regimes seek opportunities to destabilise one another. Even France’s air force has intervened a number of times to defend the governments of Chad and the CAR.

It is a region where as one war ends, another soon erupts, and Sudan, Chad and the CAR are all led by military men who seized power at the point of a gun. To the east of Sudan, Somalia is enduring some of its worst violence in a decade as Ethiopian troops and their Somali government allies battle Somali insurgents. To the west, the Democratic Republic of Congo is struggling to emerge from the ravages of a civil war that sucked in the armies of at least six neighbouring states.

Darfur map
© Financial Times

“If the wound is not dressed it’s just going to get worse,” John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group says of the Sudan-Darfur-Chad-CAR crisis. “There’s oil ready to be thrown on that fire. It hasn’t been yet but there’s nothing being done to prevent it.”

Mr Prendergast points out that there are many precedents in Africa for a local conflict escalating into a regional conflagration. Starting in the 1990s, for example, as a different civil war raged in southern Sudan, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a quasi-Christian Ugandan rebel group, used southern Sudan as a base and received crucial support from the Islamic regime in Khartoum to pursue a campaign of terror across the border in northern Uganda. The Ugandan government, meanwhile, supported the southern Sudanese rebels in a conflict that lasted 21 years and killed some 2m people. Elsewhere, Ethiopia and Eritrea have been accused of fighting a proxy war in Somalia, adding to the chaos and bloodshed there.

In Darfur, meanwhile, the ingredients for a regional intensification of what started as a local conflict were present from the start: cross-border tribal loyalties that transcend government authority and notions of nationhood; a history of violent competition for meagre resources in hostile terrain beset by desertification; weak and ineffective state institutions; remote regions inhabited by often-competing nomads and farmers where Kalashnikovs are as ubiquitous as walking sticks; and countries burdened with porous, colonial-era borders.

The Darfur conflict is thought to have already led to the deaths of 200,000 people. Another 2.5m have been driven from their land and forced into makeshift homes, often too scared to venture beyond the perimeters of refugee camps for fear of being raped or beaten by marauding Arab militias. Adding to the chaos, the rebellion has itself splintered into competing factions that have fought each other as well as the government in Khartoum. The breakdown in law and order has led to banditry on a massive scale.

But now states appear to have joined in the conflict, backing proxy militias in an attempt to defend kinsmen or simply as a way to carve out spheres of influence and destabilise their neighbours. Khartoum accuses Chad of backing Sudanese rebels fighting in Darfur, while N’Djamena accuses the Sudanese government of supporting and hosting Chadian rebels seeking to oust Chad’s President Idriss Déby.

A Sudanese source told the Financial Times earlier this year that Khartoum now viewed the removal of Mr Déby as key to neutralising the Darfur rebels and regaining control over its vast western region.

“This is what has come to be understood by both parties, at least the government here – as long as the National Redemption Front [Darfur rebels] is operating and being supported by Chad there is no way to put an end to the problem of Darfur,” the source says. “The way the two parties have conducted themselves has made them sworn enemies.”

It is ironic that Mr Déby, now Sudan’s enemy, came to power in 1990 in a coup orchestrated by Khartoum. Sudan has a long history of involvement in the toppling of Chadian governments and now hosts the Chadian anti-Déby rebel groups.

Initially, Mr Déby attempted to mediate with Darfur rebels on the Sudanese government’s behalf, observers say. But the conflict put the Chadian president between a rock and a hard place as he struggled on one hand with loyalties to allies in Khartoum and tribal linkages to a key core of the Darfur rebels on the other.

His position was undermined by Zaghawa tribesmen in his administration – who have blood ties to the Darfur region – and by military men who began covertly supporting the Darfur rebels. The Zaghawa, who live on both sides of the Chad-Sudan border, furnish much of the manpower for the Darfur rebel groups.

The result was that Mr Déby – a Zaghawa himself – switched sides to support the Darfur rebels, who in turn have reportedly helped him repel attacks by Chadian insurgents.

Years of fighting have resulted for now in a stalemate. The Chadian rebels lack co-ordination and Mr Déby has key support from France, the main western player in the region. France has military bases in Chad and has used fighter jets to help counter Chadian rebel advances in its former colony. In December, French Mirage F1 jets were also used against anti-government insurgents in the Central African Republic, which like Chad has a defence agreement with France.

The Darfur rebels are themselves hopelessly divided. The rebellion began with two factions; now there are around a dozen with little clear political strategy.

In Khartoum, meanwhile, it is never clear which of the various cabals in government – Islamists, ideologues, intelligence heads, military officers, business elites and political players – are driving policy. Observers say there are divisions over which direction to take, with hardliners currently holding the upper hand. In its struggle to maintain a grip on power the Khartoum regime has appealed increasingly to tribal and racial allegiances.

Their tactic, Sudanese say, is to split the Darfur rebels further, while pushing ahead with a military campaign to weaken the insurgents ahead of any negotiations.

The result leaves little cause for optimism. “Some people depend on the crisis strategy for the maintenance of the regime itself. Crises should continue, because that’s one of their raison d’etres,” says a Sudanese analyst.

The international community appears increasingly impotent. It has failed to pressure Khartoum into accepting the deployment of a full UN peacekeeping force and faces criticism that too little attention is paid to political solutions. Chad, meanwhile, has refused to accept a military UN mission on its border, where tens of thousands of Chadians are living in fear and misery.

Observers also lament a dangerous lack of understanding of the complexities of the unfolding drama. “I have been struck by the constant lack of knowledge about this situation in capitals of western countries as shown by visiting ministers and diplomats, together with the arrogance; and that is in particular the American arrogance – ‘we can deal with everything, we have the power’,” says Jan Pronk, the former UN envoy to Sudan who was expelled by Khartoum last year.

“Nobody is dealing with the political issues. New York is not focusing on them, the Security Council is not focusing on them; everybody is obsessed by how to get in the peacekeeping mission. That is useful, but you cannot intervene militarily. Any force has to sustain a peace; if you don’t have a peace, a peace force doesn’t make any sense and it can become part of the problem.”

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