Darfur refugees forced to join the fight

Ahead of Sunday's deadline for Darfur parties to accept a peace deal, rebels are raiding camps to swell their ranks.

Last month, Adam Sabun had to decide whether to save his own life or that of his younger brother Abdel.

The two, whose names have been changed to protect their identity, were among thousands of Sudanese who have been abducted recently from refugee camps in eastern Chad - near the border of the now-infamous Darfur region of western Sudan - and forced to fight by various Chadian and Sudanese rebel groups operating in the area. This new and worrisome development further complicates one of the world's most complex humanitarian crises.

"I'd had no food for four days," says Mr. Sabun. "I wanted to escape while I could still walk." Other kidnapped refugees had told him that his brother had also been taken. As Sabun searched for his brother, he got weaker and weaker. Finally he slipped the guards and walked seven hours through the desert back to his camp, hoping his brother would do the same. Today, Abdel is among hundreds of refugees still missing.

Although the exact number is unknown, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that around 4,700 refugees in Chadian camps were abducted last month. Most were taken in the span of three days in mid-March from the camps of Treguine and Bredjing, when unidentified rebels went from tent to tent looking for potential fighters, according to refugees and the UNHCR. Women who tried to cling to their men were beaten back mercilessly, say witnesses. Some men who resisted were tied up at knifepoint and carried off in vehicles. Many of those taken say they saw people tied up and left in the sun for days, or witnessed beatings. Some were killed.

Among the dusty tents and straw shacks of the refugee camps, the clumps of frightened people do not even know who attacked them, although most of the refugees who escaped agree their kidnappers spoke with Sudanese accents. At least four rebel groups - some Sudanese, some Chadian - are now active along the chaotic border between the two countries.

Chadian rebel groups aiming to oust President Idriss Deby before next week's elections have grown rapidly and mobilized in recent months. Two weeks ago, hundreds of Chadian rebels made it to Chad's capital, N'Djamena in an unsuccessful coup.

Meanwhile, Sudanese rebel factions in Darfur continue to battle the government-backed Arabic-speaking janjaweed militias, as they have for more than three years. Both the Chadian and Sudanese rebels have abducted refugees to fight. But now humanitarian agencies are concerned that forced recruitment of refugees by the Sudanese rebels could be used as a pretext for the janjaweed to attack the camps in Chad.

Since the Darfur conflict began in 2003, about 2 million people have been displaced, and around 200,000 people have died, leading the US to accuse Sudan of genocide and the UN to consider a peacekeeping mission. In a tape released last weekend, Osama bin Laden called for a holy war against any Western troops that may enter Darfur.

African Union mediators presented a new draft peace agreement to Darfur's warring parties Tuesday at talks in Abuja, Nigeria, and urged them to sign it by the agreed-upon deadline Sunday.

But observers say a deal is unlikely to happen while Chad remains unstable. "A rebel victory in Chad would significantly strengthen the hand of the government of Sudan both militarily and at the negotiating table," said Colin Thomas-Jensen, an analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "Chad could easily and quickly become a base used by [janjaweed] to launch attacks on [Sudanese rebels] based in Darfur."

Although the Darfur conflict has been marked by gross human rights violations and ethnic cleansing, Olivier Bercault of Human Rights Watch says the forced recruitment of fighters, including children, is a new development.

Mr. Bercault says the majority of rebels captured by the Chadian government that HRW spoke to say they were kidnapped. Although children currently only account for a small number of fighters in Chad and Sudan, rebel groups had previously been strict about recruiting only adult fighters.But a push by the various rebel groups to gain territory - and therefore bargaining power - ahead of the end of the Abuja peace process, together with upcoming elections in Chad, have sparked a drive to add manpower to the rebel forces, he says.

"The war is shifting gear and [the various rebel groups] need more people to fight," said Bercault. "I'm very concerned about child recruitment. When you start with this, it's like an addiction. It's difficult to stop."

Forced recruitment of children has been a tactic used in other African conflicts. In northern Uganda, which borders Sudan, the Lord's Resistance Army often abducts children to fight, sometimes demanding they kill their own parents or be killed themselves.

In West Africa, forced recruitment and the use of child soldiers was common during regional wars that raged throughout the late 1990s until 2003. The Liberian warlord Charles Taylor even created a special "Small Boys Unit" for his child fighters.

But the clear-eyed young boys now being held in a government prison in Chad's capital are along way from the drugged-up youngsters that Mr. Taylor recruited. Some insist they joined the rebellion because members of the president's tribe stole livestock from their families. Others, like Zakariah Bashir Ibrahim, say they were tricked into coming to the front.

The 14-year-old Sudanese boy is one of at least three child rebel fighters currently being held in one of many fetid prison cells in Chad's capital, surrounded by men twice their age. He says he was forced to fight with hundreds of Chadian rebels who two weeks ago fought their way from eastern Chad more than 500 miles to the capital, where many were killed or repelled by forces loyal to Chad's government. Around 235 fighters, including Zakariah, were captured.

Squatting shyly at the feet of a Chadian soldier, he says he was abducted from Sudantwo months agoby a Chadian national and forced to undergo training. Unlike other child soldiers, he was not issued a weapon but instructed to ride on the back of a pickup truck with a machine gun mounted on the roof. "They invited me to dinner and then took me away," he says quietly. "They didn't tell me the truth.... My family doesn't know where I am."

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