When Darfuri refugees started streaming across the border into Chad four years ago, fleeing a civil war that has killed 200,000 and displaced 2.5 million, many Chadians opened their arms in welcome.
Al-Hajj Saboor Arta Bakit took one step further. He gave the refugees some of his land to raise their own crops. This step has earned him some local respect, some derision, and three separate stints in the local jail. But Mr. Bakit says he was only acting on the urging of his heart.
"When the refugees arrived here, they didn't have clothes, didn't have shoes, they were hungry, and when I saw them, I cried," says Bakit, brushing away dry animal dung from a shady spot under an acacia tree before sitting down. "I don't have money to give, but I do have lots of land. I don't want money for it, I don't want thanks from government. I just want thanks from God."
Not only does Bakit's gift provide 160 Sudanese families with the chance to become self-sufficient by growing their own food, it also builds a crucial bridge between Chadians and Sudanese refugees whose welcome may be wearing thin. Despite sharing the same languages, the same religion, and in some cases the same relatives, the addition of some 57,000 refugees to the local population of 60,000 has doubled the burden on water and land resources.
With the Darfur crisis going into its fifth year with no signs of resolution, Emmanuel Uwurukundo, head of operations for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in this eastern Chadian border town says that Bakit's actions could be a kind of model for a longer-term solution to ease tensions between local people and refugees.
"The donor nations will never continue to fund these programs indefinitely, so making the refugees more self-reliant means that refugees should have a kind of dignity. Refugees are not beggars," says Mr. Uwurukundo. "It's important that we find ways to put together the local population with refugees to work together and share resources."
Bridges between locals and refugees
Aid officials like Uwurukundo admit that few farmers will emulate Bakit in giving away their land. But they hope that Bakit and Sudanese refugees will be able to encourage local farmers to find other ways to integrate Sudanese farmers into the local economy, with the Sudanese refugees sharing their skills, and Chadians sharing some of their land.
When international aid is measured in billions, the generosity of a few acres of land by a small farmer like Bakit may seem like small change. But in a harsh arid region, where plots of arable land are precious and often separated by dozens of miles of rocky desert, Bakit's gift is breathtaking and powerful.
Aid workers say they are concerned that foreign assistance for the displaced Darfuris could cause resentment among the native Chadians, an advantage that is sometimes perceived as favoritism. Bakit says Chadians would only gain if Darfur farmers succeed.
Farming in both Darfur and Eastern Chad is a very low-tech business. In both places, it's a matter of waiting for the rains to come in early July before shoving seeds into the wet desert floor, one at a time, with a thumb.
But the farmers of Darfur have slightly more water, slightly longer growing seasons, and have accumulated more techniques for farming, such as the use of animals for pulling plows, carrying water from nearby streams, and so on. Because of their added experience, Bakit believes that Darfuris have a lot of knowledge they can share with their relatively less developed brethren in Chad.
"When I go to the mosque, I tell people to give land to the refugees; they have experience in growing crops that we don't have," says Bakit. "In the mosque, most keep silent, some say yes, but I'm sure, if you dig for water here, and these refugees start to grow crops in the dry season, people will start to give their land to the refugees too. They are waiting to see what happens first."
The terms of Bakit's gift – he told the farmers they could use the land as long as they need it – come with major risks. Sudanese refugees from Darfur belong to the same Zaghawa tribe that live in and around Iriba, and they could easily blend with the local population, staying on Bakit's land forever. It is for this reason, and also because of tree-chopping by refugee farmers on Bakit's farmland, that Bakit's neighbors have become disgruntled. Chadian forestry authorities in Iriba arrested Bakit three times, fining him the princely sum of $240 on charges of deforestation.
"Other people don't like what I'm doing, but that doesn't concern me," says Bakit. "It's my land. Let them take me to the police station. I fear only God."
For Sudanese refugees, the offer of land from a Chadian farmer like Bakit is a rare glimpse of hope after four years of near-despair. Many Darfuris see the Darfur Peace Agreement hammered out in Abuja in June 2006 as a disappointment, since only one of the three main rebel groups – the Sudanese Liberation Movement of Minni Minawi – signed the cease-fire with the Sudanese government in Khartoum.
Bakit's personal empathy
"Al-Hajj is an unusual man, but he's a human being, and his context is very different from other Chadians," says Uwurukundo, referring to Bakit.
The Chadian farmer is generous to Sudanese refugees, the UNHCR chief says, because Bakit himself once had to flee his native Chad to Sudan at a time when there was fighting in Chad and peace in neighboring Darfur. When peace came to Chad, Bakit returned, and as a witness to thousands of Darfuri refugees coming to his town, "he sees himself in that context," says Uwurukundo, and wants to give back at least some part of the generosity that he received from Darfuris. "He himself was a soldier who fled to Chad as a refugee, so when he sees these refugees, he sees himself in that context."
Fighting between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels has slackened, but the remaining antigovernment rebel factions have now become so fractured, with 18 splinter groups fighting each other and attacking humanitarian aid groups, that Darfur is as dangerous today as it was when the war began four years ago.
This means that refugees like Haroom Omar, an elderly Sudanese from the Darfur town of Kornoi, must make their future here in Chad, at least for the time being.
"One day, [Bakit] came into our camp and told us, 'I have land, you are poor, you can use this land until you go, or if you stay here, you can keep farming it,'" recalls Mr. Omar, who supports his three wives and 16 children by farming peanuts, okra, sorghum, tomatoes, and watermelon during the three month rainy season that starts in mid-July. "This man is totally different from the other Chadians. Because of us, the government has put him in jail three times."
Baharaddin Ali, a Sudanese refugee from the Darfur town of Kornoi, is another of the 160 farming families to take up Bakit's offer.
Like Mr. Omar, he grows crops during the rainy season, selling what his family of two wives and nine children don't eat. He is grateful for the use of the land, but there is no question that he would rather be back home in Sudan, if there was a cessation of fighting and banditry there. "If the rains are good here, the farming is also good. But the water supply is much better in Darfur. This is a hard place to farm."
"This man's idea is different from the other people," says Haroon Ibra Diar, vice president of the refugee committee at the refugee camp of Touloum, where most of Bakit's farming refugees have come from. "If we had help from international organizations, to bring water pumps, we could farm more land during the dry season."
He looks around him at the barren dust that the refugees will start farming when the rains come in mid-July. "All this land that you see right now would be green with crops."