Where was Hawa Mamhat Dijme's husband? I asked her one hot day in late June at her earthen hut in the Iridimi refugee camp in eastern Chad. Iridimi, with some 18,000 refugees, is one of a dozen large U.N.-administered camps that have housed around 250,000 Darfuri refugees since 2004.
On the day of my visit, Dijme's clan was all in attendance: her three children and her grown niece and sister and their own children -- around a dozen in all. But no men.
So where was her husband -- or for that matter any of the women's husbands? It might seem an impertinent question for a Western journalist visiting remote, conservative Central Africa, but it's also an important question for American taxpayers.
Hundreds of millions of American dollars -- at least $600 million so far from the U.S. State Department plus additional (and untracked) money donated by individuals -- make up the biggest source of income for the U.N. agencies and private aid groups that feed, clothe and protect Darfuri refugees fleeing the civil war in their native Sudan. European agencies and donors also have ponied up hundreds of millions of dollars. Food aid alone for Darfuri refugees totaled $240 million last year.
The U.N. says that the war shows no signs of ending anytime soon and that more aid will be needed. But based on conversations with sources at Iridimi and elsewhere in eastern Chad, it's possible that the largely Western-funded humanitarian effort to "save Darfur" is actually prolonging the conflict by providing a safe haven in Chad for the rebel groups fighting Khartoum and its janjaweed militia proxies. The rebels have become so empowered that they declined to attend Libyan-sponsored, U.S.-supported peace talks last year.
So where was Dijme's husband? I asked because I'd been told that many Darfuri men living in the U.N.'s refugee camps actually spend most of their in time Sudan. Some are just working or tending herds. But others return frequently to Darfur to continue the fight that has raged for five years and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. To the latter, the refugee camps -- and the growing international force whose job it is to protect the camps -- are a godsend.
Rebel fighters can charge into battle knowing their families are safe, well-fed, looked after by Western doctors, and guarded by a mixed brigade of French, Swedish, Polish and Irish troops called "EUFOR." And if they survive the fighting, the men can return to these safe havens to rest, eat, and, if their groups' ranks are depleted, recruit and forcibly enlist new fighters, often children.
"He's in Sudan working," Dijme told me, through an interpreter, the first time I asked about her husband. The second time, just minutes later, she changed her mind. "He's here in the camp," she said.
I never got a straight answer. But I never expected one. In Central Africa's murky, overlapping civil conflicts -- pitting rebels, government-backed militias, uniformed armies, apolitical bandit groups, former colonial troops and European peacekeepers against each other in Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic -- it's hard to get straight answers about anything.
But one thing's clear. The war here is only escalating, spilling across borders between the three countries, and claiming more lives and the innocence of more and more children pressed into the fighting.
The solider was tired of the food. It was hard to blame him. For weeks a platoon of Irish soldiers had lived in North Star Camp, a new EUFOR base near Iridimi that houses mostly Polish troops. With Chad's natural resources strained to the breaking point by the massive influx of refugees, EUFOR was trying to keep its own logistical needs to a minimum. That frequently meant eating years-old Polish combat rations. The tins of processed meat grow gummy in the heat and tend to clog up the digestive system.
But it wasn't the food that put the frown on the face of this Irish soldier, who asked not to be identified because his views are highly critical of EUFOR. It was the E.U. force's mission.
EUFOR has a U.N. mandate to protect refugees and aid workers. "There hasn't been an attack on a refugee camp in two years," the soldier insisted. He was right. But there have been assaults on aid workers, most of which are attributed to bandits rather than rebel armies.
"What the aid groups want is EUFOR troops standing guard outside their doors at night," the soldier complained. That's just not possible, he said, because, with only 1,200 combat troops in an area the size of Texas, EUFOR is stretched thin. There are far more aid workers than there are soldiers.
Still, EUFOR rides out in its armored vehicles, shows the flag around the big refugee camps, and flies its helicopters overhead. EUFOR might not be able to give the aid workers the kind of close-in security they want, but all the same there's a deterrent effect. EUFOR officials say Western troops should help keep Sudan-based, pro-Khartoum fighters from operating around the camps.
But that doesn't mean that Chad-based, anti-Khartoum rebel groups will be deterred. These groups blend in with eastern Chad and western Sudan's civilian and refugee populations, both of which draw heavily from the Zaghawa ethnic group. Zaghawas are pretty much above the law in eastern Chad and western Sudan. They go where they please, when they please. They cross border with impunity. Some say they commit crimes without fear of repercussion.
Indeed, in camps like Iridimi, Zaghawas commit one of the most heinous crimes of all -- recruiting children to fight the war in Darfur against the Sudanese government. It's a crime that occurs at night, when the aid workers are bunkered in their compounds outside town. It's a crime that everyone knows happens but few will discuss openly. But aid workers will talk about it off the record, and high-ranking U.N. officials allude to it without naming it explicitly. And it's a crime that some say the E.U. cordon around the U.N. camps helps make possible. The more secure the camps are, the better they are as bases and recruiting pools for the Darfuri rebels, according to the Irish soldier.
In Serge Male's air-conditioned office in the capital of N'Djamena, in western Chad, it's easy to buy into his cheery optimism that contrasts starkly with the Irish soldier's foul mood. Here, the camps -- and Darfur -- seem far away. A consummate Frenchman, Male, the Chad-based representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, first smokes a cigarette then sits on a soft leather sofa to discuss the camps. "I don't say there are not any problems," he says. "There are some problems. But there are not very many problems."
"About the non-respect of civilian and nonmilitary nature of the camps," he continues, using U.N. code for rebel activity, "especially as this is linked to the recruitment of people [either] enforced or even voluntary -- it is completely unacceptable to UNHCR. [But] it has happened, it continues to happen and it will continue to happen." U.N. efforts to "educate" the camp population against recruitment "proved to be insufficient," he says.
So what's Male's solution? Ironically, it's EUFOR, the very force that, according to some, facilitates the rebel presence inside the refugee camps. "Our expectation and hope now is that with the deployment of EUFOR ... we will have more capacity to give more sustainable, more reliable solutions to this kind of problem."
In other words, the secure space that EUFOR provides will allow the U.N. to redouble its efforts to break the rebels' hold on the camps.
Male is aware of the risks. He says it's especially chancy relying on refugee informants to tip off the U.N. about rebel activity in the camps. If the informants are caught, they could be hurt or killed and no more informants would volunteer.
"We want to do everything we can," he says, unintentionally echoing the good intentions that drive Americans to continue donating to potentially self-defeating "Save Darfur" campaigns.
"But we know," Male says, "we can do more harm than good."