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Evacuees Slowly Returning to Chad


We go now to Chad, a country that for years has been absorbing the spillover of misery from its neighbor Sudan as thousands of refugees cross from Darfur into Chad. Last week, it was rebels who rode in from Sudan, armed with machine guns mounted on their jeeps. The fighting nearly toppled Chad's government and set its civilians streaming out of the country.

We're joined by Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times. She's one of the few Western reporters to make it to N'Djamena, Chad's capital. Welcome.


Ms. LYDIA POLGREEN (Reporter, New York Times): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, Chad's president, Idriss Deby, has declared that his government has regained total control of the country. Is that true?

Ms. POLGREEN: Well, it's really impossible to say. Chad and Sudan share a really porous border. These rebels have been based in Sudan for several years, and they've been able to come and go pretty much as they please. So it's possible that they are still inside Chadian territory or they may have fled into Sudan. But at this point both the Chadian military and French military officials are saying that they're quite far from the capital, and possibly already in Sudan.

MONTAGNE: Remind us briefly who these rebels are.

Ms. POLGREEN: It's really a little bit of a motley crew. It's three rebel groups that are divided along ethnic lines. And the Chadian authorities say that these are really opportunists - people who are trying to overthrow the government in order to take power themselves. They claim that they want to restore democracy in Chad, but most of them have connections to previous authoritarian regimes. And most human rights analysts and others who I've spoken to say that there's very little to think that - to make people think that these guys would be any better than the government that's already in place in Chad.


MONTAGNE: And why would Sudan be wanting to engineer the overthrow of the current government of Chad?

Ms. POLGREEN: The Sudanese rebels have often been based inside Chad and used Chad as a rear base for their operations in Darfur. So this is all very confusing, but there has been kind of a proxy war going on between Chad and Sudan using rebellions that each country has sponsored for quite some time.

MONTAGNE: And so that's left Chad now with tens of thousands of its people having fled south into neighboring Cameroon and Nigeria. Are fears of more rebel violence and possible another assault making them reluctant to return?

Ms. POLGREEN: People are starting to trickle back into the capital from Cameroon today. Obviously, they're afraid of renewed violence. The larger issue is that there are 2.5 million refugees and displaced people living along the border between Chad and Sudan. And any increase in tensions between the two countries could have serious humanitarian consequences.

MONTAGNE: And beyond those humanitarian consequences, could this crisis in Chad worsen, in some sense, the conflict in Sudan?

Ms. POLGREEN: Oh, absolutely. And I think that the two conflicts at this point are essentially inseparable. They're very much intertwined with one another, and the fate of one is going to be determined by the fate of the other.

We also shouldn't forget that there's a lot of political opposition here within Chad itself. This is not just about Darfur. The Chadian government has rounded up a number of opposition politicians. And human rights advocates are really worried that these people could be tortured or killed. There's been a long history of extrajudicial killings of opponents of various regimes in Chad. So that situation is being watched very closely.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.

Ms. POLGREEN: It's my pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Lydia Polgreen is the West Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, and she spoke to us from N'Djamena, the capital of Chad.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.