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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 May 2006, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Making space for Darfur's victims
Tim Whewell has been to the small town of Goz Beida in desperately poor eastern Chad, where many of the homeless victims of the Darfur conflict have ended up.

After 30 generations, I felt I had to intervene...

Darfur refugees in Chad
Many thousands of refugees in Chad are in need of relief supplies
Rial, son of Abdoulaye, preceded by Abdoulaye, son of Samra, preceded by Samra, son of Sourour.

On and on scratched the Sultan's biro across the dusty pages of my notebook, painstakingly transliterating the Arabic from the ancient leather-bound ledger cradled by his secretary.

Sourour, son of Kardam, preceded by Kardam son of Aboudiss, preceded by Aboudiss, son of Khafan.

The family tree of the Sultans of Dar Sila.

Well, I had asked - the foolish small-talk you attempt with social superiors.

"Have you been here long?" I realised afterwards I had put the same question a week before to the understatedly posh lady in the plastic rain-scarf who took 3 ($5) to let me go round the garden of her manor house in Somerset.

"Only since the 1100s," she said, and moved decisively to serve the next customer. Half self-mockery, half put-down.

Impassive faces

But in Chad, the same question gets a very different response.

Khafan, son of Khoudaa, preceded by Khoudaa, son of Masrouk, preceded by Masrouk, son of Ahmat al-Hadjam.

I had asked, so I must want to know.

And in a way, it was restful, sitting under the mango tree in the courtyard of the Sultan's crumbling mud-brick palace, the impassive faces of his followers swathed in voluminous white turbans as they sat cross-legged on a carpet in the corner.

The Sultan scratched on, and you could almost forget the 47C heat pressing unforgivingly on all sides.

Forget the precariousness of life all around - the war spreading over the border from Darfur, the thousands of homeless crouching in flimsy straw shelters in a barren valley just down the track, refugees in their own country.

Forget the bandaged villagers in the little local hospital shot by horsemen who appeared out of the dawn to steal their cattle.

Were we back to the arrival of the first European traders on the coast? To the coming of Islam?
Because amid the insecurity, the Sultan's pen was spelling permanence.

My growing impatience showed I had not understood. I wanted movement in the picture. What century was the 30th generation?

Were we back to the arrival of the first European traders on the coast? To the coming of Islam?

I got no answer.

Here in the remotest interior of northern central Africa, where the Sahara merges with scrub in an endless dun expanse of thorn trees, dust and criss-crossing tracks, my reference points had no meaning.

But it turns out there was movement in the history of Dar Sila. Across continents.

"We spent 273 years in Yemen," said the Sultan, with unexpected precision, drawing lines with a stick in the sand. "Then we lived for a while in southern Sudan."

So Dar Sila was not a place at all. It was a collection of tribes who happen, currently, to be occupying 26,000 sq km of what is now eastern Chad. Not so permanent after all.

Fertile land

That evening the band of foreign aid workers I was staying with sat talking on the veranda of their tiny guest-house on the other side of the Sultan's straw-hutted capital.

They wanted to split up the refugees in the valley. It was fertile land that should be planted in the upcoming rainy season, and besides, with so many people in one place, wells could run dry.

So the aid agencies had been touring villages slightly further away, trying to persuade each to host a proportion of the new arrivals. To their amazement, it had been easy.

"Of course," locals said, "we're all one people - and there's plenty of land - let them come."

Janjaweed fighter on horseback in Darfur region, 25 April
The Janjaweed are accused of ethnic cleansing
Darfur is a desperately complicated conflict, and for a moment I could allow myself to believe what is happening now is what happened under Samra, son of Sourour, Abdoulaye, son of Samra - and the rest of the generations.

People move in search of land and water. They are attacked by other tribes.

How different are the horsemen we now call Janjaweed from the terrifying troops of Rabih az-Zubayr, the Sudanese war-lord and slave trader who conquered an empire in Chad before he was defeated and killed by the incoming French colonialists 106 years ago last month?

But the answer of course is that it is not the same.

The Janjaweed fight with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, not the spears and arrows still carried by the men of Dar Sila.

And the present Sultan, modest, thoughtful and deeply troubled, is obliged to take responsibility for running part of a threadbare, but supposedly modern state whose feckless official governor - the prefect - simply disappeared from the province the very moment it became a war zone.

"Nous sommes en deuil," the Sultan says in his careful French: "We are in mourning."

In the last six weeks, 10,000 more of his people have lost everything.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 May, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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