Chief Abbas Mansour Ibrahim, 72

I was born here and I still live here. I was very young when I became the Chief. My father died when I was 18 and I have been chief of this area ever since. I have seen a lot of change in those years.

In the beginning, I was almost alone in the village. Then, families began to come here one by one, until it became a big city. The others came here from the other cantons – from Bali, Lima, all these people came, and all came to me. I found a site for each and every family that came, I marked the boundaries and it was like this that Birak grew.

I have seen a lot of changes but none marked me as much as the drought in 1972-4. It was devastating. Crops, livestock devastated. Many died. People left to find somewhere where they could survive, but where other families went to other places, I was obliged to stay and talk to the government to try and find a way thru the crisis for those in my canton. That was a time that really marked me.

Another time, the same event, the drought of 1984. Again, people fled to other places and again, I stayed and went to the government to get help. With their help I was able to open a center of nutrition here. That is how we came through that terrible time. As such, a lot of other cantons at that time sent their people here rather than abroad, so Birak kept growing.

Back then, in the 60’s, this had been the center of gum arabic production. But then the market dried up and this left a big shop in the market, empty. I decided to use the building, to turn it into a school. I raised money myself, transformed the building and stocked it with school supplies. I also built a mosque for the town. I did all this with my own efforts.

My motivation in doing this is that this is the ground of my ancestors, this is where they come from, and while I was very young when I became chief, I never wanted to disrespect this. My whole family is here, they have always been here and I won’t let them down. Although most have gone to bigger cities, like Guereda, I have always and will always stay with my community. I have stayed here from the beginning of the republic ( Independence from France was in 1960) until now. The only period of time I left was during the period of movement of rebels from the north, against then President Tombalbaye. During this time, when their leader Hissene Habre founded his rebellion near here, I had to go to Guereda. That is the only time I have not been here. When Habre took power – in 1978 he became Prime minister, then I came back here to stay with my community.

But when Habre was overthrown by Idriss Deby (in 1990), I stayed on here.

As here we are so close to the Sudan frontier, when the Darfur war began, there was a massive influx of refugees. They were accommodated near Figera, then we contacted the government in Guereda, who contacted the government in N’djamena. They called the UNHCR, who transported them to camps.

Then, again, in 2007 there was another big influx. There were refugees all over this zone – Figera again, but all over this area. Again, I called the UNHCR to get them helped into the camps.

The big influx of refugees brought a lot of problems. It began with the stealing of animals. There was a lot of looting too in the village. It was a difficult time. Understandably, the community was not happy – there were a lot of problems, until I intervened and told the community that they needed to try and understand the situation of the refugees and be patient. I calmed the situation and the relations between our community and the refugees improved.

Now however, our problem is that the government no longer has control of this area. The 2006 peace accords signed between N’djamena and Sudan were not well respected. The government failed to really take control of the situation. The consequence of this now is that the government doesn’t control this area.

As a result, we have no security. Our security is in the hands of god. Until recently, despite the absence of government, it was relatively calm. However, that has now changed. First in June and now in July too, there has been a serious upsurge of insecurity. There have been a lot of hold-ups, people killed by heavily armed bandits.

I think there is a link with JEM [Justice and Equality Movement, the Sudanese rebel group]. Just on Friday at the market, there was trouble. Some bandits arrived on horseback, they shot 2 people, killed 4 horses , and broke the legs of one woman. They stole all my animals too. It is just getting worse and worse.