They came on camels and horses; some came in cars. Armed with bazookas and rocket launchers, M14 and AK-47 rifles, up to 500 Arab men, most wearing Sudanese army uniform, surrounded Djorlo, a village of 1,000 people in eastern Chad.
Many of the attackers were Sudanese, part of the Janjaweed militia who attacked black Africans in neighbouring Darfur. Now they had crossed the border and, along with Chadian Arabs, were bringing their scorched earth policy to Chad.
Within moments, thatch-roofed homes were ablaze as artillery normally used to fight armies was turned on defenceless villagers. In the mayhem and murder that followed, men and women, young and old, ran for their lives. Seven babies, caught in a simple mud hut with a roof made of straw, were burnt to death.
As the villagers, members of the black African Dadjo tribe, fled, their attackers shouted: "This is our land now. This will become the second republic of Sudan."
What started three years ago in Darfur is now spreading at a frightening rate into neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR), threatening to engulf the entire region. Chad said yesterday it was sending troops to CAR to combat cross-border rebel groups, which Chad and CAR claim are backed by Sudan.
Efforts to bring peace and UN peacekeepers to Darfur have stalled while the Sudanese government continues to argue over troop numbers and command. Tony Blair hailed the most recent attempt, led by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, in Addis Ababa on Thursday, as a "breakthrough" but key details remain to be hammered out.
After the initial Janjaweed attacks in Darfur, Sudanese Arabs crossed the border and incited local Arabs, according to survivors of the attack on Djorlo. In the past 12 months, the Janjaweed have crossed into Chad regularly, bringing weapons and Sudanese army uniforms for Chadian Arabs.
Witnesses to the assault on Djorlo and another village near by, Tamadjour, said some of their attackers were neighbours. Local Arabs directed the Sudanese attackers to the homes of businessmen they knew would have more belongings worth stealing.
At least 23 villages in eastern Chad have been attacked since 4 November, while a further 20 have been abandoned by residents fearing attack. A protection officer for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, described the assaults as a "land grab".
"It is an orchestrated attack," she said. "There is a strategy behind it. Once the villages have been burnt and destroyed they do not move on. They are staying there."
Many survivors are in the village of Goz Beida, 15 miles west of Djorlo and Tamadjour. It is supposed to be home to 8,000 people and has limited water supplies; 15,000 displaced people arrived after the first wave of Janjaweed-inspired attacks in eastern Chad in March.
With thousands more arriving in the past two weeks, relief agencies are struggling to cope. New arrivals are living under small trees which offer little protection from the sun. At night, the temperature plummets but there are few blankets.Reuse content