Caught in a rebel offensive in eastern Chad
GOZ-BEIDA, Chad – Harsh light and shifting shadows in the windblown desert of eastern Chad can conjure strange images, but this was no mirage. Lurking in the shade of a thorn tree was the dark outline of a pick-up truck carrying a dozen men brandishing weapons. Ruled by the gun, this lawless corner of Africa borders Sudan and has inherited the violent power struggles from neighbouring Darfur. The shapes under the tree spelled trouble. I quickly ordered the driver of our battered Suzuki Samurai to U-turn, but as we accelerated away, kicking up sand, the sharp “crack-crack-crack” of gunshots split the air
We stopped and seconds later hordes of sweaty gunmen swathed in turbans and “magical” leather amulets swarmed us, shouting and shoving their weapons in our faces, pulling us roughly from the car while banging their fists on the roof. Grabbing our driver’s mobile phone, documents and cigarettes, and a satellite phone belonging to my travelling partner, an American human rights researcher, the gunmen ordered us to follow them back into the desert.
We’d set out from town that morning to interview far-flung civilians displaced by years of conflict stemming from Darfur and now destabilising both Chad and Sudan. The two oil-producing rivals accuse each other of backing rebels trying to topple their respective governments. There are 250,000 Sudanese refugees in a dozen camps in eastern Chad and 180,000 displaced Chadians, the U.N. says.
Rampant banditry plus ethnic and tribal animosity fuelled by competition for scarce water and arable land mean few can return home.
Most depend on aid handouts, but some 80 aid vehicles have been stolen at gunpoint in the area. In May a French aid worker was shot and killed at the roadside by unknown assailants.
Many raids are blamed on “Janjaweed,” Arab militiamen who roam the borderlands on horseback, raping and pillaging.
These gunmen were too many and too heavily armed to be Janjaweed. They rode 100 or so “technicals”, mud-smeared Toyota pick-ups lacking windscreens, their roofs cut off and replaced by heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons and artillery.
Each battle wagon carried up to a dozen rag-tag fighters armed with AK-47s or Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) launchers.
Fingers on triggers and itching for a fight, this was one of the feared rebel columns that for several days had roamed Chad’s eastern wilds, threatening to ride westward on the capital N’Djamena, 700 km (450 miles) away.
The rebels made such a lighting strike in February. They besieged Chadian President Idriss Deby’s palace during days of heavy street battles, but they failed to topple the government.
Now they were launching a series of destabilising raids before the rains swelled rivers and blocked their movements.
Fearing imprisonment or worse, I said I was a journalist, held up my cameras and gestured I wanted to take their picture.
Even a dust-covered rebel knows the value of good publicity. The hostility evaporated and rebels posed with their weapons.
Then the battle cry went out and the cheering rebels roared off to attack the nearby town where we were based.
Within minutes, we heard explosions and heavy gunfire and black smoke rose above Goz Beida, a sandy town ringed by hills and camps housing tens of thousands of refugees.
Terrified aid workers hid inside their compounds as rebels smashed down doors and stormed over walls.
At Concern, rebels burst in, hijacked several vehicles, looted personal belongings — and raided the fridge.
One wild-eyed rebel burst into a room where aid workers were cowering. He clutched a beer in one hand and a stolen electric iron in the other, his rifle slung over his shoulder.
He handed over the iron, saying it was no use in the desert, apologized for interrupting their game of Scrabble and politely asked for a can of Coke from the table, saying: “I’m thirsty”.
The rebels ransacked the town. Two people, a civilian and a government soldier, were killed and dozens were injured by stray bullets and shrapnel during two hours of fighting. At the Oxfam compound where we were staying an RPG blew a hole through an office wall.
Irish European Union troops deployed to protect a nearby refugee camp, but came under fire and shot back. Four unexploded RPGs landed inside the camp, including one in a school.
After the rebels left town with their loot, we began inching back there through the bush, until EU troops sent word that angry Chadian warplanes were looking for targets to bomb.
We abandoned the car and set off on foot, nervously scanning the sky. Taking shelter in a riverbed, we waited for EU troops to pick us up using GPS coordinates sent by satellite phone.
Fighting shifted for another week from one remote outpost to another before the rebels slipped back across the border.
On my last night in eastern Chad, shooting erupted outside the house and continued for 30 minutes. A stray bullet crashed
through the ceiling and landed a few feet away.
In the morning, a kitchen worker was asked if the shooting had scared her. She just laughed.
“C’est la musique Chadienne” — It’s Chadian music, the local soundtrack by which people too often live their lives.