Caught in a rebel offensive in eastern Chad

June 25, 2008

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.


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My husband was north of N’djamena during this time period building a hospital for Cutting Edge Foundation and was in the city during the coup in February. I write a lot about what he does and the dangers in Chad, but I must say of all the articles and pictures I’ve seen, this is the absolute best. The man who wrote it really paints an accurate picture with words. Bravo.

I spent five years in Chad and and I agree with the comment posted by Karen. This story is the most acuerent that I have read.

Posted by Anthony Mosteller | Report as abusive

Phrases like “best pictures” and “Bravo” just seem inappropriate and out of context for situations like this. I thought “heart wrenching, sad, unfathomable in our world, why”. I felt glad that the person writing the story was alive to do so.

Posted by kscott | Report as abusive

Good Work Finbarr, Nice to have had you hear. Best of luck

Posted by Capt Dave Slattery | Report as abusive

Great photography and great story.

a good yet sad story,and it could be all told by one sentence“C’est la musique Chadienne”.as somali I know and been through violence.and I have nothing to say but pray for better days for all my chadian brothers.

Posted by Guled | Report as abusive

Great job, Finbarr, your writing reflect the reality, We need people like you to show what is really going on here. Thanks and best luck

Posted by lanick | Report as abusive

Good pictures for such adventurous assignment

This is a harrowing story and beautiful photos. I appreciate the courage and tenacity required to show us this part of the world. Good luck with this important work, and thank you.

Posted by Wendy Conquest | Report as abusive

Good to have you back on the blog after a long absence…The writing captured my attention and kicked the mind into imagination-mode becuase of the vivid desciption and the excellent pictures to go along with it. Keep up the good work Finbarr.

Posted by Diana Ngila | Report as abusive

your pictures moved me from Midwest, USA to Chad and the surrounding heart is broken..i am moved to action

Posted by teresa hans | Report as abusive

Exactly a year ago I commenced 6 months with MSF in Kerfi south of Goz beida, surrounded by overflowing wadis treating and feeding refugees and townspeople. We were blessed with a relatively peaceful time, reading these reports I am back there with you as you negotiate the fears. It’s always the young men, aimless, angry, drunk, who can be convinced to fight anyone for anything. I saw the power that toyota pickups and rpg’s bestow…I have my leather amulets that I received in Chad while I worked there and I hold them as I think of the desperate poverty of those proud people, nomads, arab and settled who had nothing and were slowly accepting our help. Now I see the victims-my patients- in my mind, mostly women and children being abandoned as we too have to abandon our posts. I just heard ‘my’ clinic was attacked and the staff and patients beaten.

Posted by John B Fiddler | Report as abusive