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.