Death, Darkness and the Deserters
From the archives, a harrowing tale of African desert warfare from June 2008
It started with singing.
I was in my sweltering hovel at a guest house in Abeche in eastern Chad on a Friday evening when I heard the women’s voices harmonizing. My photographer Anne bustled over. “Do you hear it? I think it’s a wedding.”
We hopped the fence, audio recorders in hand, hoping to capture the sound for our radio reports. But the singing had ended. Anne pointed out that, at traditional weddings in some part of Africa, the women greet the bride and groom with a brief song. We’d apparently arrived a moment too late.
When I hear the first pop-pop-pop sound, I figured it was from fireworks at the wedding. But Anne said it was gunfire. Sure enough, the next sound, closer this time, was the deep booda-booda of a machine gun. Something was happening, and coming our way.
What was it? The EUFOR European peacekeeping force, the Chadian army, the U.N. – they all said the same thing, that the three-week-old rebel uprising against corrupt Chadian president Idriss Deby was over, the rebels were back in Sudan, eastern Chad was returning to normal.
But this sounded like a rebel attack.
The gunfire was just outside our compound. Red traces arced overhead. I grabbed my still camera and video camera and joined Anne in her room. Then I realized I had forgotten the battery for my video camera. As I raced across the courtyard back to my room, two dark shapes appeared at my side: young men, dressed in camouflage, toting AK-47s. “Ca va?” I asked. What’s up?
Now I could see the whites of their eyes. They were scared. One of them was pleading for something, but I couldn’t understand his rushed French. He plucked at my clothes. He wanted them.
I don’t argue with freaked-out dudes with guns, but I wasn’t about to strip naked. I led the young men into my room and dug out a shirt and a pair of jeans. I flipped on my camera as the one soldier, breathing hard, tugged off his uniform and pulled on my clothes. They didn’t fit – he was as thin as a rail – but he was almost pathetically grateful. It occurred to me that the guy and his friend were army deserters, fleeing the fighting.
I grabbed my battery and hurried back to Anne. I figured the deserters would disappear, find someplace to hide, but one of them pushed inside Anne’s room behind me. He was carrying two AK-47s and begged us to let him hide them in Anne’s bathroom. We said, “Non.” He cradled the weapons and shuffled out.
The sounds of shooting moved down the street. “Come on,” I told Anne. I climbed atop a shed and glimpsed soldiers moving in the light of a few streetlamps. But the view was terrible. I needed to be out there.
But Anne couldn’t take photos in the dark. She didn’t want to come. Earlier I had promised her I would never let her out of my sight: I was about to break that promise. I climbed the fence. “Good luck,” she said. Later I learned she spent three hours in her room, terrified and worried, as fighting raged around her. It wasn’t her worst night ever, but it made the short list.
I moved along a wall towards a broad intersection where I could hear machine guns chattering away. Army trucks – “technicals” with machine guns on their hoods – roared past. Each time one did, I dove behind a bush or a heap of garbage. In Chad, the army is as dangerous as the rebel groups, if not more so, and the last thing I wanted was a run-in with a truckload of power-mad soldiers.
The gunfire picked up. I ducked into a small courtyard and took cover behind a wall. Someone hissed at me. “Tu ne peux pas rester ici.” Get out.
“Desole,” I said and crawled back onto the street. I cowered there for a moment. Then I saw it: a figure, climbing over the wall of a nearby army compound (I could hear a tank engine rumbling inside). The soldier dropped onto the street and ran towards me. “Ca va?” I said.
His name was Ahmed. He asked me what the Hell I was doing out there. I said I was a journalist and showed him my cameras. He asked where I wanted to go, and I pointed in the direction of the gunfire. He said, “Venez.”
We were intercepted by two technicals. A soldier in the first technical demanded to see my press credentials. As I reached for my badge, I mulled running away. There was almost no way an encounter with two technicals was going to end well: at the very least, they would seize my cameras. But another soldier in the back of the truck waved his hand impatiently. “Laissez,” he said. Let him go. We have more important things to do.
Sure, but what? We’d seen plenty of shooting and lots of soldiers, but no rebels. The constant gunfire told me that someone was trying to kill someone else, but it wasn’t clear who, whom or why. A rebel incursion was the obvious explanation, but if that were the case, why had everyone told me that the rebels were long gone? And how had they gotten all the way into Abeche past EUFOR and the Chadian army?
Ahmed and I ran. We ran so far that I got lost. He said if I bought him a pack of cigarettes, he’d show me the way back to my guesthouse. “Cigarettes? Mais, il est nuit.” Dude, it’s the middle of the night.
So I gave him two bucks instead so he could buy his own smokes tomorrow. He said he would show me a back way to the guesthouse. As we picked our way through narrow, garbage-strewn alleys, we came across two more soldiers – one of them no more than 12 years old. The kid had a hacking smoker’s cough. It was clear to me now that these three were deserters, just like the two men in my guesthouse. Every time an army patrol sauntered past, my “friends” hid in the shadows. During one close call, we hurled ourselves into a festering garbage dump. Perhaps figuring that a few turds wouldn’t make the place stink any worse, Ahmed and the older of the other two soldiers dropped their pants and defecated prodigiously.
We’d been moving, hiding, moving for more than an hour. I’d managed to record much of my conversation with Ahmed and take video of a young man, dressed in a mix of army fatigues and civilian clothes, bleeding and dying on the road. The stories were good, and worth the risk, but I guess I pushed too hard. When a pair of motorcycles zipped past, catching us in their headlights, Ahmed became suspicious. He asked why the motorcyclists would be looking for us. They weren’t, of course, but to the mind of a deserter, everyone is a potential narc. Ahmed said that somehow I had attracted the motorcycles.
Ahmed explained that they were traitors – no kidding – and that if I told anyone about them, “it would be bad.”
That’s when the three deserters surrounded me and began searching my pockets. Ahmed drew the biggest blade on my pocket knife. Another deserter tinkered with my beloved Nokia N95. I was about to get robbed, or maybe worse. But the foreplay lasted the better part of an hour. Every time I tried to edge away, the soldiers corralled me, accusing, threatening. It was very very dark out.
Things were only getting worse. I took back my Nokia on the pretense of showing them some of its many wonderful features. When a car drove past, the deserters hustled into the shadows. I sprinted in the opposite direction, my cameras shoved in my pants.
I ran. I navigated alleyways randomly until I hit a dead end. When I turned, Ahmed was running behind me with my knife in his hand. He ordered me to stop. I explained that I was just trying to avoid the car. He didn’t buy it. He approached.
So this was it. I was about to get stabbed by a 20-something Chadian deserter in a dirty courtyard in some place called Abeche. At least that’s what I’m thinking now, as I recall last night, but at the moment I never thought past the moment, and never considered the consequences of not escaping, even though flight was my solitary goal. It’s not too melodramatic to say that I was about to die. I knew it. I just didn’t feel it. I felt only the animal drive to flee.
I saw a light playing on a wall some ways down the road. Figuring that any other random group of Chadians was better than the one I was already with, I dashed past Ahmed. Approaching this other group, I began making loud dumb noises, calling out, “Ca va?” and laughing like I was some confused tourist, which deep down I guess I am.
They were soldiers, and not deserters. They were older than Ahmed and his buddies. I told them I’d gotten turned around and asked how to get to the guesthouse. They said they weren’t sure but pointed in the general direction. I said thanks and ran.
Another group of soldiers. It seemed they were out looking for bodies, but I can’t be sure. Again I asked about the guesthouse. They knew the street and offered to take me there – for $12. Why 12 and not 13 or 15 or 100, I’ll never know. I gladly paid up.
We found the street. We heard voices. We poked our heads over a short wall to ask them for directions … and the two young men inside recognized me. They had seen me at the guesthouse, which was next door, it turned out. They escorted me the short way home, and I offered some cash. One declined. The other accepted.
I hugged Anne. She was relieved, and angry. She had decided I was either dead or arrested. She told me to take a cold shower. I did. I thought I would vomit. I didn’t.
Two Chadian soldiers wandered onto the guesthouse compound, apparently looking to hide out until the fighting was over. Anne gave them water and made friends. I made sure she locked the door. All night, I lay awake on my bedroll on the floor, sweating from the intense heat and clammy from the after-effects of two hours on the edge. I listened to the soldiers trying to break into the vacant room next to ours, looking for loot or shelter, I don’t know.
In the morning everyone rolled their eyes and shrugged like last night was no big thing. “Welcome to Chad,” more than one person said. As we headed out for a scheduled lunchtime interview with EUFOR, the young soldier I had given my jeans to walked up with his father and asked for his uniform back. The guesthouse proprietor made him promise to return my jeans first, which he did. In the daylight I could see that the kid couldn’t have been older than 13, and that made me want to cry.
At EUFOR, over a delicious lunch of tuna salad and casserole, some kind of dreadful feeling surged from deep inside my stomach. It was all of last night catching up to me, I guess. I thought I might pass out. I took a bite of tuna. I sipped coffee. I listened to the polite conversation at the other end of the table. I thought hard about nothing, and I absolutely did not resolve to change.
The colonel at the EUFOR base told us that all the fighting was a huge misunderstanding. Chadian soldiers had captured some rebel trucks and were bringing them into Abeche when the city’s garrison opened fire. For two hours Chadian soldiers chased each other around town while the youngest troops stripped off their uniforms, hid their weapons and ran. At least one person died – and for what?