The first time I visited Chad in February last year, I picked the wrong weekend. It was the weekend that the rebels reached N’djamena. The day had started normally enough – breakfast of dry pastries in the terrace restaurant overlooking the river Chari which snakes past the hotel. But by midmorning, a rebel column of 300 vehicles was 30km from the capital, and closing fast, and we were planning our escape on a crackly line to London. Across the river? A quick rush to the US embassy? Or a dash to the nearby airport to wait for the last Air France flight. If it came. The airport had been secured by the French, and as we plotted our next move, we had an excellent view of the French fighter jets coming and going.
We watched them with some interest. If they intervened on behalf of President Deby’s government, it would change things in Chad completely. The international European force (EUFOR), mandated to protect aid workers, refugees and those displaced and affected by the intractable war in the east, had been starting to deploy when the rebels attacked.
Eastern Chad is a bad place to be a civilian. Rebel groups criss cross the region in what has become a proxy war between Chad and Sudan. Ethnic tensions run deep, and have been a key factor in the conflict. The Chadian army – ill-equipped and ill-disciplined – is deployed along the frontier, and in this militarised zone, government administration and service provision is non-existent. 250,000 refugees from Darfur huddle in refugee camps in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. Alongside them, some 180,000 displaced Chadians are gathered in makeshift camps. The pressure on natural resources is intense, fuelling tensions between local Chadians and the incomers.
It's also a tough place to do humanitarian work. With little in the way of rule of law, armed bandits act with impunity. Some humanitarian personnel have lost their lives, and often, agencies cannot reach the most vulnerable people, those who have been displaced by conflict several times, who are living in fear of rape and robbery by militias, and who are cut off from their livelihoods. In this very difficult environment, we support agencies bringing relief to these people. It is my job to see to it that UK aid is delivered effectively to those who need it most. More on what my job involves in my next posting.
In the hotel, the fighting grew closer. French soldiers arrived. I had got onto chatting terms with the lady who swept the hotel corridors. She was unfazed, and with a very Gallic shrug-of-the-shoulders, she said ‘We are Chadians; we are used to it’. In the end, we dashed for the airport. The street had been abuzz with pick-up trucks bristling with government troops brandishing rocket launchers, but was now eerily quiet, like a Sunday in suburban London. We caught the last flight out. It proved to have been a good move, as our hotel, so close to the Presidential Palace, came in for its share of small arms fire. In a 6-minute YouTube clip posted by the Stop Genocide Now campaign from 12 hours after we left, I was astonished to see French troops in position outside my room. The remaining guests were huddled in the dark in the kitchen, where the cook was continuing to make omelettes.