Independent reporting on human rights, environmental and conflict issues

Firefight in Abeche

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by Anne Holmes

In Abeche now, the day was very calm. After checking with various people about the security situation, we took a drive up north to Biltine to have a chat with the governor and get his authorization to work in the area. He spoke very highly of the army and their splendid ability to purge the country of rebels, offered us food, cigarettes, water and soft drinks. He was a charming man. He told us, as did many people today, that the rebels had retreated to Sudan. “This is the Chad of today, not the Chad of yesterday,” sad the governor. “No mercenaries can ever come and take this country again.”

My colleague David and I returned to the Catholic Mission where we are staying in Abeche, sat down to share a beer and discuss the day’s work and plans for the next day. We headed out to have some dinner at a local restaurant and watched the news in Arabic, straining to understand the gist of what was being said. For no reason at all, I turned to David and said, “Let’s get out of here. I have a strange feeling.” There was no explanation for the feeling. Nothing had changed, just one of those eerie waves that goes as quickly as it comes.

We headed back to the Mission to get some work done. As I hung my laundry up to dry I could hear women yuyulating in the distance, and figured there was a wedding nearby. I walked across the way to David’s room to see if he wanted to go out to get some sound bites, so we grabbed our equipment and headed for the gate. It was long after dark and it was locked, so we jumped it and walked in the direction of the voices. But then they suddenly ceased, and we turned back, a bit dejected.

It was around 8:30 then. Everything was in order. I had just gotten off the telephone with CARE who had given us permission to stay with them in Iriba on the northeastern border where we plan to do a story on environmental issues affecting the local and refugee populations. The security situation was now under control according to all reports, and UNHCR had booked us for a flight out on Monday.

I returned to my room to edit pictures. The sound of gunfire caught my ear a few times but I didn’t think much of it. Our guest house is right next to the military compound and I figured the soldiers were drunk and firing rounds for fun. But the shots became more frequent. I walked across the way to David. “Do you hear those gunshots?” I asked. “I think those are just fireworks,” he replied. I wasn’t convinced so I asked him to step outside to listen more carefully. Then the unmistakable sound of machine gun fire started to ring out in the sky with increasing intensity. We had both spent some time in Afghanistan so we thought it was probably just celebration for the wedding, but the shots started to get louder, and the rounds heavier, and closer. Then it became clear: this was no wedding celebration. The sounds ripped through the sky in all directions, much closer now, just over the wall.

We decided to head into my room and get down on the ground. Then David said he was going out to have a look. I declined to join him. I didn’t think we could see anything in the night and I wouldn’t be able to make pictures anyway. A minute later he opened my door again, only it wasn’t David. A young soldier in uniform burst into my room with two kalishnakovs. I was taken aback to say the least. I’ve heard a lot of stories about the Chadian army since I’ve been here. To be honest, I would much rather meet the rebels, who have a reputation for being extremely press savvy and more or less friendly with foreigners. The army, according to locals, is famous for drunken recklessness.

David came in behind him. “Don’t worry, he’s Chadian,” he said. I couldn’t imagine what else he would be since, we are in Chad, and the guy was clearly African, but it made me laugh anyway. It was a moment colored by such absurdity that I could only take it with humor. Then David disappeared outside again.

The soldier looked very young. Too young. He motioned for me to put out the light. I was sitting on the ground in the dark all but for the light on my sound recorder, which cast a halo at my feet. I picked it up and moved it around the room to see what he was doing. He was sitting on the ground across from me. “Do you speak French, I said?” Answer: affirmative. “What’s going on?” I said. He mumbled something back, which I didn’t understand. “Is it the rebels?” I asked. “Yes.” I could hear the terror in his voice and I could see from his posture that he was crippled by fear. I wasn’t afraid of him. I knew he needed me and I could not detect an ounce of aggression in him.

The soldier started to ask me about my friend, but I couldn’t understand his words. David reappeared. The soldier started to talk to him but David doesn’t understand French so well. “Listen, this guy doesn’t speak French, so you’re going to have to talk to me. What’s going on?” “Some clothes,” he said. “Civilian clothes?” “Yes.” I told David to give him some pants and a shirt, and they went across the way. A couple minutes later, they returned, the soldier now disguised as a civilian. He motioned towards the bathroom. I couldn’t understand what he meant to say. “In there, in there.” “In there what?” I said, thinking he wanted us to get in the bathroom, but I said no way. David chimed in. Then he went in and retrieved his guns. I gathered he wanted to leave them there, leave them with us, so as not to be mistaken for a rebel. He was petrified. I felt terrible for him, but I didn’t want him staying in my room as David and I had decided to go out and have a look around. He looked so young. Really young. Thirteen? Fourteen?

There is a real child soldier problem here in Chad. They have been recruited en masse by both the Chadian army and the rebels. David and I had talked a lot about trying to do a story about it but it seemed we just wouldn’t have the time to get into something so sensitive since we have already a number of stories to cover for various agencies. But here, the story came to us. There he was, in my room, sitting less than a meter across from me, petrified and fragile, just a boy. Maybe he signed on for the money. Maybe he was forced, maybe his family sold him. Difficult to tell, but he clearly didn’t like his job anymore.

The firefights here in the last week have been intense from various first-hand accounts I have heard. “Chadians are true warriors,” said a EUFOR mission officer this afternoon, as I toured the Camp des Etoiles base just outside of town. The day we flew out of N’djamena to come here to Abeche, one of the EUFOR troops told me that the morning before, a plane with 60 wounded Chadian soldiers had arrived from two days of fighting in the East. The Chadian government has tried to paint the latest wave of rebel attacks as a minor thing, which is merely a nuisance and totally under control, but clearly that’s not the case. I have heard the same story over and over again from official government press statements…”The rebels have been crushed. The rebels have been pushed out. The rebels have retreated into Sudan now and won’t be back until after the rains,” and so on. But now it was looking as though the rebels had moved into Abeche and taken the army completely off guard. (Abeche, by the way, is the HQ city for all the NGO’s dealing with the Darfuri refugees a couple hundred kilometers from here along the border)

After the soldier disappeared into the night, David and I went out and crept along the walls of the compound to get a sense of where the shooting was coming from, but it was coming from all directions really. It seemed to quiet down after a while and David decided to head out into the night with his video camera. I decided to stay behind. I don’t like to work at night in Africa where the prospective enemy blends in with the darkness and the shooting is often blind and frenzied.

Everyone else had left the compound. I had decided to stay behind in my room, so I could write this article live, and record all the events as they happened. I heard people moving outside. I shone my torch in the courtyard. I saw figures moving in the darkness. I quickly closed all my doors and got down on the ground. The gunshots continued but seemed to be retreating south. I could hear people moving, jumping over the walls of our compound and moving quickly all around my building. I smoked one cigarette after another. I could here people trying to break into the rooms on either side of me, so I decided to cough, loud enough to make my presence known, high enough for them to know that I am a woman. It worked. No one touched my door, but the time seemed to pass so slowly, each second holding the potential for a terrible fate. I felt like I was in a horror movie, waiting, listening to every sound, wondering if the next step would be the bad guy on the threshold to my meager safe haven. But it never did, until David returned.

I jumped to the door at the sound of his voice. Outside my window there were two soldiers sitting in the dark. They said hello to me but did not move. I let David in. He threw his arms around me. His eyes were huge, pulsating with fear. “Go take a cold shower before you come and tell me what happened,” I said. When he returned, he relayed his story to me. He made it back alive and unharmed and I’ll just leave it at that.

I opened the door again and took some water to the soldiers. One of them uttered a strange sound as he took the bottle. It was a groan of relief and of pain. Relief that water was coming to him, pain that he could not bring the bottle to his lips fast enough. It’s nearly 50 degrees Celsius everyday here in eastern Chad, and intense fear has a tendency to increase the sensation of thirst. I gave him my cigarette too and figured I had probably made a friend for life, or for that evening at the very least, which is all that mattered.

One thing you have to understand about Chad is that it’s nearly impossible to get accurate information. Conflicting stories abound, and the government is always trying to cover up the reality of the security situation here. They would rather be caught in a lie than suffer the embarrassment of admitting that the army is not in full control.

Today, there are two versions of firefight. The first is complete bullocks, and that is that the fire fight, which lasted about one hour, caused the entire city to cower in fear, and a good portion of the army to desert, was just soldiers firing in the air to celebrate their recent victory in a town just south of here. David’s video footage of a man dying in the street was clear evidence against that, of course, but any of us who actually lived that night laughed hysterically at such a pronouncement.

What seems more likely is version number two: the soldiers, returning from their victory, began shooting in the air as they arrived in town. Since a wave of rebel attacks rocked Eastern Chad over the last ten days, tensions remained high. It was Friday night, a lot of soldiers were drunk. They feared the worst, and fired back in retaliation at what they assumed to be rebels. An intense exchange followed and no one will ever know how many people died, but basically, the story we are all sticking to is that the army engaged in battle with itself.

The problem is that it’s impossible to tell who is army and who is from the rebel faction, first because they are the same mix of ethnicities, second because they often have the same uniforms and cars, and third, because alliances switch back and forth over night.

This morning, as we were heading out to meet with EUFOR’s head of public relations for lunch at the Camp des Etoiles, a teenage boy appeared at the door of the Catholic mission. It was the soldier who had burst into my room. He had come back to exchange clothes with David. He was accompanied by a boy of 14 years or so who was in full military uniform.

There is a woman next door to me who has been here working for a child soldier rehabilitation center. She is leaving soon because the center has been virtually empty for months and she has nothing to report anymore. I watched the boys walk off into the scorching heat, one in uniform, one clutching a bag with his boots and fatigues bundled up inside. The latter was smiling broadly, not the same boy I harbored in the darkness of my room just 12 hours prior. He will probably forget about us, just as he will forget about the fear that seized him in the madness of a firefight, but I won’t. War does strange things to people. It can make two adversaries into friends over a half-smoked cigarette, a pair of jeans, a cup of water, and yet, that alliance can disappear into thin air at any given moment.

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One Response to “Firefight in Abeche”

  1. […] I shone my torch in the courtyard. I saw figures moving in the darkness. I quickly closed all my doors and got down on the ground. The gunshots continued but seemed to be retreating south… I felt like I was in a horror movie, waiting, listening to every sound… […]

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