Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Security in N'Djamena

In the last few weeks a number of serious security incidents have taken place involving foreigners working for international organizations, leading to the suspicion that a deliberate campaign is being carried out against them. Allow me to recount a few.

A female friend working for the UN followed the flow of traffic in the centre of town, where most of the drivers flouted a one-way rule on a main road. While the other cars were allowed to pass, a number of armed men jumped out in front of her car, and a police car blocked her passage. When she protested that everyone else had gone that way, she was asked to get out of the car. She called UN security, which irritated the armed men (one is never sure who is really a policeman here), and they pulled several guns on her, shouting and threatening until UN security arrived.

In another incident a male UN worker traveling home at night was picked up on a roundabout by another driver, who drove right up behind him flashing his lights and tooting his horn. The UN worker sped up to avoid a confrontation, and the driver followed him all the way to his compound where he drove in, knocking guards out of the way, and drove right up to the UN workers door. He managed to escape by running around the back of the house while the driver was hammering on the front door.

A family of five was visited by ‘secret police’ without ID one morning, and told they had 24 hours to get out of their house. When they protested that they had nowhere to go they were told they would be locked out of the house. Several calls to embassies and friends produced no results and they did in fact move the following day to a temporary house. Two days later the mother was stopped in the road by more armed men, demanding to see her papers. When she could not produce them, armed men got into the back of her car and refused to leave. Feeling threatened she started protesting and crying, but was hit on the arm by a policeman, who then impounded her car.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bonne Fete

Chad has just come to a standstill for the best part of a week. The Muslim ‘sheep fete’ or Tabaski, fell on a Friday and Saturday, followed by ‘democracy day’ on 1st December, celebrating the day Deby took power through an armed coup.

I’ve never seen it so quiet. The streets were empty, apart from the armoured personnel carrier parked at the end of our street, with its gun barrel facing our house, and the Chadian housekeeper taking some French ex-pat’s three white poodles for a trot through the dust. Birdsong could be heard, and walking was a pleasure in the cool Sahelian winter. For one delightful day, no monotonous drone of the ubiquitous motorbikes, whose riders zoom out from every junction without ever looking, driving on the wrong side of the road. However those who were out and about presented a new hazard – driving with a sheep sitting on the front of the bike with its front legs draped over the handlebars.

A few things were different this year. For one it’s actually chilly. Although for a European it still seems slightly over the top to see Chadians in puffer jackets and woolly hats at midday, at night I’m delighting in a blanket. Secondly, there seems to be far fewer sheep than last year. Anecdotally I’m hearing that after a year of rising food prices, a ban on charcoal which has sent the price of wood through the roof, and falling oil revenues (Chad’s main export), not everyone can afford the traditional Tabaski sheep this year.

But the real difference is the tranquil passing of the ‘democracy day’ parade. Last year the streets were blocked with tanks and mean-looking soldiers - the skies screamed as four Sukhoi fighter jets passed over. The newspapers were full of jingoistic ranting about defeating the rebels, Deby’s speech was bellicose and dramatic. This year a small band of soldiers marched up and down smiling, and Deby was almost placatory. The greatest gift Chadians could enjoy this year, he said, was freedom. Debatable, but peace at least seems achievable now.

The day was crowned with a firework display at midnight, which blasted me from my slumber with half-formed fears of a rebel attack. Even a year ago, so common was the sound of gunfire in the streets of N’Djamena, I would have never believed the explosions were for fun. Chad closes 2009 with a real possibility of change for the future.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009

Better than Masai Mara

Amongst the tales of war, famine and corruption in Chad it’s hard to believe there’s a story of natural beauty reminiscent of the glorious parks of southern and eastern Africa. Somehow throughout the last forty years of conflict, Chad’s own Masai Mara, Zakouma, has managed to cling on, with only the black rhino going extinct.

After months of claustrophobia in the N’Djamena weekend scene, which involves endless NGO parties, and dinners at a handful of restaurants where the menu is known by heart by everyone, it was a true culture shock to get out into the countryside. I can actually say I had a wonderful time, without having to resort to drunken diving in swimming pools.

At 3am, after a delicious supper and a decent bottle of wine, thirty glinting eyes hovering on the surface of a moonlit pool were serenaded by bad guitar and an Aussie and singing ‘never smile at a crocodile’. Just before we’d followed a leopard for half an hour, chasing his distinctively striped tail as it darted through the undergrowth, our naturalist companion standing on the roof of the vehicle doing a spookily convincing version of a baby buffalo caught in a trap.

But there is more to say than just recounting my adventures. Zakouma boasts Central Africa’s largest population of elephants, which in the 1970s numbered around 150,000. Today that figure is about 600, with more than 3,000 having been lost to poaching in the last three years.

Instead of a thriving habitat, untouched and unquestionably alive, for a time Zakouma became known for death. Rotting carcasses, their faces slashed off, dotted the emerald grasslands; visitors talked only of the smell. At one point more an average of three elephants a day were being killed to fuel a trade in ivory which was buoyed by a one-off legal sale in 2005.

Today anti-poaching efforts are working and no elephants have been lost in the last six months. Horse-backed guards communicate directly with a team in the air who make almost daily aerial surveys of the park. I did see the elephants from the air, along with a shockingly beautiful sunset, and they were still very much alive.

***NOTE*** sadly since I wrote this, three more elephants have been killed

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Miss Fort Lamy 1966

She may be a sexagenarian, but Fatime Boumie still knows how to look her best. Her short bob-style hair is gleaming and immaculate, the high cheek bones and striking eyes that made her so unforgettable at 16 still call out from under the gentle sinking of age. On the wall of her small apartment, above the striped sofa, a single black and white photo is testament to her success in 1966 when she was picked as the most beautiful woman in the Chadian capital.

But 40 years later, her success was soured by the appearance of a rival. Helene Adda, who is apparently Fatime’s friend, claimed at the launch of the modern version of the competition in 2007 that in fact she was the winner from 1966. The two women went on to have a very public row about who won, and by extension perhaps, who is the more beautiful.

“I know that a coup was launched, and I’ve done everything I can to make it clear what happened, because I was Miss Fort Lamy 1966!” says Fatime, and she has indeed done everything - taking the matter to court last year. In the end she was proclaimed the real Miss Fort Lamy 1966, reclaiming her crown and seeing to it that Helene was demoted to the less glamorous Miss Sport 1966.

But still she does not feel completely vindicated – she’s now complaining that the £3000 awarded to her as compensation from the Chadian state has yet to be paid.

“The only value of the five thousand dollars for me is the respect of men. Because I’m a woman, and for us women the most important thing is our honour” she concludes, adding that she intends to stand for parliament next year.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

New Report on Violations of Darfur Arms Embargo

This makes interesting reading, very detailed evidence of how arms and ammunition flow across the border between Chad and Sudan, and how Sudan has supplied Chadian rebels with arms.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Funniest Questions I've Ever Been Asked

1. First off, you have lived in N'Djamena for nearly a year? Is it fair to call the city, "the worst place you've ever experienced."?

Me: “No, not the worst and not fair. It’s certainly tough. I’ve compared it to Mogadishu in Somalia but at least here in Chad there is peace and people can go about their daily business without the threat of being blown up”

2. Do you the Pekin Hotel? If so, is that a Chinese-run bed-and-breakfast?

“I think it’s near the airport. There are several Chinese hotels – Shanghai, Chez Wou, Dong Fang. Some have massage parlours”

3. Do you know if hippopotami live in the River Chari?

“Yes they do”

4. Do you know if smugglers often wade the river to deliver electronics and other goods into Chad?

“No I don’t but it wouldn’t surprise me”

5. We have a photo of a wall scarred by bullet holes, are they from 2008 rebel attack? Is that the national museum with the bones of a dinosaur visible through a perforated wall?

“The bullet holes could have been from any of the rebel attacks or battles over the last thirty years. It’s an elephant skeleton, not a dinosaur”

6. Does downtown N'Djamena' commercial life consist of two banks, a French bakery, Air France and Ethiopian Airways ticket offices, and a handful of ex-pat friendly restaurants?

“No a little more than that – an internet service provider office, internet café, petrol station, a supermarket, a nightclub and a photo shop, but not much”

7. Do you know if the street lights are powered with batteries in N'Djamena?

“Some of the new street lights and traffic lights are powered by solar panels which I guess contain batteries”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Obama's Sudan Policy

Darfur cannot be solved properly without taking into consideration the regional context.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced Darfuris languish in refugee camps across the east of Chad with no realistic prospect of going home. They will not want to return while there is still a risk of conflict between Darfur rebel groups and the Sudanese government, and this in turn cannot be guaranteed without realising the role the Chadian rebels play in regional destabilisation.

Twice now, in 2006 and 2008, Chadian rebels came within a kilometre of the Presidential Palace in N'Djamena and President Deby only survived by the skin of his teeth. These rebels were armed by Sudan, in a bid to take out Deby, who in President Bashir's eyes was not doing enough to stop the JEM and other Darfur rebels from using Chadian territory for rear bases.

Beyond their apparent role as 'Sudanese mercaneries' (Deby's stock phrase), the Chadian rebels do seem to articulate legitimate grievances - they are unhappy about the lack of democratic space in Chad, and Deby's almost total control of oil revenues, which ought to be being used for social development.

Without serious US engagement with Chad at a political level - in a similar vein to its commitment to Sudan - the problems in the east and Darfur, which are inextricably linked, will retain the potential to 'spillover' at any time.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Traffic Lights

As part of a new drive to clean up and develop N'Djamena, tens of kilometres of new tarmac roads have appeared over the last few months. The finishing touch is the addition of traffic lights - until now a pretty much unheard of unnecessary hindrance to crazy driving.

A new set has appeared at the end of my road - quite a contraption as they're powered by solar panels. The base is about 6 metres high, with a 2 squared metre panel on the top. The lights were so bright the other night I thought a new bar or nightclub was spilling its neon wares onto the badly-lit street.

But they are causing some confusion. Yesterday I watched for a full three minutes as a driver waited patiently while the signal was green. The second it changed to red he started off slowly into the incoming traffic, all of which came flying at him swearing and tooting horns aggressively, juddering bikes wobbling out of his way, motorbike riders on the wrong side of the road swerving to avoid him.

Today the traffic lights have stopped working.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Rape of darfur refugees

One of the most ludicrous statements to come out of Chad’s government spokesman, Mahamat Hissene, was his assertion this week that ‘rape cases did not happen in Chad before the arrival of Darfur refugees’. He was responding to an Amnesty International report which claims that ‘high levels’ of sexual violence are being perpetrated on women and girls living in camps in the east which are supposed to offer them protection.

Mr Hissene, an ostensibly worldly, educated man – dapper even (he’s often seen sporting sharp suits and white gangster shoes), was postulating, I believe, that only Sudanese men – either refugees themselves or people crossing over the border – are incapable of controlling themselves. He’s almost affectionately well known for publishing statements wildly at odds with reality.

Nonetheless he responded quickly to an issue that has caused much excitement. I had one of my busiest days ever when the Amnesty report came out, including interest from domestic UK news who have never asked me for anything before.

What Amnesty is saying is well-known. The east of Chad is a hostile, unforgiving landscape – from the air, concentric circles of bald sand, denuded of trees, can be seen emanating out from the refugee camps. There is not enough wood to go round, and women are forced to leave the camps to search for more. This is when they come into conflict with local people, resentful of the handouts of food, fuel and water that the refugees receive.
Women such as Marian “nine women went out into a village to collect wood. We were stopped by some men from the village. They took our materials and attacked us with sticks and stones. I don’t know who they were. Now the children are too scared to go out alone”.

After months of frustration that most of the outside world doesn’t really seem to care what happens in Chad, it was refreshing to be bombarded with requests for reports. But also interesting for us here that the Amnesty report had no sense of perspective – the phenomena of rape in the camps is well-known, so are things getting better or worse? How many people are we talking about exactly? Is rape still used systematically as a ‘tool of war’ in the way it was in Darfur? The crisis in eastern Chad, for better or worse, is still only comprehensible in its most reduced form – Darfur spill-over, refugees, women, victims.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Justice Chadian Style

I admit it, it was thorough idiocy. It had the hallmarks of ‘things that happen to un-streetwise tourists in any public place anywhere in the world’. Warning bells should have been going off all around me. Look, you stupid woman! While this apparently nice Chadian man is chatting to you as you sit at the wheel of the car, feigning interest in your frankly amateur attempts at photography, his mate is round the other side of the car with his hand through your wide open window, nicking your bag.

Too late I realised and leapt up, ran to the other side and took a flapping, girly swipe at the villain. Surprised is such a meagre word to describe his face when he saw me lunge at him, windmill-like. He dropped the purse, but not before taking out all my cash, and then rather hesitantly, as if he couldn’t quite believe he was actually getting away with this, he started running, slowly at first, and then a hair-brained sprint. “Help me!” I shouted at my fellow photography enthusiast, realising with a nauseous jolt that this was a textbook set up and he too was only still there because he couldn’t quite believe he’d got away with it. With keys in the ignition, I thought better of chasing these half-hearted opportunists and appealed instead to the better nature of the security guards standing outside a house a few metres away.

“What?” says one of them feebly, rubbing his eyes.

“They stole my money! Please help me!!”

“Well I didn’t see anything”

“But they’re just there! Go after them!”

“I’m breaking the fast” he says and closes the door.

By this time a huge crowd of people had gathered to stare at the crazy white woman crying and shouting in the street. A policeman in uniform sidles up. “What seems to be the matter, madam?”

“They stole all my money – can you help? They just ran off down there!”

“How much did they steal?”

“What does it matter how much they stole – they’re getting away! Go after them!”

“Well I can’t because I didn’t see them”

“I want to speak to your supervisor”

Ten minutes later and I have established that the policeman is not going to chase the felons, because despite his uniform he is not on duty. Nor is his supervisor, who is on duty, because he is breaking the fast.

Two hours later at the police station, I finish filling in the forms and answering interminable questions about how much money they stole, where they went and why didn’t anyone help me. Finally, action! The police commander says we are going to arrest the guard at the house for failure to assist when a crime was being committed. As long as I drive the two armed policemen back to the scene.

When we arrive the guard denies all knowledge of seeing the theft because he was breaking the fast, he starts interrogating me in front of the policeman. After ten minutes they’re chatting and laughing, saying what a bad neighbourhood it is. When I drop the two policemen, empty-handed except for their AK47s, back at the station later, I notice a group of about 20 men sitting outside on mats, chatting with police officers, sharing tea and breaking the fast. They are not hand-cuffed or restrained in any way. “Do you know who they are?” my Chadian friend asks me. “That’s the Director of Finance and his colleagues, they’ve been arrested on suspicion of stealing 3 million dollars”

Below : The two hundred pound photo

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Welcome Home

Like most places, August is silly season in Chad. Nothing happens - it rains a lot and the roads get clogged, so the rebels can’t get up to their tricks. Journalists scramble about for stories. Many of the French people living here take most of the month off to return home and see family.

But this year someone’s been busy. I arrived back in the dark to the surreal sight of new white road markings – including a pedestrian crossing, and arrows to indicate the correct position for a car turning left (if only, if only!). One year ago this road was a sloppy mud pit, only 4 x 4s were able to negotiate its metre-deep trenches. What’s more I could see the road markings because someone has installed street lighting.

In town, a roundabout which has been closed since I arrived is now resplendent with a giant iron figure of a man riding a horse, thrusting his arm into the sky. All the roads around the roundabout have been paved – a remarkable feat when I cast my mind back to my arrival when there were only about ten paved roads in the whole city.

Each morning, road sweepers wearing fluorescent jackets line up on the new tarmac roads, brooms in hand, ready to tackle the infernal Saharan dust, (a largely pointless task). Mini sweeper vans patrol at night (though they merely throw the dust up in a swirling cloud), and merry orange rubbish trucks are a common sight. High above them new street signs assist drivers approaching major junctions, though quite who was responsible for writing Najamena I’m not sure.

Deby’s critics say nothing has been done with the more than $4billion dollars Chad has earned since it started exporting oil to the US five years ago. Doubtless, most Chadians are not impressed with the fleet of second-hand fighter jets and attack helicopters now jamming the runway in Abeche, though this was clearly money well spent as the rebels were firmly defeated in May. But to argue that nothing is being done is to ignore the radical transformation taking place in N’Djamena.

If only someone could explain why all the trees were cut down beside the cathedral then I’d be really impressed.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Following on from my trip to the south of Chad to meet newly-arrived refugees from Central African Republic earlier this year, I've finally edited their stories into a film. Attempts have been made (by the BBC) to get a comment from the CAR government about the alleged massacre, but so far this has proved fruitless.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Service with a Smile

Warning: Do not try to challenge a Zaghawa (the President’s clan) heading up any kind of public agency in Chad.

I have lived (just) to tell the tale of my mistake in thinking that I could get away with erroneously addressing a letter to the ‘Minister’ instead of ‘Director’.

Hemmed in by a set of unpropitious circumstances - due to the ministry’s lack of communication my paperwork was already out of date; I don’t have a printer and the only reliable (Chinese) internet café in N’Djamena has been shut for weeks; never mind the constant power cuts, road closures and the fact that by the time I’ve re-printed the letter everyone will have gone home because it’s past 15.00 – I am insistent. The director won’t even look at me in the face. I am gruffly dismissed. ‘Please…’ I beseech, ‘Madam, I AM BUSY!’

Fine, I know. I know that anger gets you nowhere. I should by now have learnt how to deal with the institutionalised pedantry peddled by those who benefit from the most egregious nepotism, who lord it over others as long as their man is the big man.

But before I’ve calculated the hopelessness of my plea, my irritation leaks out like battery acid. ‘Please…’ I beg, unwisely one last time. The director shouts ‘no!’ and leaps up grabbing me by the arm to direct me to the door. I snap and throw his arm from mine. With lightning reactions he raises his hand close to my face in order to strike me for my insolence. He stops just in time, realising his mistake, but not before I’ve exploded. I spit the words out like a hunched cat, ‘how dare you raise your hand to me!’

The fight is diffused by an unfortunate Nigerian caught in the crossfire, who is the only one in the room to realise how ridiculous the whole situation has become. A shameful display by everyone involved, but I still cannot believe how frustrating this place can be. It’s time for a break.

(*PS I’m now in UK until early September :)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

N'Djamena's wood market - six months ago this was full of charcoal furnaces

Chad wins the 2009 Nobel Prize for the Environment

After years in the Brownie Guides, I still get a romantic thrill from cooking on a wood fire, and find the honest hard work of foraging for dry sticks invigorating. While Chadians certainly don’t suffer from the disappointment of only being able to find sodden black crumbs of moss-coated mould after another wash-out British summer, every day it’s becoming harder for wood-collectors to scrape together enough twigs to supply N’Djamena, a city of around a million people.

It didn’t used to be like this. A year ago there was a roaring trade in charcoal, and a mephitic haze of charcoal fumes hanging over the dusty streets. But late in 2008 charcoal was banned almost overnight. These days anyone daring to smuggle a sack in will likely see their vehicle impounded or incinerated, and a fine of one hundred and fifty dollars.

As an archetypal African country battling on the frontline of climate change, Chad produces an infinitesimal amount of CO2, yet bears the impact of the west’s profligacy. Temperatures are soaring, and farmers cling on in desolate Sahelian marginal lands, searching the skies for signs of rain. As the Sahara creeps southwards, President Deby has become the new trees’ champion (‘to cut a living tree is to commit a crime’) by banning charcoal production and sale outright.

The effects have been dramatic. Almost everyone is now using wood, which apparently is practically carbon neutral, and a programme of tree-planting has begun.

A wonderful example of leadership - inspired behavioural change - you may conclude. And in fact if we are serious about tackling climate change, perhaps more governments should be willing to legislate, and applaud Deby for forcing people to abandon environmentally-damaging habits?

But the catch has been the shortage of trees. Already collectors say they have to travel several hundred kilometres out of the city to find wood that has fallen from a tree and become parched in the infernal sun. Prices are becoming crippling for most ordinary Chadians who are footing the bill for problems not entirely of their own making.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Main Driving Hazards in N'Djamena

Tapis rouge (‘Red Carpet’)
The sudden and frustrating closing of all main arterial roads because President Deby wants to use one of them. Most frequently encountered when he’s travelling to the airport, but can be for almost any reason. His convoy usually involves several pick-up trucks filled with AK and machine gun-toting soldiers, police out-riders, and numerous black limousines. Its passing is often accompanied by aggressive behaviour from members of the Presidential Guard, hammering car bonnets with rifle butts and shouting ‘Are you mad?’ at anyone who happens to park in the wrong place. Tapis rouge can last for up to two hours, while the hapless population can only stand by and watch. Finding alternative routes on non-tarmac roads is a thankless task.

Crap roads
The sudden and frustrating appearance of massive holes, ditches and piles of sand and debris in the middle of roads. Often the debris consists of the putrid contents of drains which have been dug out and then left on the side of the road. Even roads which are only a few months old are covered in a thick layer of sand which is easy to skid on.

The sudden and frustrating closing of roads for maintenance and/or tarmac resurfacing. This follows an apparently random pattern, meaning that a trip which has been made two days earlier without issue suddenly becomes impossible. Road-works signs are not illuminated, and are generally sited approx two centimetres from any holes. Sometimes traffic is allowed to continue in single file, resulting in chaotic off-road driving by impatient motorists and bikers which generates huge clouds of dust. Often the intended diversion is not signposted, resulting in the inattentive driver suddenly finding themselves in the middle of a village wondering where everyone else has gone. (The editorial direction wishes to stress that it is not opposed to tarmac-ing roads in principle – this is a very good thing - merely the chaotic and disruptive way in which it is done)

Drink Drivers and Relatives of the President…
…find it perfectly acceptable to drive at 100kmph in town, often driving right up one’s arse with headlights flashing and tooting the horn to push one off the road. Presidential relatives often feel morally un-obliged to consider other road users, in particular the masses of cyclists, who wobble past lightless on rusting frames, balancing on the edges of ditches. The worst case I heard involved an army general and his son who were killed when their car was flipped over outside the Presidential palace, after being hit by a drink driver who jumped a red light at high speed. Many accidents involving UN cars and foreign drivers will result in the immediate corralling of the vehicle by onlookers, histrionic demonstrations of how badly injured the person who actually caused the accident is, including pulling-off of shoes and socks and hobbling along in the street, pointing to perfectly untouched limbs that are apparently now damaged beyond recognition. Invariably resolved when rich foreigner agrees to part with large sums of cash.

Police road blocks (demanding fines for lack of fire extinguisher in car for example); goats; torrential rainstorms and bad drainage causing small lakes to appear in a matter of minutes; random items of merchandise, (mangos and spare parts for cars for example), dropped in the road in market areas; potholes (so quotidienne); wedding parties involving ululating women travelling three to a motorbike driving down the wrong side of the road; midnight weapons searches by drunken soldiers; general disdain for the highway code, usually with regards to turning left; petrol stations not having any petrol; weekly flat tyres caused by the poor state of the roads; power cuts mean no street lighting at night. This list is not exhaustive.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Send me a postcard

In response to a delightful request from a reader of this blog in Malaysia, I set about trying to send a postcard from Chad. From experience I know there is only one place in the city to buy postcards – Meridian Hotel. There I found the most dismal collection imaginable – three out of four designs featured cave paintings that could have been anywhere.

So inevitably I chose the picture of Toumai, reputedly the oldest pre-historic skull discovered in Chad a few years back. Annoyingly for Ethiopia this re-opened the debate about where exactly the cradle of humanity is (Berceau d’Humanite in French – quite a different thing). Nonetheless fun to compare both nations’ claim to be the ancestor of all humanity on arrival at Bole and Hassan Djamous airports.

But Toumai is a somewhat dark figure. Found in hundreds of tiny fragments, even for a skull it has a particularly gloomy, haunted aura. But what really made this postcard stand out (amongst admittedly strong competition from cave paintings) was the eerie juxtaposition of the half-complete Toumai, resplendent with furrowed Neanderthal brow, floating menacingly above an innocuous view of the Chadian countryside. Battered, fractured; mysteriously suspended above a barren wasteland - as if primitive man had met the grim reaper to remind people of the eternal precariousness of their Saharan existence.

Anyway I thought it rather fitting and flounced off to the post office. Imagine my amusement when I find that the only stamp available also featured the pieced-together fragments of Toumai’s skull, hovering above the price of the stamp.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

some blogs you might find interesting




great on darfur and somalia

and this one from American journalist Steve Coll whose normal musings on American public policy briefly gave way to Chad..

From Guantanamo to Chad...

Mohammed El-Gharani was Guantanamo's youngest inmate. Last month he was released after charges against him were dropped, and he was sent to N'Djamena.

I was so scared in Guantanamo. Sometimes I thought they would kill me or throw me into the ocean. I was there from 14 to 21 years of age, but sometimes I feel like I’m 40, because I’ve been through so much.

When I was in prison I called Al-Jazeera to tell them what was happening. Lots of people thought that when Obama came in things would change but it wasn’t true. In January I won my case because the judge said there wasn’t enough evidence against me. But even then I was still getting people pushing me around and not treating me well.

I don’t know why they sent me to Chad, I thought they would send me to Saudi because I was born there and my parents are still there. I’d never even be to Chad before. But when they asked me if I wanted to go to Chad I said of course I do! I could get to see my family and my country. There was no choice.

They gave me no help for the future. The day I arrived, the Americans brought me to the airport and handed me over to the Chadian authorities who welcomed me, and that was it. No more contact with them. The Chadians kept me at the police station for eight days. I don’t know why. They had to buy me a mosquito net and a mattress. I kept asking them every day why I was being kept there, they said don’t worry we’ll give you your papers you’ll get to see your family.

Finally they let me go, but I still don’t have a passport which means I can’t go to visit my parents. I don’t understand what’s going on. I’ve asked every day. Sometimes they say they don’t know if I’m really Chadian. I say if I’m not Chadian then how on earth did you guys take me from the Americans? They have no answer. I always say if I’m not Chadian, then just tell me, and if I am just give me my passport and let me live like everyone else.

Guantanamo is like a dream to me. I’m still living it, even now I’m free. Sometimes I wake up on a morning and I think I’m still there! I feel like there are guards around me, but after maybe half an hour I finally realise that I’m free. I never believed I would be there for so long, I never even believed I would go to jail. But I always knew I would get out. I read the Koran every day and I never gave up.

So I’m here in Chad now with no papers and no money, and my family are having to support me. I don’t speak Chadian Arabic and I’m still trying to learn my way around the city. But I’m free. Chad is really hot and not very developed, but I would rather spend the rest of my life here than another hour in Guantanamo.
I’m not angry with the Americans. I just want to get on with my life. I want to study, I want to work. I think I’ll try to go to school and find a job. I hope I can get back to Saudi Arabia to see my parents as soon as I can. I’m so close to them but I can’t get there. I call them every day. I tell them not to worry because I’m free now. Seven years away for no reason is inhuman

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Feeding time at the hospital

Looking back I clearly didn’t want to see the sick people. I made a feeble attempt to make contact with the hospital authorities, and then some excuse about how my accreditation wouldn’t be enough to get past the guards on the gate. So there I was, hovering outside, hoping to catch relatives who were coming to bring food to their sick relations because Chad cannot afford to provide food for patients.

The women arrived on a wave, every one of them wearing a different colour, sparkling scarves shimmering in the breeze, sashaying silently past me with their loving offerings balanced on their heads. Some had flat trays with fruits and sauce on the side, others carried round plastic cool boxes. Lifting a lid I caught the scent of cinnamon and milk, healthy cubes of meat floating in a steaming broth. Some of them told me it took them all day to prepare the food, and cost anything up to $5.

But Nassir was right, we couldn’t do the story properly outside – we needed to get in there. It’s actually quite a pleasant place with two-story wards painted in different colours, arranged facing each other across tree-lined avenues like the 1970s chalets in a tattered Butlins holiday camp in Skegness. But it’s obvious there’s little equipment or medicine, most rooms just contain beds and blankets.

I wasn’t expecting the man with legs as thin as chair legs. He seemed so welcoming when we first went in, but I should have seen the film over his eyes and the beads of sweat gathered around the hole in his arm where the needle went in. Nassir tried to ask him what he’d been eating, but he flung his head back, rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, and started pulling his trousers down. I looked away quickly when I saw the melon-sized growth which had taken over everything he could have been ashamed of. I laughed nervously and said ‘Does he realise I’m not a doctor?’, casting around helplessly for recognition from his female relations. They just nodded at me and watched him tearing his clothes off.

I remembered why I don’t like hospitals. The cloying sweet air compounds the stifling eeriness of the living and the dying drifting along silently in parallel. We left in a hurry.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The gold mobile sinks to new depths
OK one more clue: Impossibly posh English aristocrat

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

When I find myself in times of trouble, I just think of my crazy middle-aged bespectacled housemate, completely drunk, sharing his ipod of Finnish tango music with a slightly bemused Chadian toilet attendant in Piccolo nightclub.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Oh.. and any more suggestions on the un-named celebrity? I'm enjoying the randomness :)

Generator Wars

Despite my proclivity for exaggeration, I kid you not when I say we are now into the third month of a dismal, dismal electricity situation. At best I can remember a couple of days since April where the power has been on uninterrupted for more than 24 hours. A more usual situation is the power is off all day and then comes back at 2am for about five hours, until dawn. And then goes off again.

At first it was funny. One of those things you expect as part of the African experience. We naively thought it was random, a sudden surge in demand due to the arrival of the hot season. If everyone was out of the house during the day, the constant outages meant the temperature inside the fridge got to 35C. Food went putrid, the fridge stank; last to get unceremoniously dumped in the bin was prize cheddar, lovingly passed through x-ray machines and three airports on its way back from Europe. Iced water in the 48C heat was impossible. The water pump couldn’t re-fill the tank on the roof, so we had no shower.

Things began to be less funny when the heat got too much and I bought an air-conditioning unit. With the prospect of a room that could be slightly cooled off at night, there seemed a reason to live. But my joy was cruelly shattered when one night I turned on the light, the air-con and my computer at the same time, and the wiring in my room blew with a pusillanimous puff and a small blue spark. The victim least able to be resurrected was my laptop battery which (thankfully) took most of the blast, collapsed and died on the spot. (I could tell you how I’d just ordered that battery on my last trip to UK, and how I’d had to get the keys for my old house and go and await the delivery the morning of my flight back to Chad. Or I could tell you that I have been trying since mid-April to get that battery replaced, but due to issues of it being apparently eaten alive or thrown out of a plane window by some cantankerous creature living in the bowels of the US diplomatic pouch system, at the time of writing I still have to have constant power to be able to use my laptop (and thus work). But that would just be whingeing).

Finally, after several weeks of interrupted work and sweaty sleep, we accepted that the power just wasn’t coming back and we succumbed to the evil allure of the superficially liberating generator. Stumbling about in the dark, I had to use the light on my nokia phone to figure out how to turn on the one-tonne ‘Lifting Eye’ generator (manufactured in the UK but not adhering even to US standards on CO2 emissions).

But it comes at a cost. And I’m not even talking about the on average 100 litres a week of diesel fuel we’re igniting. It’s the noise. As soon as the beast is kicked into action, coughing and spluttering, as a black cloud pumps merrily out of the erect exhaust pipe that resembles the furnace of a 19th century steam train, the walls begin to shudder. Doors which aren’t closed properly rattle as if an Antonov is passing overhead. Nina the cat darts for cover.

Under the gentle burr of the air-conditioning and ear-plugs, I can just about block it out enough to doze off. But then I get cold and wake up to turn off the air-con. From then on, all hopes of sleep are frustrated as my brain begins to rattle inside my skull with the vibrations from the voracious monster, scoffing and hiccuping not ten metres from my bedroom window. All I can think about is how much fuel we’re using, tantamount to leaving the car running all night, and hypnotically my mind begins to follow the rise and fall of the interminable rumbling towards apocalyptic visions of melting ice-caps.

We tried democracy. One of us is super-human and can sleep at 9pm with no fan, lights or air-conditioning. The rest of us have varying indifference curves measuring cool rooms versus sensitivity to the racket and/or destruction of the planet. One room is conveniently located at the back of the house and therefore is somewhat insulated.

After several frantic weeks of night-time wanderings, tepid showers, insomnia, madness, generators being turned on and off, screaming matches and hapless guards caught in the cross-fire, we have been brought to the conclusion that we cannot sort this out. We’re all looking for new houses, with the massive self-deception that in a different neighbourhood there may not be so many power cuts.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Making the desert green

Thursday, June 25, 2009


I’ve sometimes heard Darfur described as the first climate change conflict. It broadly means that people started fighting each other because in these sparsely populated Sahara hinterlands, there is not enough water or pasture for animals. Although this explanation glosses over some of the fundamentals of the political situation in Darfur, the challenges of managing resources in eastern Chad and Darfur remain.

In Bahay camp for Darfur refugees in the north east of Chad, not only is the sun like a raging tyrant in the sky, belching scorching flames onto its earthly victims, sending them screaming for cover, uselessly flapping their arms about their heads for protection, but water (or lack of it) is on everyone’s mind.

All of the water for the refugees comes from the partly man-made Lake Kariari, which at the peak of the dry season in early June is down to a pathetic slimy-green trickle. Luminescent algae carpets the vast basin of the dried-out lake, and three lonely pumps dot the cracked land all the way back to the treatment station. Here the water is filtered and tested before being pumped to the camp.

Each pump is powered by diesel. The fuel is driven in by truck from N’Djamena, more than 1000 kilometres away. Despite Chad having entered the elite gang of oil-producing nations, all of its domestic fuel needs are sourced from outside the country. The pumping system uses one hundred litres of fuel a day.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

OK OK I'll give you a clue. The un-named celebrity is not Angelina Jolie. She has perfect nails apparently. It's a British male. The un-named journalist will forever remain a secret

Shopping List

There are two supermarkets in N’Djamena. One is reportedly owned by the president’s wife. Many of the goods are imported from France or Cameroon, so when it’s been a few weeks since the last delivery, the shelves begin to look bare. Goods which were temporarily cheap to import and / or fell through greasy palms off the back of a lorry are stacked high (ie. tinned brussel sprouts), as if by their sheer force of numbers they might become desirable. There was no butter in either shop for close to two months, dried pet food disappeared in November and has not been seen since. I’m pleased if UHT milk is on sale, otherwise it’s powdered. Likewise, tinned kidney beans or chick peas are a rare luxury and must be snapped up as it’s never certain they’ll be seen again.

Once a week I summon up the courage to drive to the shop – usually on a Saturday afternoon when it’s quiet. The children swarm around the car before I’ve turned off the engine – “Madam madam! Les arachides, sont bonne pour la santé!” I don’t like the peanuts – like everything in Chad they taste of sand. If I want to buy phone credit, I will ask. I am wearing sunglasses, why would I want another pair? The artful teenager who appears to be the leader of the street kids sidles up to me, ragged sleeves flapping. With sparkling eyes tells me he will guard the car for me while I’m inside.

The shop depresses me. This is what I buy:

4 fruit yoghurts - $5
Small packet powdered milk - $4
Cameroonian coffee (a bargain!) - $6
2 cans Orangina - $3
Pasta - $2
Tin of kidney beans - $2
Tinned fruit salad - $3
Toilet rolls - $4
Mint tea bags - $5

Total: $34

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The following is a description of true events over dinner in N'Djamena in a hotel that wasn't Kempinski or Novotel..

Un-named celebrity: “So what do the Chadian rebels want?”
Un-named foreign journalist: “Well, you know they think Deby is corrupt and has too much power”
Un-named celebrity: “Who’s Deby?”
Un-named foreign journalist: “Er,… the president of Chad”
Un-named celebrity: “Oh right, right… right. Thought you were talking about one of your girlfriends”
Un-named foreign journalist (surpressing the urge to shout out "For God's sake!) "ha ha”
Un-named celebrity: “So what do the Chadian rebels have to do with, the jan, janaj, what do you call them… janijweed?”
Un-named foreign journalist : “The janjaweed? Well they’re in Darfur”
Un-named celebrity: "Oh great I read a book about that!"
(Un-named foreign journalist briefly chokes on a tinned green bean)
Un-named UN figure: (enthusiastically) “Yes, basically the janjaweed are the Arabs, you know the ‘white’ Arab horsemen who carried out the killings against black African tribes in Darfur”
(EXIT stage left un-named foreign journalist, in search of chocolate cake, unable to take any more)


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ghost rebels

I have to confess that I wasn’t really sure that the Chadian rebels exist. Of course I knew they’d been responsible for high profile attacks on Chad many times before, and I’d even seen footage of them riding through the streets of N’Djamena in February 2008. But legend holds that the turbaned warriors just melt like a mirage into the desert from where they came.

The rebels look like ghosts. Each face carries a hunted look as they sit under the gun butts of their Chadian army captors. Few had washed, even to rinse the sand from their faces, wild, dread-locked hair and ear-holes. Layer upon layer of bleached yellow dust on each trembling body makes them appear blurred and indistinct, faded like in an old sepia photograph. Neglected droplets of blood trickle down some faces, mixing with the dirt into a coagulated tarry mess, yet hardly a murmur escapes from the crowd.

The dead rebels, face-down in the sand where they fell, have gone back to the spirit world which so badly let them down. Each wears a traditional gri gri protection amulet. The bodies are just asleep, surrounded by oily, bubbled pools of dark blood. Even the cars are shapes I’ve never seen before – the angel of death passed over the fighting, leaving his mark on their sinister black camouflage.
Deep in the dark night of N’Djamena, where flickering street lamps weakly cut through the settling debris of the day, the rebel convoy is on the move again. The camouflage disguises their slow, shuddering progress. Their headlights are hanging off, doors dented, windscreens smashed. They will be left in the street like giant metal gravestones. Testament to the defeat of the rebels who have once again vanished into the dunes.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Zara Djibril

Horror Stories from Central African Republic

Haroun Daoud, 25 years old, resident of Zokoumba.

It was 1st February, about 11 in the morning. Suddenly a number of soldiers came by foot into the village. They came up to the school and said good morning to the people. A few minutes later the military vehicles arrived. When the women saw the trucks they started running into the bush with the children. Some of them were caught by soldiers who were gathering behind the houses.

They gathered all the men of the village together under the mango trees. They asked the village chief where the rebels were. He said he hadn’t seen the rebels. He said he knew they had come from Bria and that they had a base somewhere near Akoulsoubak but they never came into Zokoumba.

Then there was a long discussion between the soldiers and the men. The soldiers wanted to know why the women were preparing food in the middle of the village. The women were peeling millet and things like that. The chief said that a child had died and they were preparing for the burial, but the government soldiers thought that the women were making food to give to the rebels.

So they took the men and made them take their clothes off, and they tied them to the mango trees. They asked for the village chief, the teacher and the iman to identify themselves. Eventually they did.

They started by taking the teacher, Mahamat Idriss. They killed him with two shots. After that, Commander Abdoulaye, the leader of the soldiers, took the village chief, Abdelkader Zakaria. He killed him by shooting him through both eyes - the bullets came out of the back of his head. Then he shot Saleh, another leader, and then cut off his head. I don’t know where he took the head. Another elder was killed by being knifed in the stomach.

Then he told the soldiers to kill the rest of the men who were still under the mango trees. They shot them all, they didn’t hesitate. After they all fell down, Commander Abdoulaye went among the bodies, if anyone was moving then he shot them again to make sure they were dead. They killed twenty one people. Two people managed to survive with injuries. I was hiding inside my house the whole time with my child, but I saw it happen. They didn’t find me.

Zara Djibril, 40 years old, mother of 8, resident of Zokoumba

One morning we were in the village and the soldiers arrived. I was with some of my children and as soon as I saw them coming I ran to hide behind my house under some trees. But I could still see everything that happened.

They gathered all the men together and asked for the village chief, the iman and the teacher. Stand up! Stand up! They said. The men presented themselves. Commander Abdoulaye told his men to split all the villagers up, take their clothes off and tie them to the mango trees. He kept asking where are the rebels? Where are the rebels?

The commander Abdoulaye killed the village chief himself, he shot him in the head and he fell down. The gun I think it was what they call an AK. They started killing the other men. Some more soldiers arrived from the other side of the village and they had big, heavy weapons (rocket launcher according to translator). They started firing on the villagers with these. The guns just went boom, boom, boom. I covered my ears. Two more men were killed like that.

I saw it all with my own eyes. I was terrified. I couldn’t move. I thought they were going to come into my house and kill all of us. The children were asking me what was happening. I didn’t know what to say to them. They wanted to run away but there were soldiers everywhere. We had to wait until it was all over.

I don’t know why this happened in our village.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Am Timan does not have an airport. But it does boast a freshly-carved, brick-red landing strip. There is no fence, and the tarmac is not tarmac, but a piste of rough stones and gravel. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) the South African pilots of the small Cessna don’t seem to mind its uneven surface or the stray mangos littering the ground.

We bank in low over the huts made of reed-matting that scatter the outskirts of the town. After the arid desolation of Abeche, the shimmering mango trees seem somehow un-Chadian.

It looks like the entire village has come out to watch the plane skidding to a bumpy halt. A gang of shoe-less children, wearing Arsenal shirts and oversized trousers hovers nervously beside the single Chadian soldier acting as airport security, check-in clerk and baggage handler. He has a light green scarf wrapped neatly around his head; his fake Ray-Ban sunglasses slipping down his slight nose betray his true age.

Wide-eyed the children lift their hands tentatively to wave at the pilots. Grown men in white and blue boubou robes stand idly by, buying cigarettes from a mobile shop, conspicuously trying not to seem as excited as the children.

The teenage soldier is efficient, and within minutes we’re on our way again. I press my face hard against the glass to watch how the assembled horde reacts as the plane speeds up for take-off. Like locusts rampaging through a cornfield, a long tail of Arsenal supporters is chasing us down the runway, screaming and waving frantically, convinced, as all children are, that they can run faster than the plane.

Suddenly my face is jerked away. We’ve had to stop because a child ran, literally, under the wings of the plane. Sitting high up, the pilots saw him just in time. They barely react. We speed up again. The trail of ragged bodies is squealing and giggling in delight.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Cultural Awareness Training

I have been able to establish that it is culturally unacceptable to carry out night-time guerrilla-style tactics (for example throwing shoes at tents, coughing loudly or turning on lights) to gently convince a recalcitrant snoring Chadian to turn over. None of the embarrassed, self-effacing (albeit slightly irritated bafflement that it’s always le ronfleur who’s expected to apologise) joking of the British caught in the act of snoring. Instead, an unfettered dagger-like stare was proof of my faux-pas. Tu n’as jamais entendue quelqu’un qui ronflent?

Ed: I got away with it - they thought I was scared..

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Gold Mobile.. the missing indicator is due to me smashing into the back of a pick-up truck

Better than ice-cream

It’s not strictly correct, as some claim, that you cannot find good ice-cream in N’Djamena. You can, thanks to a small Lebanese/French owned café called Amandine. They even have a Mr Whippy machine, so you can order a sugar cone (I was never allowed these when I was a child), and pile it high with delicious vanilla or chocolate flavoured ripples. Outside, where the heat can only be described as if someone was blowing a hairdryer in your face, the cacophony of phone credit sellers, children with trays of peanuts precariously balanced on their heads, trinket sellers, and pugnacious horn-honking dies away, as the luxurious slurping brings back memories of ’99 flakes, on late-April Sunday afternoon strolls through the park, with teenage girls stripping down to vest tops and miniskirts at the first hint of sunshine.

But I’ve discovered something even more refreshing than sticky ice-cream. The best tonic for this 50C, blood-boiling climate, is to find a young, impassioned Chadian who lets you into their world for a few minutes.

Today I met Dembeye. She studied journalism in Dakar (where all budding journalists from across West and Central Africa aspire to go), and now she’s back in N’Djamena trying to find a job. “I just love talking to people and writing she says”, but she’s aware of the difficulties. On a three month internship at a local newspaper, she knows her chances of finding permanent work outside the strictly-controlled government newspapers are slim.

We went to visit women in the Walia neighbourhood, who’ve taken to buying buckets of blood fresh from the abattoir and frying it up with onions into a liver-like dish (jokingly called ‘vampire’ by aficionados). “People don’t like to talk here” she says, staring at the floor. “When I tried to do this story a woman insulted me and asked me why I was doing a job like journalism”.

I’m a real novelty. We met some men who’d been sipping on local brew since 9am and were belatedly lining their stomachs with this new delicacy of fried blood. They spoke to me with a mixture of awe and ridicule. “Bili bili (the brew) and vampire is an excellent mixture” one man told me, “it’s cheaper than meat now that we Chadians face such an increase in living costs”. A fat pig snorted outside as it wallowed in the mud. “How can you live in Chad as a vegetarian?” another asked, and the room erupted – the laughter smelt so high I could have lit it with a match.

Back in Dembeye’s house, handing me a hand-made fan, she told me even she is ashamed sometimes when she sees how rude Chadians can be. She hasn’t had electricity for the last week, yet she still managed to find me some ice for my coke. I asked her what she was going to do. She looked across at her husband – “If he can find a job abroad then I will do some more study. I want to learn everything I can about journalism”.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Another Day, Another Flat Tyre

I don’t know how old the tyres on my car are. The car itself, (affectionately known as ‘the gold mobile’ by your correspondent), is a Toyota Corolla, circa 1982. The bonnet is a slightly different colour to the rest of the car, and looks like it’s been repainted with the sort of glitter pen I used to use in school. It had to be repainted after I crashed into the back of a pick-up truck one day on Avenue Charles de Gaulle. It’s been repaired many times before, I know, but I like that. Here a car will last almost forever.

I guess these tyres are no more than a year old - they even have treads, but that doesn’t stop me getting a flat at least once a week. I left the house today to be greeted with the familiar image of the car listing sadly to one side. I was already late to a meeting with a Chadian Women’s group to talk about how they manage to prepare food and look after their houses when there has been no electricity for one week (that’s another story). I asked my guard if he could help me to change it. He didn’t know how to do it and started turning the nuts the wrong way. My new clothes from America are now covered in motor oil.

After the rainstorm on Monday (this is not the real rainy season – just a two day break in the infernal 48C heat cruelly tempts with the sort of cool breeze that can instantly change a bad mood to one of reverence), I looked at those tyres and realised quite how useless they are going to be in the rainy season. Six months after the last drop of water fell here, one hour of ‘Mango Rains’ left plastic bags, banana skins, broken electrical goods and other assorted rubbish swilling about on top of a pungent black pools. The painstakingly perfected new tarmac roads which are springing up all over town thanks to Chinese engineers flooded instantly, the freshly cut drains blocked already.
Every season in Chad reminds me of how far away from home I am. Every season gives a false sense of security. Of course when it’s hot, it’s a relief to not have to spend half an hour staggering about, half asleep in the dark (power cuts – I’m getting to it!), trying to work out whether the mosquito net is inside out or upside down. But the mosquito’s demise pales into insignificance against the 4am 38C room temperature and the associated wet pillow. I long for the slippery leaves stuck to wet pavements and insipid air and drizzle.