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.