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 cafĂ©, 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.