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