Rebel gunfire, the music of Chad
GOZ-BEIDA, Chad |
GOZ-BEIDA, Chad (Reuters) - Harsh light and shifting shadows in the windblown desert of eastern Chad can conjure strange images, but this was no mirage.
Lurking in the shade of a thorn tree was the dark outline of a pick-up truck carrying a dozen men brandishing weapons.
In this lawless corner of Africa, the shapes under the tree meant trouble. As our battered Suzuki Samurai accelerated away, kicking up sand, the sharp "crack-crack-crack" of gunshots split the air.
We had stumbled upon a mobile column of anti-government rebels, on their way to raid Goz-Beida -- a sandy town ringed by hills and camps housing tens of thousands of refugees.
In the conflict stemming from Darfur and now destabilising Chad and Sudan, many raids are blamed on "Janjaweed", Arab militiamen who roam the borderlands on horseback, raping and pillaging.
The oil-producing rivals accuse each other of backing rebel fighters to topple their respective governments.
But these gunmen were too numerous and too heavily armed to be Janjaweed. They rode in 100 or so mud-smeared Toyota pick-ups known as "technicals", without windscreens, with roofs cut off and replaced by heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons and artillery.
Each battle wagon carried up to a dozen rag-tag fighters armed with AK-47s or Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) launchers.
Fingers on triggers and itching for a fight, these were Chad's rebels. They made a lightning strike on N'Djamena in February, besieging Chadian President Idriss Deby's palace during days of heavy street battles, but failed to topple the government.
Now, they were targeting isolated lightly defended border towns where a European Union force is protecting Sudanese and Chadian refugees. They were raiding and retreating before the rains swelled rivers and blocked their movements.
We stopped our vehicle.
Seconds later hordes of sweaty gunmen swathed in turbans and "magical" leather amulets swarmed around us, shouting and shoving their weapons in our faces, pulling us from the car, banging their fists on the roof.
Grabbing our driver's mobile phone, documents and cigarettes, and a satellite phone belonging to my travelling partner, an American human rights researcher, the gunmen ordered us to follow them back into the desert.
Fearing abduction or worse, I said I was a journalist, held up my cameras and gestured I wanted to take their picture.
Even a dust-covered rebel knows the value of good publicity. The hostility evaporated and rebels posed with their weapons.
Then the battle cry went out and the cheering rebels roared off to attack Goz-Beida. Within minutes, we heard explosions and heavy gunfire. Black smoke rose above the town.
In the town itself, as we were later to learn, terrified aid workers were hiding inside their compounds as rebels smashed down doors and stormed over walls.
At Concern, they burst in, hijacked several vehicles, looted personal belongings -- and raided the fridge.
One wild-eyed rebel charged into a room where aid workers were cowering. He clutched a beer in one hand and a stolen electric iron in the other, his rifle slung over his shoulder.
He handed over the iron, saying it was no use in the desert.
He apologised for interrupting their game of Scrabble and politely asked for a can of Coke from the table, saying: "I'm thirsty."
The rebels ransacked the town. Two people, a civilian and a government soldier, were killed and dozens were injured by stray bullets and shrapnel during two hours of fighting.
Irish European Union troops deployed to protect a nearby refugee camp came under fire and shot back. Four unexploded RPGs landed inside the camp, one of them in a school.
After the rebels left town with their loot, we began inching back through the bush, until EU troops sent word that Chadian warplanes were looking for targets to bomb.
We abandoned the car and set off on foot, scanning the sky. Taking shelter in a riverbed, we waited for EU troops to pick us up, using GPS coordinates sent by satellite phone.
Fighting continued for another week before the rebels slipped back across the border.
On my last night in eastern Chad, shooting erupted outside the house and continued for 30 minutes. A stray bullet crashed through the ceiling, landing a few feet away.
In the morning, a kitchen worker was asked if the shooting had scared her. She laughed.
"C'est la musique Chadienne" -- It's Chadian music, the soundtrack by which people live their lives.
- Tweet this
- Share this
- Digg this