The French troops at the N’Djamena airport were wearing short shorts (pictured) – the kind you usually associate with cheesy beach movies starring Elvis, only these were in camo pattern. We trudged aboard a Greek C-130 for the quick flight to Abeche, the fortified eastern outpost occupied by the Chadian army, EUFOR and the U.N. Two weeks of rebel raids had all but locked down Abeche, but things were finally calming down as we arrived.
There’s an ATM in Abeche. Go figure. Otherwise, it’s remote, hot, barren – and surprisingly expensive: $2 for a two-liter bottle of water! But this is where the action is, and we’re happy to be here.
So what’s happening, and why should you care? In a world increasingly inhabited by the homeless and displaced, Chad is the worst-case scenario. Nearly half a million refugees make this one of the most desperate and volatile countries in the world. Here we see the enormous human toll of the ongoing conflict in Darfur, which has expanded into proxy wars between Chad, Sudan and the Central African Republic. Refugees from all three countries have sought safety in Chad. But Chad is far from safe, and even the presence of thousands of French and E.U. troops cannot guarantee the country’s integrity. Chad is bad off. But Chad could get much much worse. We should care not just because Chad is a major oil exporter, but because this crisis could spread throughout central Africa, affecting millions.
But Chad’s not going down without a fight. In February, rebels got all the way to the capital of N’Djamena. Hundreds of civilians died. This latest “offensive” has barely penetrated Chad. Government helicopters attacked the rebel convoys. Ground troops streamed into Abeche. In some places, isolated fighting was fierce. Some 60 wounded Chadian soldiers – including some child soldiers – were evacuated to N’Djamena.
The Chadian air force has played a vital role, spotting rebels and attacking them before they can reach targeted towns. At Abeche I saw weary-looking Mi-24 Hinds and Mi-8 Hips, armed to the teeth with rockets and guns. A French Atlantique patrol plane took off from N’Djamena this morning, surely headed out east to spy for rebel activity.