Hugues de TAPPIE
Hugues de TAPPIE, alias Hugues de TRESSAC … Under the OPN banner, from the landing in the Comoros on May 13, 1978 to the reconquest of Chad from the Libyans, in 81-82, alongside Hissène Habré and Idriss Deby, Hugues will also have been a solo navigator for four years around the globe, actor in Paris, company director …
YOU WILL ALWAYS BE MY DAUGHTER
Chapter 5 – Chad
Chad doesn’t exist. It’s one of those abstractions conjured up by the French government at the turn of the century. Its intangible borders are a product of decolonization, the divine goal of the OAU (but how else should they do it?), imposing an unnatural melding of peoples who have hated each other since the dawn of time. 1960: independence. At the same time, northern Chad, populated with filthy anarchists, entered into open conflict against the south, educated, imperialism’s best pupil, keeper of the new government and the new power. After many vicissitudes, the GUNT (Transitional Government of National Unity) was created in 1979. This would incorporate eleven “tendencies,” that is, eleven armed militias. Goukouni Oueddeï becomes the Head of State and Hissène Habré his Minister of Defense. Quickly, the latter criticizes Goukouni for selling his country to the Libyans. In March 1980, this conflict resulted in the long Battle of N’Djamena between Hissène’s FAN (Armed Forces of the North) and the various armed factions of the GUNT. Goukouni only achieves the unification of the tendencies thanks to the vagueness emanating from his insignificant personality. To finish, he brings it, demonstrating that he is really the Libyans’ man: he asks them for help. They land with their T-54 and 55 tanks, Migs, heavy combat helicopters, chase Hissène and invade the country, and, under pressure from Kadhafi, Goukouni signs a fusion treaty (!) between Chad and Libya. There was already the occupation in the Aouzou Strip in the north… the whole mess was serious, too serious, and the OAU, categorically, obtained the Libyan withdrawal from the disputed border. It’s then that Bob Denard intervened.
Hissène had lost the war, everyone watching saying it was over, and he found refuge on the border of Sudan, in the east. His staff, the last group of loyalists, were insignificant, a few hundred scrawny Goranes. He was reduced to being the leader of an isolated group, exiled to the small border of Ouadi Bari. France, allied through military treaties with Chad, whatever its government was, half-heartedly backed up Goukouni. The United States would gladly give support to Hissène but refused to intervene at all: it was understood that Chad was under French protection. Hissène, through the intermediary of Khalil d’Abzac, his eminence the fair, called upon the “Denard reserve” in order to obtain management for his partisan forces. Habré didn’t have money, couldn’t pay, but the Vieux decided to invest from the budget of the Comorian PG. He wagered on the Chadian’s recognition should they win.
It was September 1981, Mitterand was elected four months prior, and Denard had no more special contact with the SDECE, henceforth known as the DGSE. Le Vieux first dispatched Jean-Baptiste and Laurent d’Arp to Chad. Things started well between Hissène and these two men, who were evaluating the needs of his meager troop. After, Laurent returned to give his report to the Vieux. Hissène was of presidential caliber, his charisma, on the leitmotif of an independent Chad’s integrity, was impressive, his partisans were determined and courageous, but poorly armed. They urgently needed heavy arms and communications specialists… That’s where I came in.
When the Vieux told me this history, in Moroni, I sensed the call of the big game. How many men had this chance? To write history on the field of battle in the desert, like Lawrence, Largeau, Leclerc, Montgomery “of Alamein,” and Stirling, who founded the SAS… Things had come full circle.
The three men who were going to each give their real force were: “Jean-Baptiste, who is already in place. There was something or other to do with mortars, and he knows those like the back of his hand. Rio …” I knew him. A heavy artillery specialist. 30 years old. Almost two meters tall. Grew up in Sologne. He had been involved in the PG since his time in Brazil, where he earned his nickname.
“… then there’s you. Laurent only traveled to evaluate the situation, and won’t be accompanying you. I need him badly in Moroni. I don’t know Chad well, but it seems like they read too many stories over there. General Tapioca overthrows his mortal enemy yet again, but he’ll be back next time, and everyone wants to try to take his place.”
“Like everywhere, isn’t it?”
“Fine. But they take it further there. Listen, Hugues, you have carte blanche, no big orders. The future needs to be written from A to Z, and I’m not going to be there to supervise.”
“Good. How long will we be there?”
“I don’t know at all, my boy, no idea. You’re going to taking the plunge without a parachute. All I ask is that you manage to keep in touch with Moroni. As for Chad, you’ll see once you get there. The mission is simple: make yourself indispensible to Hissène and help him get back in the saddle. I’m on my own in this thing, and it’s a big one, you understand that Chad is two and a half times the size of France, not some pile of waste like the Comoros.”
“As far as the technical goes, a radio link with Moroni shouldn’t pose too much of a problem.”
“Another thing: through Laurent, Hissène has asked me for a C130 stocked with supplies. I asked all my African contacts, but nobody seems to want to help. Tell him not to expect that airplane any time soon.”
At the time, I knew next to nothing about what was going on in Chad. I hugged my family and told them that I’d be disappearing for a while, underground, with no mail. Impossible to even tell them where I was going.
In order to get one of those rare visas for Sudan, we were forced to falsify our papers with the heading of the ACF (Action Against Hunger), behind the charity organization’s back, of course.
Landed in Khartoum just after Christmas in a yellow dust field at the junction of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. A few grand avenues in the “British Empire” style where Field Marshal Nemeyri had paraded in his social duties as Marshal. Seven years beforehand, traveling in the company of Bernard Tissot, we were stuck in Luxor, out of money, and had dreamed of the mythic Khartoum, entrance to the deep African interior.
This time, we had made it. Layover in Meridian, in an anonymous hotel where we were supposed to receive a telephone call from our contact. We were surprised to get a call from the Chadian ambassador himself, a secret partisan of Hissène’s. He gave us orders for some bogus mission and accompanied us just to the border of Chad in a series of airplanes, each smaller and older than the last. Sudan itself was in the middle of a civil war, and the illiterate military’s control posts were plentiful.
The dilapidated plane headed out again, a quick right, a quick left, setting down in an ochre cloud, not far from Al-Juneynah, a village sympathetic to Hissène in southern Sudan. The first night with the FAN and their families. These nomads, armed to the teeth, welcomed us with anachronistic warmth. At dawn, we made for the border in a 404 plateau, bursting with FAN combatants. Lunar landscape, blue metallic sky, dry and light. We rolled along on hard planet Earth. No trail, even less of a direction, the driver navigated by the sun, the stars after night had fallen…. Suddenly, a fissure opened up under the tires. More fear than trouble, but the truck was out.
Abéché, the first Chadian agglomeration, terra cotta, low houses, flat roves, not a grain of cement. It had just been retaken by the FAN. Our compatriot Jean-Baptiste left to mark a landing strip for the hypothetical C130, which would never come.
Introductions next to the president of the FAN command council, very skinny, rather tall, small cropped beard, in a white boubou and fez: Hissène Habré and his air of eternal youth in spite of his age, between forty and forty-five years old. He didn’t know his exact date of birth, but, without a doubt, the war and the millet at each meal preserved him. He lived by himself in the nearby deserts of the prefecture of Abéché. His partisans camped at the four corners of the village and in the farmyard, in the middle of a heap of fuel barrels, guns, ammunition… Hissène wanted to personally control everything forever, which was common knowledge.
From our arrival, he tested us. He couldn’t believe that we weren’t French agents and didn’t hide his perplexity.
“Messieurs, welcome. Brave of you to come here, but what is your background ? What can you bring to us?”
“Lieutenant Hugues, captain Rio, Mr. President, we are ex-officers from the French army. Communication and artillery specialists.”
“We are only half-lying. I’m Denard’s lieutenant, in the PG. Rio and Jean-Ba are both reserve officers.”
“Good, but French services, just the same…”
“We come from Moroni, sent by Colonel Denard.”
“I see. But, this Colonel Denard, who does he work for?”
“For himself. He has his own budget thanks to the Presidential Guard of the Comoros, his ground work.”
“This seems too good to be true…”
He was cold and gentle. His French was impeccable, accent light and melodious, becoming passionate at turns.
“Mr. President, in current circumstances the colonel regrets that he cannot send you supplies, and you can no longer count on the C130 for the time being. None of the African governments with which he is in contact will do it. We are alone with you. Nevertheless, he asked me to establish radio contact with Moroni, hoping to break your isolation.” He studied me with the eyes of a cat. The plane’s absence was a disappointment, and the radio was troubling.
Were Denard and I, his envoy, there only to spy on him, to double-cross him? But if he refused, he risked losing us. He had seen Jean-Baptiste in action, the services he was performing on the ground. Denard’s game seemed clear, he only hopes Hissène’s recognition returns to the affairs thanks to our help after this one.
“Okay. Let’s find you a name. Dress like the FAN. Pass unnoticed. Your friend Jean-Baptiste, who is now called Ahmed Lucky, comes back in two days. I’ll go find him.”
Lord of the lost war, he was alone at the head of the band of frenzied Goranes. He hoped for reinforcements later, support from the Vieux, from his friends above all else… Nothing could happen without a radio link. I watched him hurry his orders via courier, like Napoleon…
“If you would like, Mr. President, we’re going to start by getting a fix on the materials recovered during the fall of Abéché. We’ll see afterwards how we can help you.”
“Very good. Quickly, go meet up with Idriss Deby and d’Abzac who will take care of you.”
At the school without any students, Khalil d’Abzac, the emissary, waited for us. A picturesque and jovial character, a half-blood born of a Méhariste officer and a flower of the sands, the forty-year old large blond man with long hair, like a Viking in his blue boubou, skin not much more copper than his ancestors in Dordogne, he welcomed us with a big smile. At his side, Idriss Deby, tall and lanky, twenty-six like me, appearing like a slow student, always ready for a party, was the chief of headquarters, a very theoretical position.
Idriss represented that explosive combination of French military technicality and of primitive warrior, in the soul, that is all Gorane. Later after the hard-won conquest for power, and his exercise at the sides of Hissène during seven years, he separated himself from him and overthrew him, like Hissène was going to overthrow Goukouni. Idriss Deby is the president of Chad as I am writing these words, which would have greatly distracted him if anyone had told him at the time (already ten years ago, and my wife, and you, my sweetheart…).
Sitting cross-legged, a very dark and very tiny live-wire: Dongolong. In French: Stuntman. I would come to understand why. The little unassuming Astérix, clumsily garbling three words of French, had inherited nickname in combat while leading his men. The whole troop was just like him, as the head of each individual band was chosen by the soldiers themselves, who would only obey him. The problem for Hissène was to control his chiefs, many of who’s actions depended of their mood at any given moment. Their only unity was tribal: they were all Goranes.
Khalil, Idriss, and Dongolong received us with enthusiasm. The tea ceremony, red or green. Sugar bread broken by hand. No furniture. Guns everywhere, no two alike, the fruit of twenty years of Chadian conflict. A preference everywhere for the eternal Kalash. They were stretched out on rugs laid on the ground, chatting as if the war wasn’t happening. Passing nearby were military leaders, already toothless or still baby-faced, cleaning their teeth and only stopping to spit on the floor (instead of the rug). Who commanded who and what in this hellhole? A total mystery. They should have gotten up, all of a sudden and cried, “Aillah! To war!” The women were nearby, some of them grinding millet or manioc outside. After dusk had fallen, a kid arrived with a big plate of wheat and millet, smelling of a strange green viscous sauce. They went to bed early, and got up likewise. The night watch, some Goranes spread around Abéché, was afraid of a counter-strike. The GUNT? The return of the Libyans? I fell asleep rolled up in a blanket.
At the village market, just milling about, since this civil war seemed to not even exist as far as the rest of the world was concerned, we started to become Africanized, haggling over baggy trousers, short dresses and tagelmusts. The war was always there, at that time happening only to concern two companies face to face, a thousand soldiers on our side (who knew how many?) , ten thousand on the government’s (or maybe more). The general population wasn’t involved, they only noticed that there were fewer nurses, schools, public services…
The return of Jean-Baptiste was preceded by the legend of his luck following the taking of Abéché where the Goranes had seen him run through a forest of bullets. “Ahmed Lucky! Ahmed Lucky!” children cried in front of him. The Gorane soldiers, not at all cowardly, were stupefied by his courage, and had given him the nickname. Khaki robe, bush hat over his Buffalo Bill goatee, a colt 45 slapped against his thigh. A sort of shining Celinian cowboy, an anarchist empire builder, a chaotic Lawrence, and acutely intelligent, at once luminous and practical. We stood together on the Antinéa. I had come from the strict Rhodesian army and, right off the bat, I was disturbed by his extremely casual nature. There, I couldn’t stop myself from admiring his character, and the exceptional moment he was living. The only European in the midst of the FAN horde for two months, he was happy to see us, even though he had managed to blend with these people, their language, their culture, like a fish in water, which was the most difficult of our missions. We lodged ourselves in an abandoned caravanserai as vast as it was dilapidated, adobe, and Ahmed the Lucky pulled out a bottle of J&B from God knows where.
Abandoned, scattered everywhere around in ditches in the field: SAM 7 missiles, Soviet DCA 14.5 and 23mm, “Stalin’s organ” Katyusha… all of this was brought by the Libyans a year earlier, left behind when the GUNT left and taken by the FAN with Abéché.
The Goranes weren’t known for their technical thinking. They don’t look into the problem at hand, at the slightest breakdown they get rid of it. Also, they would neglect all sophisticated weaponry. Their eastern spirit mixed poorly with the idea of continual progress. However, the handymen in the garages were proof of their unerring ingenuity for repairing old Peugeots, Toyotas, and wagons: without wheels in this desert, there were only camels… For modern weaponry, we would need to point them down the right path, introduce them to new machines, their usage, maintenance, and repair. We were going to work on “human material,” remarkable, courageous to the point of recklessness, with vibrant spirits, and the results would be just as spectacular.
After taking inventory, we joined a group of young and impressionable FAN members who spoke French and seemed to be resourceful. They were motivated, with the permanent war providing their education. They assimilated quickly, better than anyone in the provinces. With thirty or so youths, Riot and Jean-Baptiste-Ahmed-Lucky created a mortar support troop, with Chinese 81mms and made them repeat the ways of the soldier by rote. A weapon that is easy to procure, transport, and destructive even at long range, the mortar, descendant of the bomb, is a weapon that is simplistic in principle but complex in its use, demanding both a level head and swiftness. The projectile describes an orbit, the barrel marks its course in three dimensions, and the recoil is strong and grinds the barrel into the hard ground with the first shot. Afterwards, one must adjust the barrel after the blast and interpret the corrections given by the observer in regards to a table, according to the distance of the target. It is crucial to ally courage and reflection, speed of execution and coordination between the observer (on the radio…) and the man on the trigger, in order to direct the barrel without stopping, and fire the string of shells in just a few moments. Finally, repack everything before being discovered. Few Africans were able to create a firing squad with the precision for mortars, and that was one of the biggest reasons for the presence of mercenaries on their continent. Denard was one of the best when he started.
If Rio was going to use the mortars in such a decisive manner, the final victory was to come from the heavy artillery assault that we were going to launch with the rag-tag fleet of FAN vehicles. Recoil-free 106 cannons on Willis Jeeps, Katyushas and heavy machine guns on Toyotas, 23mm cannons on French VLRAs. The DCA, like the rest, was used by the FAN for sheer firepower: to snipe from one vehicle at another and not to shoot down airplanes. Between two delicate “com” mountings, I installed a Browning 30 cal on a 4×4. These machine guns (1917 model…) were offered, it seemed, by the defunct SDECE to the withdrawing FAN. Despite how outdated they were, they were excellent guns, soft, powerful ammunition, rapid fire, and above all else very manageable for turning on the enemy, with a handle at one end, unlike the huge anti-aircraft guns, which were aimed with a crank…
Three days after our arrival, Hissène called us into his office. Next to him were cigarette cartons and a suitcase full of CFA francs.
“We don’t have the means to pay you what we should, but I will give you thirty thousand CFA francs each month for your expenses here and… let me know if you have any money problems.”
An unnecessary gesture, but nice. It reminded me of my grandmother when she would give me a gift. He treated us like his other FAN lieutenants, Chadian patriots: six hundred French francs per month. Plus a carton of Winstons. The widely accepted notion regarding overpaid mercenaries was dealt a final blow. Happily, the Vieux gave me ten thousand francs in the Luxembourg account, my Moroni wage.
A volunteer came for the radio, an old gendarme taught by French transmissions: sergeant Idriss. I found in Abéché those same antique radios that we had in Moroni, A3 and BLU, typical relics leftover from French colonies. Crystal radios, they couldn’t communicate except with another crystal radio operating at the same frequency. Depending on distance and time, the frequencies used were different, which obligated me to juggle our small stock of materials throughout the network I was creating. I also found in a caravanserai a whole lot of military walkie-talkies. Changing out old 1.5 volt batteries, available at the neighboring markets, didn’t cross the mind of any of the FAN. In fact, the future would teach me that the FAN held a great disdain for radios, seen as a hindrance to their proud autonomy. By chance, I found a few modern radios, made in the USA, bought by Kadhafi from god only knows which trafficker. They would equip our vehicles and expand our net.
It was at one of these working stations that the radio link with the Comoros was devolved. Each morning, I would work myself to the bone for a quarter of an hour in Morse code. A weighty silence from Moroni. Hissène worried, his confidence wilted, what secret was I revealing to this correspondent who never replied? As a transmitter, I outwitted even the most sly. They learned the rudimentary procedures and the famous Boulevard Mortier code, improved with my care. A schedule replaced calculations; short, everyday, key phrases replaced novels. Simple and effective. The Goranes’ ability to adapt turned out to be astonishing, as long as one respected their personality. The only problem would be their pronounced taste for independence.
We lived with these men, twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, in a building near the edge of the village, facing our “firing range.” At sunset, most of them isolated themselves on mats and turned towards Mecca to pray.
One evening, Jean-Baptiste told us how he fought against the Libyans, just before their departure.
“Attacked by those bloody armored helicopters, with rockets, napalm…”
“The new Soviet Mi-24 Ps?” Jean-Luc had seen these beasts in Afghanistan.
“Yeah, those ones, the ‘Hind.’ Monsters, flying assault tanks, even the blades are armored. We managed to shoot one down with an RPG dead on.”
“And the pilot?”
“Nothing, only whites inside, no Libyans. East Germans. I took some photos after the crash, but then they were all black…”
A few weeks after our arrival, the daily meeting with Hissène was favorable: in our opinion, the mortar troop was ready; the radios were operational; the heavy artillery, in working order, was installed on the vehicles with a logic entirely western; finally the FAN mastered these things. The rainy season coming in June, it was imperative to take N’Djamena between now and then and Hissène wasn’t ignorant of this fact. He gathered his chiefs and told them the objective: Oum Hadjer, two hundred kilometers to the west, where the OUA was not yet stationed, deployed as an interventional force following the Libyans’ departure. Oum Hadjer secured the capital, sitting on the only trail that went to N’Djamena, the GUNT had therefore concentrated there forces there. The confrontation at Oum Hadjer, which would be presented in the French press like the “Big Fight” would decide it all.
Night was falling on the violet Sahel. Gorgeous departure for the primitive raid. A thousand men, one hundred beat-up vehicles gathered in Abéché. The prayers were fervent. The superstitious Goranes stroked their good luck pendants. Water was stored in bladders made from goat skin, attached to the 4X4s that spewed forth RPG 7s and 9s, munitions, and fighters. Khat and millet beer began to appear, Winston and J&B for the privileged. Bottlenecks for gas, at the barrels, at Hissène’s feet, who was distributing it, as king of petroleum, solemn, and a big shot. Bought for the price of gold in Sudan, fuel was the soul of the war in the desert. Jean-Baptiste was behind the wheel of his lucky Toyota, with which he had earned his nickname Ahmed Lucky, at his right a 14-18 Point 30. Riot, at this point called Saïd (I was Mustafa) had decided to hide himself behind a beard. Before, this enterprising and talented man had started a business in Brazil. Among other things, he made boards for windsurfing. Married, with a little girl, and later divorced. Perhaps one of the reasons that brought him to the Comoros? He wasn’t exactly the type to pour his heart out. For the moment, he was perched on the Unimog that served as the PC for the mortars. Nobody answered to anyone, and each 4X4 operated autonomously. Night fell. To the difference of Denard, Hissène had picked a full moon, they would roll out with no headlights to begin the assault at daybreak. Breeches moving, weapon’s cleaning, the armed vigil before the fight. “Gorane midnight,” the savage mechanized horde rattled off into the ghostly dust.
Heartsick, I stayed in Abéché, at the PC with Hissène. He demanded my presence, just as the non-existent radio link with Moroni demanded it, too.
The next day, a message from one of my young radio operators: We have taken Oum Hadjer, there were thousand of FAP, with CDRs and FATs, running away towards Ati. We are following them, no more gas. We took a hit, but that’s okay. Then, he began to insult the enemy they were following: We’re going to get you…. Bunch of fags… Go and get… by Kadhafi. I heard the others respond the same way on the same frequency.
All the big names were at the barbarian feast, Dongolong, Riot, Ahmed Lucky, Idriss Deby, Khalil, d’Abzac… Very courteously, Hissène Habré invited me to share his meals from then on. Did he suffer from the solitude of kings? He has a need to speak, curious to find out what a Frenchman thinks of him and his band of fools. In any case, he appreciates us, the three musketeers.
“Bismi Lillah,” he began, the equivalent of “may this meal be blessed,” I imagine. The privileged leader, he was the only Gorane who ate at a table. There were vegetables, the ubiquitous millet and a bit of chicken, sometimes even goat. Only a little better than the average soldier in the group. Unlike the Goranes, who eat like savages, he was quite urbane. The civil habits learned at University restaurant on Mabillon Street, when he was a student in political science, perhaps? He was glowing following he taking of Oum Hadjer that morning. His eyes shone with glory, he had his feline smile, the carnivore. He complimented me on the work Saïd and Ahmed Lucky accomplished with the heavy artillery.
“Now the two biggest obstacles that block the route to N’Djamena are Mitterand and the OUA.”
“If there’s a chance to make some trouble, the socialists don’t let it pass.”
That was me talking. Even though Hissène never gave me the impression of testing me during our conversations, it was certain that I had to distance myself vis-à-vis the “services,” in order to raise his suspicions from the first day that I belonged to the DSGE, me the caricature of a spy, with all of his radios, crystals, and secret codes.
“Them or the others… The French have never understood anything about Chad. Only the cotton interests them. For a century, the Parisian students have learned the same absurdities about the races of this country. They always speak of ‘Toubous.’ It’s a word that doesn’t mean anything, invented by them. We are Goranes. I am a Gorane. And Chadian, first.”
That frail and somber man, intelligent but high on his own ambition, embodied Chad. Or the artificial entity “Chad.” Product made in France, a nation crystallized, his homeland, new and fragile dignity, upended and exacerbated. If he rolled his R’s like my grandfather, scholar jealous of his Gascon accent, he had a pointed voice at times. Big silences at his table didn’t bother him. Me neither.
“The Goranes are the cousins of the people you call Touaregs. Before, they lived by raiding, snatching up frightened black slaves south of the Lake. Their salt caravans wandered in the desert, on the dunes between the Tibesti peaks, the palm groves of Faya-Largeau and the rocks of North Sudan. Below, Arab shepherds raised their skinny cows in the tiny Sahel, here… These two people became Islamic. The Saras, them, are more or less Christian, or animist. They raise cotton in the agricultural south, which the French call the ‘useful Chad.’”
His tone was contemptuous. Suddenly, at 12:59, he turned on his transistor radio sitting on the table for the news from Radio France International. A confusing situation in Chad, where troubles began again this morning.
“Look at that, not a word about our advance! Since the Claustre affair, the French want me dead. What a shame!”
“It’s certain that you blackmailed them and well.. nobody likes that.”
“First of all, little Claustre was wandering in a war zone, and we warned them that so-called ‘archeologists’ would be arrested.”
“As for commander Galopin, who came to ‘negotiate,’ and in France they denounce me for having him executed, he was a secret agent working for president Malloum.”
“Clearly, they aren’t going to send some pencil-pusher to come talk to you.”
“Yes, clearly. But it’s not for that that he died. It’s because he tried to kill me! You haven’t heard, eh Mustafa, the truth on the RFI news?”
“How is it that he tried to kill you?”
“He gave me a booby-trapped carton of cigarettes. Dongolong didn’t trust him. After a trick like that, I was obligated to execute Galopin … To return to Oum Hadjer, you heard Deby this morning on the radio. The enemy fled this morning, but still has the essential parts of its offensive forces. They will counter-attack, it’s certain, Oum Hadjer is too important. We must send reinforcements.”
“I already tried Moroni this morning. No response. They took comm. material at Oum Hadjer. I would really like to take a look.”
“I was going to propose the same thing, Mustafa. The next stop is Ati, home of those two-faced OUA. They claim that we must negotiate, and that’s all I ask. Goukouni doesn’t want to hear it. As long as they don’t force him to negotiate, they are protecting him, and there’s no solution.”
He spoke of his arch rival with detachment, without seeming like hate was choking him.
“Militarily, is the OUA significant?”
“What do you think? I only fear that my Goranes would lock onto them and rip them to shreds, and then real trouble would start.”
I had lunch and dinner with Chad, arrogant, proud, and nationalist. I swallowed a big spoonful. He was an intellectual and a war chief. More than Robert Denard, he was moved by the grand schemes of politics, he was persuaded to embody the only chance for his country, like the most incredible of megalomaniacs, the de Gaulles, Nehrus, Churchills… Clearly, everything would be second to his sacred schemes. Friendship, loyalty… He would kill his mother if he thought it would be good for Chad. Neither right or left, idealist without being prisoner to an ideology, or commerce, or foreign influence. This extremely rare point of view was worth its weight in gold in Africa. Although it’s never certain whether these grand leaders love their country or the idea that they create it, their people or the idea that they create them themselves.
“France only supports pro-Libyan Goukouni at an arm’s length and won’t dare to help me. The result: the situation deteriorates and drags on longer. If only they’d pick a side or disappear so that it could end! But it’s much easier to speak of arch rivals… when it comes to the Libyans, as soon as a Chadian leader proclaims our sovereignty, they get rid of him. As long as the geographical integrity of Chad isn’t restored, with Aozou, the civil war will continue. There isn’t any miraculous ‘democratic’ solution.”
At the end of the meal, we rinsed our mouths by taking a little water in the palm of the hand and scrubbing our teeth with our middle fingers, spitting outside. Alhamdo Lillahl!, and afterwards our work absorbed us, there was so much to do, let’s give thanks to God.
Oum Hadjer is a village smaller than Saint-Girons, Ariège. It’s true that the country has fewer than 5 million residents. Nearby: the semi-barren, “rolling” Sahel. It seemed easy then to continue around Oum Hadjer rather than to take it at great expense, and to continue straight to N’Djamena. Taking that hole was nevertheless decisive in for the Reconquista in which we were engaged.
It was even less a question of leaving an enemy stronghold behind us than that logistically we needed a relay point. Of course, all of our fuel came from Sudanese merchants, but we were going to be isolated, lost in the desert without the stop at Oum Hadjer. The enemy, if they had been better advised, would have tried to cut us off from our base in Sudan, where FAN was more “tolerated than supported.”
The welcome was good. The residents were busy burying the bodies of those killed downtown, most of them coming from the enemy’s side. On the other hand, in the western outskirts there were many bodies being picked clean by African vultures, swarthy scavengers that look like fat crows. These repugnant yet indispensible birds would follow us for the rest of the campaign. Satiated, they glided over our heads, like dark, chilling premonitions. The big dry wadi that traverses Houm Hadjer was a Boschian vision, the charred carcasses of automobiles, taken in a sandy trap, the driver still trapped, shriveled behing the wheel, the passengers all around, stopped dead in unreal positions. On the southern bank, I found Ahmed Lucky and Saïd, having finished it, beard and eyebrows covered in dust, they took the position to the right of the unique cemented ford, mortars in hand. Relaxing was out of the question, not with the rumor of a pressing counter-attack, maybe even attached to the OUA troops, whose neutrality in the field was no longer evident following our offensive. The fleet of vehicles was maintained in permanence, the atmosphere weighed a ton. My radiom operators had worked hard, even if nobody deigned to use a walkie-talkie, they had maintained contact between the column and Abéché just the same. Plus they blocked the enemy communications by emitting Morse signals on their frequencies, much to their own amusement. The Point 30s could only work for a short time, sensitive old things, worn down to the soul and hardly used to this Paris-Dakar version of Ben Hur, they jammed, requiring constant adjustment. I installed one to henceforth hold down the ford, just behind a Muslim tomb, a little mound of earth that sheltered the shooter.
The following morning, using a mobile American radio, I tried to reach Moroni during a free moment. Nothing. I kept trying, more furious than ever, obsessed with adjusting, fiddling with antennas… If they didn’t respond, I would have to return to Abéché where there was a good double antenna on pylons, even though everything was happening here. A whistle outside…. The Katyusha !
Under the fire of heavy artillery. Initiation. My shoulders sank. The Katyusha produces a terrible psychological effect. Unlike a cannon or a bullet that can’t hurt you once you’ve heard it, the Katyusha produces a crescendo of noise that is truly the sound of death’s arrival, the whistling of the scythe. The ground shook, the earth heaved. Also came the characteristic sound of the burst of antiaircraft fire shot across the ground, grazing. They had the same arms, and for good reason. Plus 122 and 152 self-propelled cannons that the FAN hadn’t yet had a chance to take. I ran through the deluge towards Jean-Baptiste and Rio. The Toyota had to be pushed to start it up, to get to shelter behind a building, motor running. But where were our recruits with the mortars? In choosing the youngest, we found ourselves with boys who were lively but not yet hardened, and they were hiding in some houses. Rio shouted a bit. They returned to their places. Fixed in place, vulnerable, mortars were in the center of the operation. Only they could hit the enemy without being seen. The attackers were too many, deployed, explosions all around, it was impossible to know where the shells were coming from. Contact had already been made, a confusing melee, close hand to hand combat. The feeling of being jostled, pushed in from all sides. Fear. They wouldn’t take any prisoners. A quick glance towards the macabre wadi. Impossible to flee. We had to fight, and win. Do your job and the calm would return. I ordered two young Goranes to use the Point 30 that was on the Muslim tomb. Without lookouts, Rio and his mortars were blind. With Jean-Baptist driving, and me at the mounted Point 30, we took off towards the fighting. What was going on, were the mortars usable? Upon reaching it, the show was Homeric.
One often compares desert warfare with naval warfare. The same mobile strategy applies. Here, these thousand individual confrontations rather take after wheeling air combat. A few kilometers away, hundreds of all terrain vehicles turned around while firing off volleys. The lack of organization brought the confusion to the point of absurdity. The Toyotas were blue civilian pickups, identical on both sides, all the VLRAs were the color of sand… It would have been crazy to send mortars into that maelstrom without a definite position. We had hoped to see the second wave of FAT, grouped at a distance, so that it would have been possible to fire on them. Instead, in my binoculars, I saw on the horizon small white armored vehicles stamped with three enormous letters: OUA. The orders were official, don’t touch the mediating forces. I warned Riot about the situation. We decided to enter the fire. Jean-Baptiste drove us like a cavalry. Next to him, taking death’s place behind my machine gun, I lined up the enemies in my sights. They did the same but frenetically turning their cranks, they didn’t have the same agility as the 30. In a few moments, I put a few shots in the goal. For the first time I shot at men, who fell, flailing. I killed them in all likelihood, in a flash, before they could kill me. Jean-Baptiste came and went, covering the entire battlefield, our lethal coordination resembling a kind of choreography. The enemy, not yet accustomed to fighting in retreat in front of FAN that were so well equipped, gave proof to a real combativeness. Popping up out of the dust, surreal and peaceful, impassive behind his African playboy sunglasses, the great leader Deby, armed passenger in a Toyota.
“Idriss! How’re things going up North?”
“I don’t know! Go see if we can launch any mortars.”
We returned to the middle of the village, passing the wadi as fast as we could, in front of Rio, and rushed off to the northern front. The rabble was even bigger, a lethal and general chaos, very dusty. We cut into the waltz; I scored, playing the acrobat grenadier to their mammoths with hand-cranked weapons. It was crazy, I was strong, and so vulnerable, had eyes in the back of my head. Would I die in that moment? A few holes in our vehicle attested that we had served as a target. The wrecks of other vehicles marred the horizon, lit by flames, under the watch of the bodies inside.
“Death to assholes and long live anarchy!” shouted Jean-Baptiste as the situation was getting out of hand, the invaders fell back, and ended up being chased back. The bulk of the troop held on, but even at the strongest point of their assault only managed to penetrate a small way into Oum Hadjer. They could only hope to penetrate it now that some of them had disbanded. The contagion won, soon we would transform into a pack chasing the enemy in disarray. The OUA disappeared on the horizon of the Sahel.
The government forces were at least three times as large. They still possessed a capacity for a formidable reaction, we would see for ourselves. We found Dongolong, hot on their trail. Together we located a group of trucks and runaway Toyotas, far off, full of heavy weaponry. Come on! At the summit of a dune, in my sights, I saw only a shrubbery that would hide our objective. Would they have stopped behind it? Without hesitating, Jean-Ba and Dongolong bolted, motor racing, followed by a Willis Jeep equipped with a 106. Our Toyota was the only one carrying only two men. Dongolong’s was packed with clinging FAN. Suddenly, one of them fell on the stones, letting out a cry more of anger than of pain. They were indeed behind the mortal brush, and they squared off against us! On the right and the left, horrified, I saw the start of two Katyushas with grazing fire, the launch broken down, slow. I could follow the visible course of the rockets perfectly, from the vociferous, whistling bottom that drove it on its way. Foot to the floor, Jean-Ba began to zigzag in the desert, and a rocket landed in front of us, inert. Others scraped by our heads, and in an instant, two volleys of twelve rockets erupted, exploding on both sides. Each fraction of a second lasts long enough to notice the perfect roundness of the craters, to savor the soft soil that better absorbed the shrapnel than the hard ground, to see myself as a clay pigeon, detached.
Ruined. Ruined. Ruined.
At the same time, they lit us up with a burst of four-barreled antiaircraft 23 mm, one out of every five bullets a tracer, straight star, clean. This naked glaze was interminable, maybe three or four hundred meters at the end. I fired off an entire magazine, ineffective thanks to the jolts and J-B’s desperate slalom. One hundred meters from the edge of hell: the enemy had fired their volley, and then fled in catastrophe. As soon as we got close enough to touch them, the GUNT 4x4s accelerated.
At our turn, we took the time to line them up, to follow their zigzagging. Too short. Fleeing, they continued to fire at us. I took notice of my oppressive thirst, my dehydrated throat, a bit of gnarled leather between my teeth. The chase recommenced, accelerator to the floor. At full speed, a Gorane shot down the driver of the Katyusha with an adjusted shot. The Toyota flipped over, lit on fire, the survivors saving themselves however they could, on all fours or on one foot, scratching at the ground… We shouted with joy, carried away. Dongolong caught up with a long volley from the VLRA carrying the 23mm having lost his voice, as though it were jammed or at the end of the tape. The rats abandoned the ship, but the FAN, pitiless, all set themselves upon the Kalash, no prisoners during the action. Dongolong jumped on the VLRA, seizing control of it, crying out in triumph, his men brandishing their RPGs against the blue sky of victory. It was spectacular.
Dongolong’s group had lost a man, the one I had seen fall, killed cleanly from far away. And the four with the Willis who followed us, pulverized by a direct hit from one of Stalin’s rockets. The only thing left of them was some charred strips, tangled up in the slag.
On the left, enemy columns in disarray towards the west. What thirst! Nobody on the walkie-talkies, of course. We caught up with the bulk of the pursuant troops, stretching on several kilometers.
Riot was among them, having loaded the mortars on the Mercedes Unimog. Finally some prisoners: a Goukounist Land Rover had broken down, tires busted, riding on its rims. The FAT occupying it preferred melodramatic surrender to a foot chase. They begged us for leniency with Italian style gestures, on their knees with arms high above the head. I discovered a can of beer in a munitions case in their Land Rover. Finally a thirst-quenching spoil of war, even if it was boiling. No a bézef left of gas, we had to be about thirty kilometers from Oum Hadjer, the chase stopped from a mutual agreement. Behind us the Apocalypse, columns of black smoke, the group of burned-out vehicles, folded-up bodies, vultures circling. Withdrawal to Oum Hadjer. According to the vigor of our reaction, we should’ve had some peace for a little while, the reputation of FAN’s invincibility should’ve been established. The injured gave proof of a hallucinatory detachment: one of the Goranes had his arm ripped off and was laughing. A surrealist vision that repeated itself.
Wounds to the gut were fatal. For the others: morphine and a metal saw at the hospital, or whatever was substituting for one. The GUNT had more than 500 dead, us several hundred losses, including the injured. The population was already busy collecting things for the bodies around the perimeter. Everything had started only four hours earlier! Time stood still, then flew by faster than anyone realized. I found my machine gun. It didn’t need to be used; the enemy hadn’t been able to penetrate close enough to the ford. But they weren’t far away: a goat lay exactly on the Muslim tomb, two red holes in its side…
“Look at your machine gun Rimbaud, if you had stayed there!” We began to laugh hysterically from retrospective fright, from satisfaction at having acted like we had to and from pride in our victory, from relief to be alive and intact. Never again would I be pushed so far towards the edge, to the “edged of myself,” as Bob would say. For Chad, for adventure? All that carrion. The Goranes were there because of warrior atavism, all their culture, violence is their norm. The other Chadians signed up for the mess kits, coming out of their hole, ignorant of what was waiting for them. I stretched out on the desert, groggy. The average mercenary can’t avoid the questions that remain more elusive for the regular soldiers, conditioned, restrained. Nothing obligates us to be there, not orders or gregariousness, nor a chance at the history of my homeland. And for what gain? A certain apprehension about the future.
After that afternoon, my credibility was stronger around the FAN, their friendship was unbridled. It must be said that their ranks grew lighter and stronger. They didn’t speak of it.
How had the enemy been able to attack us by surprise? That question remained unanswered. It had been necessary to approach quickly and protected by the shape of the terrain, the refusal to use the radio had done the rest.
Between our damaged armament and the new spoils, Riot and Jean-Ba had their work cut out for them. The radio too, with the spoils of the seized mobile posts.
Moreover, the lockdown of Oum Hadjer, turning point of the civil war, secreted feverish strategic calculations that made the enemy’s systematic surveillance crucial. The work for Oum Hadjer was then entrusted to my young recruits, and I withdrew to Abéché in order to deploy my ears. There I found old sergeant Idriss and we installed the PC radio in one of the annexes of the prefecture. Mystery: finally Moroni responded. We were hoping that the Vieux had finished by sending off a plane of munitions. The text of the first message that I sent: Airborne priority: 7.62 Chinese and NATO, currency for gas. The response was terse: Currently impossible. Maintain contact friends. Habré didn’t blink.
The only thing left for me to do was to develop and manage a military communications network as large as the ex-metropolis. And listen for the enemy day and night. The enemy used a simple code made up of words swapped for each other. A type of perfect wooden language, without major problems of comprehension for a citizen who was used to decrypting out ministers. We worked by cross-checking hundreds of messages. Patience and plenty of time. A sole imprudent enemy radio operator who didn’t encode his message could reveal a lot. The clarification of a part of the rebus would exponentially lead to other discoveries. We listened by voice communication and sometimes by Morse code. They were looking for me since I would have been the only “heavy artillery specialist in the rear.” Specialist a little light, I never understood anything about the 23mm, the real machinery.
A long period of intimacy with Hissène, we took all of our meals together, he took me into affection, confided his doubts in me. Alternately sweet and authoritative with the evil eye, he would hesitate about the direction to give to his conquest.
“How to do it? With the OUA interfering with the route to N’Djamena!” he brooded at the table. “The problem isn’t that the military is loyal to the politicians, even external ones like the OUA, but rather that the politicians spoil the situation.”
Nothing had changed: the OUA claimed to recognize Hissène as the official spokespersion, but without forcing Goukouni to negotiate. They forbade us all forward action, diplomatic or warmongering. This blocking situation could have lasted forever and the rainy season is going to arrive.
He returned the problem in his head. It was out of the question to confront the OUA, precisely interposition forces, he chooses to legitimize his power afterward. He thought that he didn’t possess the logistical means to circumvent that obstacle and rejoin the trail in the north, from which he could pounce on N’Djamena.
That’s when an unexpected catastrophe struck. We heard it over the airwaves: on their own, a FAN column had chosen to sack a well held by some goukounist Goranes, habitual nomads in the area, northwest of Oum Hadjer: Goss. The affair seemed like it had been decided in advance, the FAN found themselves engaged without preparation and defenseless. Fatal was their surprise to discover this brackish well so ardently defended. The survivors fled in disarray into the desert. Goukouni, counting on Hissène’s reticence to confront the OUA on the direct route to Ati, wouldn’t he have thought of Goss’s passage and reinforced this gap? Whatever happened, it was serious, the FAN, after a succession of uninterrupted victories, could be shattered psychologically by this first defeat. Immediately, Hissène understood the necessity to win back his luck. He gave the order to Deby to recapture Goss. I fled to Oum Hadjer to establish secret draconian radio surveillance. The essential of our forces would be mobilized in the battle, if the enemy heard of it, empty Oum Hadjer would be very vulnerable.
The three musketeers found each other again.
Exept that there were four…
“Riot the monumental, alias Said, he’s the spitting image of Porthos!” Jean-Baptiste said ironically, “And you Hugues Mustapha with your mustache you’d make a proud, presentable d’Artagnan. As for me, I see myself well as Ahmed Lucky… Aramis the nimble, no?”
They joked, a bit forced, they were going to leave to take Goss with the big FAN troops in a few minutes.
The boiling Ahmed the lucky just the same confessed a strange premonition as he was leaving, extravagantly doffing his hat to me.
“I’m not feeling it, this thing here.”
After their departure, at night, for a dawn attack, I returned to the PC radio in Abéché.
The next day, while I was trying to check up a 14,5 bitube, Hissène called to the radio PC.
« Mustafa, bad news… Ahmed Lucky was killed yesterday in front of Goss. Furthermore, nothing is over, the fighting is still going on. »
I went outside to breathe, without a word.
Hissène had liked Jean-Baptiste very much.
Goss was terribly flat. Not a single home. A well. At a distance, at the mortar, Riot had pounded the entrenched goukounist Goranes, buried in individual holes around their well. Usually, the Goranes fought standing up, refusing to hide themselves whatever the risk. And Jean-Baptiste had charged at the head of the roaring Toyotas, standing in his truck. Maybe he cried out his “death to cunts!” to galvanize his troops when the first bullet had struck him in the heart. Partisans of Hissène or Goukouni, the Goranes are all excellent shooters. Following the death of Ahmed Lucky, the assault failed. Riot should have renewed his bombardment with the mortars, all day, before Goss finally fell. The FAN left after suffering major losses. No prisoners.
At noon, I couldn’t hide my resentment towards Habré.
“Since the beginning, you never put much confidence in us. You didn’t trust my radios. I understand that you can’t remunerate us. But I dare to hope that after having paid with our blood, it’s clear: we are not here to double-cross you, we don’t cheat for anybody.”
After the bitter victory, Rio returned to Abéché for an hour. Immediately after Jean-Baptiste’s, he burned the body in the desert. He told me that among the Goranes he splashed gasoline for an impromptu funeral ceremony, primitive and touching. Our work had to be done with discretion; in no case should the enemy be able to prove that mercenaries were in combat. That’s the rule of the game. A free act, the supreme liberty of anonymity in world of publicity in which recognition outweighs accomplishment. Riot handed me an iron box, a grenade holster containing a bit of charred bone, a few bits of charcoal around it, all that was left of Jean-Baptiste who would sing in the night: What matters glory to me the pirate / the laws of the world and what death matters ? / On the ocean I made my victory / and drink my wine in a cup of gold…
Riot had brought back the poor fortune of our friend: a green bath towel that I still possess, two rolls of film to develop, a Trekking belt containing his papers. Born in Aix. The city where he had studied law while dreaming of the grand adventure in Africa. The hussar wasn’t even thirty. Politics didn’t interest him, money even less. He loved women, could live without them in the field, more than one would cry for him. I sent a final message to the Comores: “Jean-Baptiste has died on the field of honor in Goss.”
Goss’s fall opened access to the route going to the north, allowing us to go around Ati and the OUA. N’Djamena seemed to be in our sights. The enemy didn’t kid themselves, a wind of panic and division blowing on their army that we would take advantage of. The horn had sounded. Hissène opted for the mobile PC. His radio chief at his side, he set forth on the route of power, collecting in the tiny villages volunteers who followed his astonishing charisma. The young people gave him their allegiance and enlisted enthusiastically. Prudent conqueror, he set off again with small garrisons to take back the country. We met up with the assault wave that would conquer Salal, Moussoro, Massakory, Douguia, Massaguet and N’Djamena, one thousand kilometers of quotidian epic. The mortars led the way, flushing out the garrisons, and the FAN charge, the intoxicating rush of the 4×4 sieves. The exemplary strategy of this campaign would be studied at the French École de Guerre, a step on the way to earning a general’s star.
The first dawn after Oum Hadjer, in a village taken the day before whose name didn’t stay with me, we slept under the stars, curled up, rifle on the cheche, when a desperate GUNT counter-attack would wake us up, with heavy weaponry and I miss the grand voyage. The same day, we traversed Goss the damned. A no man’s land beaten by the wind, ploughed by shrapnel, two round huts in gnarled, thorny wood, covered with rags, around a dry well. For this extreme place, waves of Goranes attackers and defenders died, all cousins, with my friend Lucky. Hissène and I paid our respects to them silently.
“Perhaps Goss hadn’t been reinforced by Goukouni,” Mr. President reflected out loud, “The Goranes here would have preferred to die in place just because it was their sand.”
We found such a resistance in this pathetic hole, it’s inexplicable.
Without much difficulty, we traversed villages devoid of strategic interest. They had only been occupied by Mu’ammar al-Kadhafi’s politico-religious police, who painted everything in Islamic green, before abandoning thousands of little green pamphlets and incredible propaganda videos in the face of our advancing forces. In company with a laughing Hissène, we viewed the rants of a megalomanic gourou, the flashy buffoon green and golden, the jutting chin of Mussolini, gesticulating his hilarious fantasy better than any dictator in history.
In Salal, we met up with Said. We took the northern trail. Henceforth, it would be tantalizing for the Libyans to fly to the aid of Goukouni. Fly is the word because there would certainly first be a strike by their aviation. The damage that can be done by a sole Mig optimized for a ground strike on a desert colony is unimaginable to honest people. We could have found ourselves lain waste to before having seen where the menace came from. The two “western specialists” distributed SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles, of which we had plenty thanks to those same Libyans. It was the first time that we had had that type of equipment, hopefully fairly simple. The infrared homing guidance was attracted to the heat of the plane’s tailpipe. Fired vertically just after the plane’s passage, not before. Never fire in the direction of the sun, because the missile will be lost trying to find the star, more attractive than the plane. Fireworks of a dozen SAMs to get the hang of it and to initiate the Goranes who applauded like children.
The convoy arrived at a well where a caravan of dromedaries refreshed themselves. The day before, I had seen a mirage, a blanket of water suspended in the sky. Under our tires, the desert became sandier, more difficult. More and more, we handled shovels and metallic plates. To get stuck in the sand under enemy fire elicits the exact feeling of a nightmare.
In Massakory worked a team from “Médecins sans fontières” and, more importantly, was stationed an OUA garrison… However Hissène gave us the green fire, with only one order : not to hassle them. Where was he getting his newfound assurance of their neutrality? The rumor ran that he had sent a corrupting emissary, porter of an attaché case bursting with irresistible dollars to get the attention of their captain…
Assault. Combat. In fact, the OUA didn’t intervene, observing from a hill. Massakory fell.
No triumph for us, Hissène dreaded that the OUA or the doctors without borders would see the two shameful mercenaries. Riot and I found ourselves relegated to a patio four eight days, to fulminate with impatience. Convivial, the FAN would line up at our place with their weaponry to be repaired. When we left the city, with stupefaction we discovered in the group of miserable vehicles a new Toyota! Spotless. There was an inscription on the doors: “Médecins sans frontières”. Mortified with shame, we understood. Sure of the justice of his cause, Hissène didn’t hesitate to requisition the vehicle belonging to the docs, who would find themselves on foot in Massakory…
Since the fall of Goss, it must be noted that there was an indisputable evolution in Hissène’s attitude towards us. His “desert crossing” came to an end. Before our blinded eyes, he became head of state. We had been indispensable – some would even write that such a conquest wouldn’t have been possible without the intervention of Denard’s men – we became visible. The privileged intimacy from which I benefitted during those months was no longer of any consequence. Day by day, metamorphosed by his glory, the emperor confided less in his messenger, growing distant, secretive. He was perhaps indebted to us for his new power to the point where we had to fear for our lives… That perhaps he would discreetly liquidate two annoying clues, artisans of his triumph that he would have liked to owe only to his Chadians. Was this persecution madness on our part? We will never know. Just one day, isolated in convoy with my radio that had exasperated him, the shadow of doubt had chilled my blood. The future would prove that Hissène manifests the unpredictable ingratitude of the great politicians of the world. Many others would disappear, quite a few of them more official than we: Idriss Miskine, very quickly after the fall of N’Djamena, foreign affairs minister, bright giant to whom he owed much, the only one who could represent a counterweight to his omnipotence; Hassan Djamous, victorious war chief who believed he had well earned the fatherland; two brothers of Idriss Deby, lively following the latter in a dissidence that would finish by proving fatal to president Habré… but that’s another story.
Massaguet, five hours of combat, last stop before the apotheosis of Atilla and his horde. It loved its chief, recognizing him as such, without idolized veneration, without “cult of personality.”
Magnetic focus of the FAN for the final struggle. They had come, carried by the impending victory, beggar kings of Faya-Largeau, Mao, Ati – which to finish surrendered without fighting – Abéché or Oum Hadjer. How many were we? Two thousand? Four thousand? The international press, who were seen only at the Chadian, the big hotel in D’Jamena, after the battle, would publish conflict numbers.
The royal entrance. Final assembly and bottleneck of patched-up vehicles. We rode the last fifty kilometers on the only paved section in the country. In the hot night turned muggy, the rainy season arrived. The orders were to arrange ourselves on the sides and wait. But an anonymous Toyota stole the opportunity for the glory to be the first in line and everyone left to attack, without order and in the most complete disorder. It would have been necessary to take the city in a stranglehold, to encircle it in order to stop the Goukounists, starting with Goukouni himself, to stop his escape… In place of that, we attacked in a single column. By the south since they were waiting for us in the north, but this ruse didn’t stop Goukouni from “exfiltrating” in catastrophe by the Chari, the river separating the city from neighboring Cameroon. Like Hissène had done a year and a half before him, like he would do again eight years later in face of the advance by Idriss Deby who would overtake from the same Sudanese room where we had left, at the foot of Darfour.
The wolves get into N’Djamena. The fugitive Goukounists, split between fear and fascination from looting, would die for an air conditioner. The city, already bullet-riddled, honeycombed from the long civil war of 1980, resonated with a thousand single struggles. Five months day by day after having joined Hissène Habré in a dark room on the border of Sudan, I penetrated victoriously into the capital. Proud to have succeeded in my mission, not enthusiastic. The welcome had nothing in common with the liberation of Moroni (reference to the operation of May 13, 1978 in the Comores). N’Djamena had been liberated too many times, the blasé populace marked the points in their caves.
A few days later, Laurent arrived in the first regular airplane to land in the recovered airport. Then Carel and two others from the Comores, hurried by Denard. The Vieux debarked at his turn, he counted, the poor thing, on the Habré’s recognition, that he would provide him a budget in order to create a presidential guard, or to mount a force for the war that would start again in the north with the Libyans… At least that the president of the Chadian republic would pay for services rendered.
“It’s not earned, my colonel, he has become more and more touchy as the victory approached,” I said to warn him before his interview in the unreal villa where Hissène reigned, the same one as Goukouni, a warrior’s home, like the prefecture in Abéché, in front of which hundreds of solicitors lined up for days.
And, in effect, at his return:
“This man doesn’t give a shit about us!” cried Bob Denard, “A real clown, he takes our help but doesn’t want to pay anything after the victory, not even promises for in the future! And he still wants more help, always his C130! He says he has no cash, none. The Americans only promise corn… As for the French… Me, boys, I’ll continue to pay you for three months, if funds don’t start moving until then… afterwards, I can’t do any more. Either you return to the Comores or you stay here and play your own game, if you can get anything from the new head of state…”
“Sir… right now I have my boat waiting for me; I would like to stay here two months to organize the transmissions from N’Djamena, but after that I’m done. I’m not going to play the concierge here. For Moroni, you know where I stand. Nothing new there?”
“Nothing special. But I have nobody to replace you, it would be good if you came back at least for three months.”
I watched it arrive.
“Since my departure, things are fine without me in the Comoros. I’m not indispensible.”
“That’s fair. Do what you want. Give up if you want.” A few days later, I encountered Idriss Deby, I told him about our probably departure and why,
“After all the work you have done! And Jean-Ba who stays behind! Shit’s far from being in order. You are one of us, and we still have need of you. Since he’s been here, I don’t understand Hissène anymore.”
“You’ll see, power corrupts, and absolute power…”
Everything needed reconstruction. Hissène should have gone into the streets, given orders and delegateded, like after the fall of Moroni. Instead he shut himself in and nothing could happen without him, we spun our wheels, powerless, disappointed. Soon combat would start again in the north. We hunted our bitterness in N’Djamena with Riot and Deby’s band… And I met a radiant Chadian woman, divorced, mother of a young boy. I remember that, refined, she burnt a mysterious parfume underneath her shaved sex before our lovemaking.
In August, Khalil d’Abzac accompanied me to the airport. I brought the lucky urn of the mercenary Jean-Baptiste Pouyet and his rolls of film.
Paris. Development. The smiling hero driving the Toyota of his exploits and of his death, a crashed armored Soviet Hind helicopter, charred corpses, unrecognizable, half ejected from the wreck, portraits of armed Goranes, posing proudly, all sorts of weaponry, miscellaneous African catalog, photographed for the Vieux’s information. I gave it all to him.
Eight days later, at the request of the Vieux, I returned to N’Djamena dressed in my outfit like a secret agent or arms dealer: suit, tie, black glasses, briefcase. My mission was to propose the C130 full of munitions, that seemed dear to Hissène’s heart, cash payment for a fee. Everything we could propose to him, by the Sud-Af. He received me in priority and at length, sympathetic, happy to see me again, going over our memories of the desert… But his response didn’t change: “No money, Mustafa, no money.”
Six months and a lot of merchandise later, the C130 finally landed, paid for by Hissène. I would then be far from these negotiations.
At my return to Paris the second time, I brought Donglong in order that he would be operated on at Val-de-Grâce. He had sustained a bad wound, the black eagle trailed on his crutches.
He had never left Chad, he was marvelously naïve, dumbfounded by everything, even the smallest intersection with traffic lights, the height of Montparnasse tower. We had a drink on a terrace on the Champs-Elysées. Some blacks passed, employees of the City of Paris, pushing their municipal brooms, uprooted and nonchalant in their green ecologic uniform.
“You have nothing to do here, Donglong. After your operation, return home quickly.”
I left him at the Chadian embassy.
“Ciao, proud stuntman.”
“Goodbye my friend Mustafa.”