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…”