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.