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.