The driver complied without waiting for my instructions. It was clear I was no longer in control of my own freedom.
My driver spoke neither English nor French and just pointed at the rear view mirror. “Shit.” I knew this would happen at some point but the sight made my heart skip a beat. These were the people I least wanted to see, the secret police. Trapped on a narrow dirt street between mud walls, I could not ignore them. After keeping their distance for several days, they now signaled they were tired of watching me and wanted to talk.
There were three men in the Hilux. The one perched in the back with his hands braced on the roof of the cab looked like he was straight out of a movie set. The turban, man dress, and gold aviator sunglasses is a combination Hollywood gets right and I wondered who was imitating who. The belts of 7.62mm ammunition draped across his chest suggested these men were well armed and not completely relaxed. My driver pulled over in a wide spot in the alley and let the Hilux maneuver along side.
“Papers please,” they demanded in the harsh Chadian dialect. I don’t remember hearing Mahmoud’s translation from the back seat but after having been through this a couple times I knew exactly what they wanted. I held up a copy of my travel authorization with a fancy stamp from some Chadian ministry. Stone faced, the team leader gestured for me to hand the document over. I reluctantly passed it across and after pretending to read it he commanded us to follow him. My driver complied without waiting for my instructions. It was clear I was no longer in control of my own freedom.
We passed through the neighborhood and made our way up a rise to the west of the town. The mud-walled compound at the summit had a commanding view of the wadi that forms the border with Sudan. From here I could just make out a border guard snoozing in a chair under a tree on the Sudanese side. With no other structures or any vegetation in any direction for half a kilometer, the site was perfect for monitoring rebel incursions from the neighboring Sudanese province of Darfur. As I dismounted the Landcruiser, I noticed several young men waiting for us outside. They obviously knew I was coming but probably had no idea who I was. If they had, they wouldn’t have bothered to glare hatefully at me the way they did. At least they kept their weapons down or out of sight so I smiled widely back at them and hoped like hell they couldn’t see how nervous I was. The 9mm pistol in my backpack seemed to weigh a ton. Things were not looking good.
A week earlier I sat with a scowl in the Air Sahel office in the capital city N’Djamena. The night before, the Chadian transport ministry decided to get into the business of licensing aircraft and it was impacting the flight I chartered to Iriba on Chad’s eastern frontier. Air Sahel, the only private aviation company in Chad at the time, had its entire fleet grounded overnight. Tomas, the French proprietor, pilot, and “former” intelligence officer, managed to negotiate authorization to fly our mission that morning but only with a three-seat Piper Archer. Either Mike or I would have to stay behind for the next lift so I made the decision to leave him in N’Djamena. This kind of occurrence was a constant feature of our Special Forces training so without drama we quickly repacked our gear ensuring I would have everything necessary to accomplish the mission. Little did I know how glad I would be that we went through this drill. I shook Mike’s hand and boarded the plane with our interpreter, Mahmoud. “See you tomorrow,” I said.
Three days later, I sat under a thorn bush next to a dirt airstrip waiting for Mike and Tomas to arrive.”Iriba International Airport” I chuckled. When I flew in the previous week, we had to buzz the goats off the runway. I shuddered to think what a goat would do to a Piper at 80 miles per hour. Iriba marked the northern extent of NGO activity in Chad. The few rugged charities that operated here clustered around the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which had a logistics operation supporting 20,000 refugees in the nearby Iridimi camp. Most importantly however, UNHCR also supported the smaller non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – and me – with a cafeteria.
Among those smaller NGOs was the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which had a field office in Iriba managed by an intrepid Frenchman named Axel. I had befriended Axel on an earlier trip and he was kind enough to let me stage out of the UNICEF house while I waited for Mike. Axel impressed me as intelligent and self-reliant. Whereas I considered Iriba a rough place to visit, he lived here full time with one other UN employee and three African volunteers. He and his tiny staff struggled alone against impossible odds to ensure the health and safety of thousands of children in the refugee camp, which like all the other camps in Chad, had become a haven for rebels. He did so with little training and even fewer resources and it struck me that this was exactly the kind of guy we looked for in Special Forces. Too bad he was French.
This was the third day in a row I had spent at Iriba International waiting for Mike. His attempts to join me were plagued with bad luck. Yesterday Air Sahel had been pressed into service to evacuate a man wounded on a demining mission in the country’s north. The day before that Mike and Tomas never took off due to bad weather. Today they were already two hours late and I was beginning to get nervous. We always planned our communications in detail but days of delays and subsequent phone calls were stretching the limits of what we had anticipated. Mike had already missed one communications window. If he failed to contact me after the second, it meant something went wrong and I would have to adjust my mission in the blind. I switched on the Thuraya satellite phone and waited for it to connect. When the moment arrived, the phone rang. It was Mike and he was obviously not in a plane enroute to Iriba.
“Mike, what’s going on?” I asked. “Keep it short because I’m running low on minutes.” The Thuraya refill cards were the one thing we forgot to cross load when we hurriedly repacked our gear the other day.
“We got turned back by a thunderstorm.” Mike replied. “Tomas tried to bypass it but it was too large. We didn’t have enough fuel to make it so we retuned to N’Djamena.”
“I understand,” I said. “We’ll try again tomorrow.” I was not looking forward to another day of waiting under the thorn bush. Every time I stood still in Chad I attracted a small crowd of curious onlookers. I glanced at one old man sitting happily next to me. Thus far all were friendly but I was becoming a regular at the airstrip and I didn’t relish the growing attention.
Mike paused before he gave me the bad news. “No Lino, we won’t try again tomorrow. Every time Tomas turns the propeller on one of his planes we pay for the flight. After three days of this we’ve run out of money.” He listened patiently while I hurled a series of objections at him. When I was done he continued. “I’ve covered all that with Tomas already. I’m afraid you’re on your own.”
Lacking time to argue, we used my few remaining satellite minutes for some quick planning. As the Thuraya powered down the magnitude of my isolation suddenly hit me. I was a three-day drive from the capital city, without communications, and alone with an interpreter and a driver I didn’t know or trust and who harbored tribal animosities against each other. It was not a good situation to be in and it took me a moment to realize that despite all the challenges, none presented an adequate reason to deviate from my plan. I had a 9 mm pistol, a bag full of cash, and a whole lot of training to prepare me for this. It was time to get on with it. Returning to the UNICEF house, I prepared to depart the following day.
I had a 9 mm pistol, a bag full of cash, and a whole lot of training to prepare me for this. It was time to get on with it.
Six days later I arrived in Tine. It was the closest I had come to the border and the first place I visited that lacked any sign of the NGOs that had come to dominate many towns in eastern Chad. The long-term disaster of war in the Sudanese province of Darfur drew the humanitarians to the region in their thousands. Darfur was a sort of proxy battleground between the cynical regime in Khartoum and John Garam’s rebels in south Sudan. Militia violence and bombing by the Sudanese Air Force had displaced hundreds of thousands who fled to eastern Chad where the sheer number of refugees overwhelmed the capacity of the arid countryside to support them. The disaster grew in intensity as ordinary Chadians, mostly from President Deby’s Zaghawa tribe, began to push back, sheltering Sudanese factions that criss crossed the border to raid their enemies in Darfur. Initially these rebels targeted only the janjawid militias that terrorized their homes but they were increasingly used by Deby to fight Chadian rebels hiding in Sudan. Over time tacit support from the governments in both N’Djamena and Khartoum made the crisis an intractable extension of interstate competition. The suffering, and the NGOs, were here to stay.
Tine’s position just north of the crisis zone left it largely untouched by the conflict but ignored by the humanitarians. It also made Tine a good place for smuggling spies and weapons from Sudan. I was curious about the situation and so were my new hosts on the hill. Keenly aware that American and French intelligence agencies had once sponsored successful rebellions against N’Djamena, the Chadian security services were in no mood to let a lone American with strange companions wander around unmolested. So they brought me in for a chat.
My friends from the alley escorted me, Mahmoud, and my driver to a small room inside the compound where one orderly made a show of moving a stack of rifles from one side of the room to the other. I noted the number and quality of the guns which were far superior to the sorry FN wielded by 10-Tooth and his Army buddy when they tried to shake me down in Ngoura a few months earlier. As soon as the rifle show-of-force was over, we took up seats opposite a desk that dominated one end of the rectangular room. My escorts remained by the entrance and stiffened a little when a very well-manicured young man entered from a door behind the desk. “Damn it,” I thought. “This guy has teeth.”
Without a word, Mr. Manicure consulted my traveling papers which had been placed on the desk for his review. Satisfied, he looked up and greeted us coldly but professionally. My mind raced to calculate the dangers of my situation. Unlike 10-Tooth, this man was obviously literate and in possession of authority. He had the resources to maintain a manicured appearance in this dusty outpost and most importantly he had all his teeth. This was the animal I feared the most in Africa; the well-connected intelligence officer with a sense of duty and the resources to carry it out. I knew my only protection at this point was my white skin and the fact that he had no idea what he was dealing with. I could tell he was being cautious because I had not yet been searched; a good thing as my small pack contained a number of curiosities I was loathe to explain.
He began by questioning my driver who mumbled a carefree reply and stared at his fingernails in a display of great boredom. A cousin of the Zaghawa tribal leader of Iriba – President Deby’s ancestral home – my driver knew he was untouchable. Satisfied, Mr. Manicure shifted his attention to Mahmoud who came from an altogether different segment of society.
A Muslim member of the black-African and mostly Christian Sara tribe from the south, Mahmoud was actually a Lieutenant Colonel in the Chadian Air Force. Years earlier, when times were better, he had been a pilot of one of the country’s two C-130 cargo planes. Trained in the United States, Mahmoud spent most of his flying hours ferrying the President and his entourage around the world on state visits. He became disgruntled after the government failed to pay him for nearly nine months; a fairly common occurrence in Chad but a man like Mahmoud had valuable skills and a need to feed his family. He decided to offer his services to neighboring Cameroon where the government wisely kept him on ice while they mediated talks between him and the Chadian Air Force.
After six months the Air Force struck a deal and Mahmoud returned to duty in Chad. Things were good for a time but again the paychecks stopped coming and again he felt the need to act. This time he approached his old sponsor, the United States of America. According to the story I was told, he presented himself to the visa counter in the consular section of the US Embassy. His timing was perfect. The Embassy was hard pressed to provide enough interpreters to support a robust US-sponsored “Flintlock” exercise about to take place in Chad. They hired Mahmoud on the spot as an interpreter for a Special Forces detachment that subsequently commended him for his performance. A few weeks later he was recommended to me and away we went.
Now under questioning, Mahmoud was growing impatient with Mr. Manicure’s intense interest in his passport which, full of visa stamps, was an extremely rare oddity for a Chadian. The exchange between the two Africans accelerated and though I couldn’t understand a word of Chadian Arabic, I could sense Mahmoud was becoming annoyed. Their exchange grew heated and I felt the need to intervene. Though I didn’t want any attention from my host, I wanted even less for my employee to make him angry. I silenced the proud Colonel with great difficulty by forcing him to communicate that I was busy and was in fact on the way to the Mayor’s house – a true statement though the Mayor didn’t know that yet. Mr. Manicure looked at me and re-calibrated his persona; now it was my turn to answer questions.
His tone once again calm and emotionless, Mr. Manicure asked me who I was and what I was doing. I explained my presence, leaving out the sensitive bits and carefully emphasizing my relationship with the US Embassy. My mind raced. I knew stonewalling him would backfire; my only chance to keep my secrets was to entice him to ask the wrong questions. I decided to make this about my passport rather than my mission. My training took over. “Listen, think, pause, then reply,” I remembered, showing him my Chadian-issued identification card. He studied it a moment and took some notes. That generated a whole line of questions and gave me an opportunity to provide useless answers. He took a lot of notes and again asked for my passport. I handed him my driver’s license. More notes and more questions. Every time he asked something I didn’t like I took the opportunity to chastise Mahmoud for speaking out of turn. More than once this bought me a reprieve from the question. The pattern continued with fewer and fewer questions between requests for my passport. He was taking the bait but I was running out of documents.
“Your passport please.” He demanded. I gave him an insurance card. Fewer notes, fewer questions. Listen-think-pause-reply. There were so many things I couldn’t remember. I was confused. I didn’t understand the question. I was tired. I asked for water. I demanded a toilet break. I chastised Mahmoud. I insisted my driver be allowed to guard my vehicle. I had a coughing fit. I mentioned my appointment with the Mayor. I even asked some questions of my own which he declined to answer – it was worth a try. Through it all he demanded my passport several times before finally receiving a photo copy of it. The game continued until I had no other recourse. I finally handed him my official passport.
Mr. Manicure smiled with victory as I feigned submission. In his mind he had achieved his goal despite my efforts to thwart him. In reality he had achieved my goal; that he be satisfied with my passport – I actually had two. After nearly an hour of questioning, Mr. Manicure knew everything about me but nothing about what I was doing and this made both of us happy. Smiling, he made some final notes and returned all my documents. I thanked him in French and he responded in English. “My men will show you out.” Well played.
Mahmoud and I ran the gauntlet of young men again. This time they were a bit smug and less anxious to intimidate me. I smiled at them with a lot more confidence than before and tried to remember their faces in case I ran into them around town. At least that way I would know who was watching me. Once again in control of my freedom, we proceeded quickly to the Mayor’s house. The sun was going down and the streets would become dangerous. I had work to do.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC