Friday, February 8, 2008

Ndjamena - Chad diplomacy on the front lines

Firstly - sorry for letting the blog get stale, we've had technical issues.

Second, thanks for checking in again.

I (Bill) am in Ndjamena, Chad staying on the French military base after I was asked to join a small team of diplomats and a substantially team of military personnel.

If you didn't catch the CNN, Chad has been embroiled in a civil war for decades, and has sporadic outbursts of violence when the rebels gather enough strength to attempt to go after President Deby, who has the upper hand due to air superiority (as in he has a helicopter or two and the rebels have pickup trucks with machine guns). The French also play a decisive role. Anyhow, the politics are very complex and not my area, but for whatever reasons the French decided this time not to intervene heavily to stop the rebel assault, with the result that there was very heavy fighting in downtown Ndjamena, with tanks firing, mortar attacks and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) whizzing around.

As luck would have it, the US Embassy and Embassy residences are close to the Presidential Palace - the ultimate objective of the rebels. Consequently, there were heavy gun battles on our doorstep, and Embassy personnel were trapped in the Embassy for a substantial period of time. Neither the government nor the rebels are anti-american, or inclined to harm us, but the crossfire situation was very very ugly, and the Embassy was eventually evacuated by helicopter by the French military to their base - and eventually onward to Yaounde by US military plane.

Simultaneously, there were a reasonable number of American citizens who came to the French military base/airfield for evacuation, or who sought assistance in finding their way out of Chad. Additionally, the fighting prompted some 50,000 Chadians to cross the river at the edge of town that also marks the border with Cameroon, and to seek refuge in the tiny town of Kousseri (a short drive from the Waza game park we visited recently).

So what we had in Yaounde, a few hundred miles south, was a need to track down and assist the Americans in Chad who wanted to leave (our first priority) while receiving traumatized colleagues and responding to a potential humanitarian disaster. Most Americans in Chad are in one of three categories:

1. Employees of oil companies - in which case those companies are normally able to use their own helicopters etc to get them out
2. Employees of the United Nations or NGOs - again usually self-sufficient, or equipped and inclined to lay low a few days and then go back to work
3. Missionaries - who almost always lay low and go back to work, if they lay low at all

Due to the severity of the fighting, many missionary groups and NGOs were scared into heeding the advice we have offered about Chad for years, which is to think carefully about living in a country with an active civil war, and to flee this outbreak of violence and instability at the first opportunity.

Accordingly, the visa applicants were sent home and we spent our time trying to help Washington who set up a response team and took calls that could no longer go to the Embassy. My team was able to help link up a lot of people, handle border-crossing problems (multiple cases of people fleeing without a passport etc) and use knowledge of Cameroon and Chad geography to advise people on the safe course of action. In short - to do what we are trained and love to do - help get people out of harms way.

As the rebel threat materialized I had been asked to get up to Chad to coordinate this effort from Embassy Ndjamena, but (luckily) was not able to get there in time for the fireworks. As the days went by and we withdrew our Embassy staff I thought I was plenty busy at home, we sent two of my staff to Kousseri to link up with Americans who crossed into Cameroon, and I thought I would contribute most effectively from Yaounde.

However, Washington wisely overruled my view on the matter and asked me to go as the rebels were beaten back, and the French announced that they had changed their mind, and would intervene (with jets and helicopters) to prevent the rebels from marching again on Ndjamena which would probably have institutionalized a refugee crisis in Cameroon.

Anyhow - I was asked in the evening to leave the next day, so I packed up all the hiking gear we have, a sweatshirt (it's cold here at night) - and had the sobering opportunity to borrow a flak jacket from a friend. Kristie and the boys were and have been great support - and an extra call or anything you can do for them would be great.

The next morning I joined some Embassy Ndjamena staff heading back on a C-130 - the big propeller driven planes which have the back door that drops to let you load vehicles, paratroopers, food pallets to airdrop etc. Anyhow, it was LOUD and the in flight menu wasn't the best I've had (Meals Ready to Eat) - but it was memorable and we made it up without incident.

We arrived in the evening got a quick brief from the team that was going to Yaounde on the same plane, and settled into our quarters. I've been living a few yards from tent barracks for a special forces contingent that flew down to assist in the evacuation - so I felt quite safe as they are bristling with weaponry and high tech gear. I must be moving up in the world as I ranked the luxury quarters of a shipping container with doors and windows cut in. It's actually quite nice, and has power and a TV where we caught fragments of the Africa cup (soccer) that Cameroon is in.

The next day I could get to work and I spent two days in high gear running around the base talking to people about Americans still stuck in the field, working with the French on options to help, spending a lot of time on the phone trying to peice together the often fragmentary information about who is where, and doing what, and in possession of what satellite phone (regular lines were of course down). Working with Washington and Yaounde, we have resolved all but one case of Americans seeking to leave, partly due to a rapid return to normalcy in Ndjamena that allows people to move about freely. Today I had the pleasure of seeing 4 Americans in person whose situation had required a lot of work, and got to see them off on the final French evacuation flight to Libreville, Gabon.

Anyhow - it's morning and time to get to work on my last case and then to work on restarting the Embassy here - but that's another story for another time - and perhaps I'll be able to add the pictures I'm taking here.

All the best - Bill