Day 5: June 14, 2008

Grounded in Abeche

Youssouf buying breadThe bright morning sun pours through our windows, today we make it to Goz Beida, I thought to myself. The car arrived on time, unusual for Chad, but to great relief since we still needed that one last stamp to board the plane and be cleared to enter refugee camps in Goz Beida and KoKo. Road banditry has increased since February, and last night we received information via the AP press that there had been clashes outside of Goz Beida between rebel forces and Chadian military. No one at UNHCR seemed concerned, nor did anyone mention it; but I decided to split our luggage up a bit. I learned from last time, that it really is worth it to have a change of clothes, one towel and soap. So in goes a majority of our luggage to the car with Umar (driver) and Bouba (our old, good friend!), and everything tech and a little extra personal items comes with us.Our car is stopped at the gate of the airport, with a stern military official saying something to our driver, “Okay, okay” he responds, and we are on to the small room where people check in, weigh luggage on an ancient, manual scale, and wait. Flights to N’Djamena are normally full and there are two, so the airport is tight quarters that smells of sweating bodies and cigarettes. If you think that LAX or Heathrow in London are chaos, you would be out right astonished at the Abeche airport. It’s about 1,000 square feet – and they pack us in, every man for himself. Baggage tickets are checked for every piece being picked up, and sometimes, on the way out, only a small sticker label (the ones we would use for name tags) is split into thirds and slapped onto your luggage, as it is this morning. Getting closer, I thought.

Two separate times our luggage is taken outside, then brought back in. Apolinaire, one of our good friends at UNHCR who has been working with us since i-ACT3 is there to guide us through. We also meet one of the new international staffers who is on his way back to Goz Beida. Gabriel quickly makes friends, since he is from Brazil. The Spanish, I am telling you, comes in so handy. But I guess all those years of French would too, if only I could remember anything. One of the usual manifest/plane coordinators approaches us – “Canceled, no flight.”

Ahhhhhhhhhhhh, I think to myself. This is getting ridiculous!

Apolinaire whispers to us, “Security no good in Goz Beida.”

So we head back to UNHCR to devise a new plan. I begin to worry about Bouba and our driver. They are two Chadians in a beat up car, so perhaps bandits or others will leave them alone, but I hope they make it. There are no cell phones for the four hour drive, and signals are the first thing to be cut in an area with rebel clashes. As we speak with Suzanne, I reflect on the fact that we are now actually lucky that we missed the flight to GZ yesterday, or we would be stuck in a compound, perhaps with sounds of fighting in the distance.

Our team decides that if we can get a hold of Bouba and have him drive back, if time allows, today, then we will join the security convoy to Farchana tomorrow morning at 8am. Now to find a place to live for another night in Abeche.

As we wait at WFP to see if their guesthouses have any rooms, we can hear military planes lifting off, and for a solid 20 minutes a military column heading to GZ passes by. Trucks loaded with guns, missiles, and men ready for combat head South.

Although MINURCAT and EUFOR forces are in the region, they have different mandates, neither of which entail disarming or stopping with force rebel columns. MINURCAT primarily provides security and convoys for NGOs while EUFOR forces “secure” specified areas surrounding refugee camps. I wonder if the 25 or so troops who were lounging by the pool, drinking and smoking at Le Meridien when we were there are now dressed and preparing for a rebel attack. This is the last chance for the rebels before the heavy rains begin to make themselves seen and heard by force to the President.

WFP is full, as expected. So we head back to UNHCR – our best bet is to reconnect with Suzanne, as she just called, and find a room, even if its only one, in an NGO compound.

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