Mounted on stallions of steel, desert tribesmen fight on and on
Largely forgotten amid the world's more pressing conflicts is the civil war in the central African nation of Chad. In the nine months since France sent 3,000 troops to back the government of President Hissene Habre against Libyan-supported rebels, the two sides have been largely deadlocked. But the fighting goes on: two weeks ago nine French paratroopers were killed on a road in northeastern Chad. TIME Nairobi Bureau Chief James Wilde spent ten days with the Chad army, traveling by Land-Rover from the capital city of N'Djamena to Sahara outposts near the Libyan border. His report:
Small groups of Toyota desert vehicles, with 106-mm recoilless rifles mounted at the rear, wheel and charge like cavalry in the vastness of the Sahara. Outriders hang from the sides, firing their AK-47s with deadly grace. Very young and therefore very brave, the men of these small fighting units, or escadrons, whip their Toyotas' flanks until the vehicles seem to snort and froth at the bit like fine-blood Arab stallions. The young soldiers move silently, without war cries except for the high-pitched scream of their engines.
These men are part of the first and second regiments of the Chad army, which is fighting a daily game of no-prisoners with the rebels who infiltrate from Libya to the north and Sudan to the east. The enemy also uses escadrons of Toyota vehicles, usually along with a 22-ton Mercedes truck for support. Some of these get through government lines, mine the roads and frighten the local population. When they do engage the army, they usually get the worst of it. In the battlefields of what has come to be called the Great Toyota War, the desert is littered with dead vehicles.
If the war were limited to Toyotas, the army would likely hold the day. But the rebels also have armor, and there are daily incursions by Libyan MiGs, which have to be spooked back into Libyan territory by French Jaguar fighters. Though the number of men involved on the ground is small, the distances are enormous. When a Jaguar chases a Libyan plane away from the army's front line, it must be refueled in flight in order to return to its base at N'Djamena.
Chad is effectively partitioned between the government and the rebels, but Idriss Deby, 27, commander of the Chad army, has no intention of letting things remain that way. Says Deby, a lean, ascetic man with samurai eyes: "Despite all kinds of shortages, we have been able to hold both the Libyan army and the rebels at bay." Nobody knows exactly how many men the Chad army has. The French say 7,000; the Chadians say "many, many." Its best fighters are the Goran, tribesmen from the northern district of Tibetsi, a starkly beautiful area of volcanic massifs, gorges and craters that was known in antiquity as the land where the wind is born. A French officer says that the Goran are still the finest light cavalrymen in the world. But now, he adds, "they are mounted on Toyotas instead of horses."