Sunday, December 31, 2006

Eid in Abeche

Well, we’re trying to figure out how to get out of Abeche. We’ve gotten the bulk of the footage we intended to get from here, but now we’re back to what seems to be the primary form of recreation for expatriats in the area – waiting for logistics. There’s not really a whole lot to say about us for the time being – we’re tired, grubby, a bit surprised by what we’ve seen, and anxious to get on to the next phase.

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Aside from what you’ll be seeing in terms of photos and film from us, you’ve probably already seen a great deal of material from Africa as it is, so trying to capture some of those elements will be a bit beyond my skill in prose. So, I suppose I can give you a sense of some of the rest of what life in this neck of the woods is all about.

Right now, I am writing by light of kerosene lantern, as electricity at our accommodations has been sporadic. Although Abeche is the capital of the Ouddai province, I’m not entirely sure that electricity is widely available. For the most part, NGO and business compounds appear to have generators, although there are some areas around the market that may have mains electricity. Most of the city also seems to have water, although it is certainly not potable.

There has been some debate over whether or not any of the roads in Abeche or between Abeche and the camp we have visited have ever been paved. Currently, the roads are anything but paved, but from time to time I see surfaces which may either be tightly compacted and weathered clay or the remnants of roads which probably haven’t been paved for nearly half a century. If we had more time and our own transport (rather than getting rides from the NGOs who are actually working here) I would like to get out and examine a stretch of roadway more closely. On the other hand, one can tell that there are sections near the wadis (streambeds that are dry in this season) upon which concrete bridges have been built, although many of those have fallen into disrepair and are no longer passable. By way of contrast, the national capital N’Djamena has, apparently, only one paved road – Charles DeGaulle avenue, while the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, has many paved roads and a fairly large number of stop lights, two of which we saw working.

As far as the security situation goes, the main burst of rebel activity was about a month ago – which precipitated the relocation of many NGO personnel. The NGOs are slowly moving back in to their former facilities, but on whole have been fairly slow in doing so. One of the consequences of the rebel seizure of Abeche about a month ago has been a slightly tenser security environment. Pretty much all of the NGOs are strictly adhering to a dusk to dawn curfew.

When the rebels seized Abeche, they threw open a number of government facilities to the public in a sort of quasi-organized looting, including the Chadian army base here. The rebels did guard the markets to prevent businesses from getting looted. On the other hand, they also threw open the jails and released all of the prisoners. All these factors, combined with a strong uncertainty about whether all of the government soldiers are, in fact, government soldiers, and if so, whether they are under any sort of significant control from their commanders has added a great deal to the level of apprehension felt by the NGO authorities. Still, we haven’t encountered any incidents of significant tension, theft, or overly aggressive citizens of the city, so I suppose that’s all to the good.

On a more practical level, the situation means that getting around – even from one compound to another – after dark is a bit difficult. I gather that before the rebel attack, there were a number of parties, and restaurants that people visited. Since then, the early nights have pretty much squelched all of that.

On a more surprisingly optimistic note, our tours of the camps showed, at least on the surface, an amazing rebound. Given all of the images one sees on TV, I had rather expected the camps to be squalid collections of misery. Rather, they seem to have developed in to temporary cities, with functioning economies. My talks with aid workers have confirmed this, although it is important to keep in mind that this is more of a surface impression that conceals a lot of deeper damage and problems. Today, we spoke to people who have been at the camp for two or more years – and this is the newest of the camps. Once one a refugee enters a camp, even though Chad isn’t directly involved in the Darfur violence, it is difficult to leave. There are, of course, exceptions and so on, but for all intents and purposes, two years in the camp means two years of not being able to leave the camp, save trips to the hospital in cases of grave illness.

For the NGO workers, they regard this as a hardship post. I can understand why one might think so, as it is far away from home and it’s associated comforts, although, essentially, this is a lot like a high grade version of camping, and is at least quite survivable, especially with the advent of better communications and internet access.

Another thing that is beginning to intrigue me is the local microeconomic implications of this whole situation. Locals in Abeche have complained that the NGOs have driven up prices, and tend to hire more of their local staff from southern Chad, as opposed to local hires. But on the other hand, with higher prices, I wonder why supply of goods has not risen accordingly to drive prices back down. Similarly, since any one of the camps in Chad is about half the size of Abeche, I would like to know if the camps can be take a stronger role as settlements, rather than way stations. But this kind of urban planning, development, and economics is beyond my understanding.

Oh, before I forget to mention it, the night sky out here is utterly amazing. So with that, good night.


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

To Abeche, to Gaga Camp...

The three of us finally got on a UN flight out of Chad’s capital on Tuesday the 26th. The kind folks from International Medical Corps (IMC) picked us up from the airport and drove us back to their “compound”: a pair of rented houses with around the clock security, barbed wire and a 6pm curfew. This, we soon learned, is the norm for NGOs in Abeche, and there are a lot of NGOs in Abeche. IMC, UNHCR, MSF, SECADEV, WFP, ICRC and so on… it’s alphabet city.

On our first day here, David Majagira, IMC Country Director for Chad introduced us to the rest of the staff, which was more numerous than usual due to an attack on their primary operation in Guereda, which required them to temporarily relocate their personnel. David called all over town trying to secure us digs for the night, but it was difficult as many of the typically empty beds were being used by similarly displaced personnel. Eventually, he found us a spot at a SECADEV guesthouse: a concrete room lit by a gas lantern and a shower stall straight out of Midnight Express. Once we found out that the power was merely out and not non-existent, the place seemed a whole lot cheerier.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn. Wait- make that before dawn as it was the rooster crowing outside our window which got us up. The thing about roosters is, there’s no snooze, so it’s pointless trying to stay in bed. The IMC driver picked us up at 6:30 AM and we headed over to UNHCR to get their daily security assessment. Essentially, we were asking them if the road out to the Gaga refugee camp was safe enough for just two vehicles. Otherwise, we’d have to wait for a UNHCR convoy. We received the thumbs up and headed east toward the camp.

For the next two hours we were on the rockiest, bumpiest, craziest ride of our lives. It was something straight out of a video game, but much less pleasant when you’re actually riding in the back, periodically banging your head against the roof. The sites were plentiful: small villages, camels, French military convoys, buses with more bags tied to the roof than people inside, Chadian military vehicles (Toyota pick-ups) with cloth sacks of RPGs on either side and a dozen camouflaged-turban-wearing troops stacked in the bed.

At the end of this turbulent ride, we finally arrived at the guarded entrance to Gaga Camp.

(to be continued)


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas in N'Djamena?

Christmas Eve in N’Djamena. This is our fourth day here. Jim, Ryan and myself are sitting side by side in an internet cafe. In the days since we’ve arrived, we’ve interviewed representatives of the Chadian government, leaders of the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM), and an American med student who’s traveled out here to get a better understanding of what the situation out here is. Our hotel is just down the street from Le Carnivore, an outdoor nightclub and restaurant right out of Connery-era Bond. On our first night there we ran into the American ambassador to Chad, Marc Wahl and a few of his associates from the embassy.. The next night I went there by myself as Jim and Ryan slept, met a bunch of Red Cross folks and ended up going dancing with them at a place down the block. The music music was good, as was the dancing that was done by everyone but me. I’m hoping to schedule an interview with the Red Cross folks.

Here’s an important thing to know about Chad: great steaks! Now, a note to all of you who have been so kind as to donate to this excursion: we’re not living high on the hog, steak is no more expensive than any other dish here. Turns out that Chad is a big exporter of beef, and it’s no wonder because whatever they’re feeding the cows here makes them taste oh so very good.

On the downside, we’re having trouble getting out of N’Djamena. We were scheduled to be on a UNHCR flight out to Abeche tomorrow, but we were just informed that it’s been cancelled. Why? Christmas! So now it seems like Christmas will be spent here in N’Djamena, unless we can get on a supposed commercial flight in the morning. Another option which has been presented to us is taking the bus. But this “bus” is essentially a VW van with people overflowing out the windows. Not to mention a two day drive. We’ve also had a few technical issues with sound and video, but we’re managing to adapt and overcome. That said, our editor and associate producer, Brian Cho, will have his work cut out for him when we get back.

Now we’re going to go forage for food on the desolate street that is Charles DeGaulle Road on a Sunday afternoon, and head back to interview ol Ceasar from Texas about how the hell he wound up in N’Djamena.

More soon.


Friday, December 22, 2006

Life in Chad

We've arrived in Chad, and have begun the filming process. Chad is proving by turns to be fantastic, frustrating, and baffling. I did find it profoundly amusing listening to Elvis' Blue Christmas on the Ethiopian Air flight to N'Djamena, which is proving to be strangely prophetic.

Indications here are that the bulk of the rebelliion has subsided, and I wonder about that in connection with recent diplomatic events, about which I will write about later. The interplay of power politics among European countries, the US, China and India is something to behold, and a subject that I will be mulling over for some time to come.

In any case, it appears that the worst of the violence may be over, but situations anywhere can be subject to rapid change, so we will be keeping an eye out.

Security is an issue here - it is quite unwise to wander around at night without some security, although we haven't heard a lot ofgunshots. Last night we went to a restraunt about two blocks away. As the security guard was getting ready to escort us, he grabbed his nightstick. The more interesting part is that he also grabbed his knife and concealed it before leaving with us. On the other hand, guns here aren't nearly as common as they were in Ethiopia.

As far as interviews go, we interviewed the Minister of Communications, who gave a perspective on the recent restriction of the press. Additionally, we have talked with journalists (from a wire service), school principals (a Turk running a private school), and aid workers. We have transport out to the east arranged provisionally.

Past that, however, we are finding Chad to be heinously expensive, which is interesting given the relative lack of prosperity one sees. The cost of interpreters, fixers, even a very austere hotel, and food, have all been quite steep. It appears that the support campaign will have to continue if we want to limit our personal losses to only a few grand each.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Arrival - Wheels down in Africa

The first leg of our trip takes us from the States to Addis Ababa, from where we will be departing for N'Djamena tomorrow.  So far, aside from some minor logistical complications, we've been pretty good to go, and so far have interviewed a wire service reporter who covers the region, as well as several notable personages from the Somali section of Addis Ababa, Little Mogadishu.  The tour of Little Mogadishu was pretty far from a tour f its namesake, but in any case, we met with some interesting people, got some valuable input, and got a chance to broaden our horizons a bit.

More details will be available later, but for the time being, I wanted to let folks know that our communications gear is essentially up, we've started our filming and interviews, and it looks like our remaining time in Addis, while constrained, will be productive, both for the film itself, as well as ironing our some minor last minute issues to be resolved.

As the Somali cultural center is an internet access points for local Somalia emigres, and Addis Ababa is the home to the African Union and is a diplomatic center of the region, I thought I would leave you with this photo.  Additional images will posted later, but I have having some computer difficulties today, and may just stick the one up there.  Hope you enjoy.

Addis Ababa's high-tech sector and the coming information boom:


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Owen Price on Darfur Options in the Washington Times

Owen Price, visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies considers just what can be done about the situation. In addition to giving our film a nice shout-out (thanks!), he also ponders the impact of a Christmas boycott of goods manufactured in China.


Read Mr. Price's op-ed here.


Uptick in Violence in Eastern Chad

ReliefWeb hosts information about ongoing humanitarian efforts throughout the world. They have several maps reporting security incidents in the area. When comparing the maps side-by-side, the spread of violence is quite apparent, although is not certain that the violence will continue to spread.

Map of events from November 4 through November 14:

Map of events from November 15 through December 8:


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

As Darfur Deteriorates, Sudan's Economy Booms

"U.S. and European companies are largely shunning Sudan, but countries in Asia and the Mideast like China, Saudi Arabia and Libya have heavily invested. That could have wide political ramifications on the effort to help Darfur.

'The only effective pressure would be sanctions that would pinch targeted officials,' like those believed to have shares in government-controlled oil companies, said Colin Thomas-Jensen of the International Crisis Group think tank."

Full text from the International Herald Tribune here.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Darfur: Talking Tough and Carrying a Toothpick

Nice piece over on the VOA website:
"'Nothing is being done from my perspective because the world does not have the political will to do anything in Darfur. The Iraq syndrome is rendering everybody helpless. The international community lost the moral authority to intervene in the situation Darfur and to provide protection for the people,' he said.

Ismael said the international community is wrong for seeking the permission of the Sudanese government’s permission in order to intervene in Darfur. He said the government would never agree because it wants the genocide to continue."

(Full text after the fold)

Darfur: Talking Tough and Carrying a Toothpick
By James Butty
Washington, D.C.
11 December 2006
Butty interview with Omar Ismael

President Bush says he is appalled by atrocities taking place in Sudan's volatile Darfur region. In a statement Sunday, Mr. Bush said the genocide in Darfur has led to the spread of violence in neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic. Meanwhile, African Union and United Nations officials say gunmen on horseback ambushed a refugee convoy in Sudan's Darfur region Sunday, killing some 30 civilians.

The new violence in Darfur and President Bush’s comments came on Human Rights Day, Sunday, as thousands of people protested worldwide against rape of women in Darfur.

Omar Ismael is a Sudanese and a fellow at the CARR Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. He said the international community must put its money where its mouth is when it comes to Darfur.

“It is good that the international community around the world is celebrating this day because it is important that we remember that human rights are not observed in many parts of the world, and certainly Darfur is a case that is reminding the world that still there are people suffering; there is rape going on; there is killing going on, and the world is looking at the situation in Darfur and basically unable to do anything to change the situation,” he said.

Ismael said the international community talk of peacekeepers for Darfur is a lot of talk and no action.

“People talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. The international community through the Security Council issued a warning to Sudan and Sudanese government would not heed the warning, and then we have Resolution 1706 that calls for a beef up of the African Union unit that is under funded, under-equipped, unable to mobilize to provide protection to the people. We need to provide protection,” Ismael said.

He said while Resolution 1706 talks about beefing up the AU force in Darfur to 22 thousand 500, to date no country has committed a single soldier and given a single cent. At the same time, Ismael said the situation in Darfur is getting worst.

“Nothing is being done from my perspective because the world does not have the political will to do anything in Darfur. The Iraq syndrome is rendering everybody helpless. The international community lost the moral authority to intervene in the situation Darfur and to provide protection for the people,” he said.

Ismael said the international community is wrong for seeking the permission of the Sudanese government’s permission in order to intervene in Darfur. He said the government would never agree because it wants the genocide to continue.

Ismael hoped the new Democratic-led U.S. Congress, when it takes over next month, would do something about the situation in Darfur.

“I hope the Congress is going to do something. The Congress has been one of the first institutions in the United States to call what is happening in Darfur genocide, and they urged President Bush to intervene. Basically, like the Americans say, if you are talking tough, carry a big stick. We are talking tough and we are carrying a toothpick,” he said.

Let us know what you think of this report and other stories on our website. Send your views to AFRICA@VOANEWS.COM, and include your phone number. Or, call us here in Washington, DC at (202) 205-9942. After you hear the VOA identification, press 30 to leave a message. We want to hear what you have to say!


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Things to Be Decided

Well, there are a couple of things that we're still trying to hash out on planning:

Sat phone or satellite data terminal?
Full armor with trauma plates, concealable armor (Level II), or no armor?
Plan on flying or driving to get around the country?

Any comments? Thoughts? Suggestions?


Current Fighting in Chad

There has been ongoing fighting in Chad between the rebel forces and government for a few weeks now. Currently, the principle city in the east and capital of the Ouaddai province, Abeche, has become the functional military headquarters in the region. Regular updates on the situation can be found at the excellent blog, Chad News. Current information is below the fold.

Much of the fighting with the rebels has been in the Biltine province, at the provincial capital Biltine and the smaller settlement of Guereda. (map)

The French military istallation at Abeche, which has approximately 150 troops has, according to reports, been sheltering expat civilians on occasions when fighting returns to Abeche. Currently, it is not known who controls Biltine and Guereda:

Apparently the fighting in Biltine was not over on Friday. On Saturday and through last night, the battle wounded continue to pour into Abéché. From there, they were treated at the hospital or evacuated to N'Djaména by plane. Airplanes and helicopters keep taking off and landing from the Abéché airport, which has become a sort of base of operations for the battle taking place. We are hearing about 300 deaths on the ANT side and 50 on the rebellion side, but these numbers have not been confirmed. The Abéché hospital is being heavily guarded; for some reason, the soldiers do not want anyone to know what is going on in there. We are hearing something about heavy fighting going on in Arada, with a lot of soldiers wounded in the battle. Over one hundred ANT vehicles came into Abéché on the N'Djaména road today, on their way to the battleground, leaving town on the Biltine road. Some of the vehicles were modernistic Hum-V type trucks with a cannon in the middle and two machine guns on each side. They were new from the manufacturer; the plastic cover was still on the gun. (via Chad News)

No word has been heard from the camps in the area closest to the fighting, Mile and (pop. 13,544) and Kounoungo (pop. 11,790).

There is some concern as Kounoungo lies directly on the main road between Guerda and Biltine. There has been no report from the Guerda UNHCR Field Office, although, as mentioned elsewhere, the foreign aid presence in the region has dropped dramatically as fighting has escalated.

Additionally, I have heard unconfirmed reports that the rebels had someone on the inside at the Presidential Palace during the last assault on the capital in April, although it is unknown if this continues to be the case. Elsewhere, other reports have suggested that while Deby remains unpopular, the evident Sudanese involvement in the insurgency has turned a great number of Chadians against the insurgents.


Thursday, December 7, 2006

Darfur conflict zones map

Darfur Conflict zones map and breakdown from the BBC


Meet me in St. Louis

I'll be at the Royale in St. Louis tonight, where a bunch of fine folks have thrown together a benefit for our little project. This is good, as judging from the latest developments, we may need that Kevlar® after all.


Wednesday, December 6, 2006


Well, we're getting down to the wire, and starting to go from vaporware and concept to bending of metal, battening of hatches, and the brutal mixing of metaphors.

In any case, I've taken a first swing at what sorts of gear (aside from the actual A/V filming, personal protective equipment and communications) we will need - or would at least be nice to have. Daunting, really, but that's sort of inherent in any sort of planning in high uncertainty, potentially risky environments.

Also keep in mind that this isn't final one way or the other, but is simply a starting point, and will get alternately whittled down, patched up, or otherwise modified. In any case, I will post it and keep it up on the side, should anyone take a great interest in seeing what people going to a remote, conflict-ridden region would like to take, given the choice.


Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Darfur: News and Satellite Recon Tour

You probably have all heard about the Christmas in Darfur project that I'm involved with. In the course of preparation, we've been following the news and doing some research, which I figured I should share with folks. As the situation continues to deteriorate, (below are links to the satellite images of the towns Abeche and Adre mentioned in the linked story) things are going to start getting way pricey, way quick, so if you haven't already contributed, we'd sure appreciate your support. You can click on the PayPal button to the right to contribute.

News from the region

  • Aid agencies to suspend food aid for approximately 50,000 due to security concerns.
  • Janjaweed attacks spilling over - 100 km - in to Chad.
  • Meanwhile, the Chadian rebellion seems to be hotting up.
  • Nicholas Kristoff in a February 2006 book review:
    In my years as a journalist, I thought I had seen a full kaleidoscope of horrors, from babies dying of malaria to Chinese troops shooting students to Indonesian mobs beheading people. But nothing prepared me for Darfur, where systematic murder, rape, and mutilation are taking place on a vast scale, based simply on the tribe of the victim. What I saw reminded me why people say that genocide is the worst evil of which human beings are capable.

    On one of the first of my five visits to Darfur, I came across an oasis along the Chad border where several tens of thousands of people were sheltering under trees after being driven from their home villages by the Arab Janjaweed militia, which has been supported by the Sudan government in Khartoum. Under the first tree, I found a man who had been shot in the neck and the jaw; his brother, shot only in the foot, had carried him for forty-nine days to get to this oasis. Under the next tree was a widow whose parents had been killed and stuffed in the village well to poison the local water supply; then the Janjaweed had tracked down the rest of her family and killed her husband. Under the third tree was a four-year-old orphan girl carrying her one-year-old baby sister on her back; their parents had been killed. Under the fourth tree was a woman whose husband and children had been killed in front of her, and then she was gang-raped and left naked and mutilated in the desert.

    Those were the people I met under just four adjacent trees. And in every direction, as far as I could see, were more trees and more victims—all with similar stories.
Satellite Image Tips:

  • If you aren't getting an image, hit either the satellite or hybrid button in the upper right hand corner.
  • Check the scale in the lower left hand corner of the image, since not all maps are on the same scale.
  • Zoom in, zoom out, explore and poke around a little.

Some reference images for comparison:

Map 1, Map 2, Map 3 (with numbers) of Refugee Camps Inside Chad/Sudan

Below are images of 8 of the 15 camps inside Chad.
Oure Cassoni: Est. Pop. (May 2006) 29,610

Kounoungo (I think): Est. Pop. (May 2006) 11,790 (Images on the ground 1, 2)

Mile: Est. Pop. (May 2006) 13,544

Am Nabak: Est. Pop. (May 2006) 16,546

Farchana: Est. Pop. (May 2006) 17,500 (Images on the ground: 1, 2)

Terguine or Breidjing: Est. Pop. (May 2006) 14,400 or 27,400

Djabal: Est. Pop. (May 2006) 14,533

Goz Amer: Est. Pop. (May 2006) 17,890

Map of Destroyed Villages and refugee camps in Sudan (as of August 2004)

In the map of destroyed Sudanese villages, there is an inset photo of the village of Balla (628 of 720 structures destroyed). A clearer, zoomable map of the village can be found here.

The regional map of destroyed villages has a number of other villages (more than I can count), but here are a few representative examples. If you zoom around with Google, they're not hard to find once you get the hang of it. Look here, here or here (this one, I think, is one that had been attacked at some point in the past, and then more recently, but has not been completely razed) for a few examples.

This is what I think is the Zalingei camp inside Sudan. Here is what I think is the Abushouk camp (est. pop. 51,000).


This looks to be an An-26 "Curl" transport plane, mid-flight, heading SE, about 1 1/2 miles SW of El Fashir, Sudan.