Escaping from Chad’s Civil War
By “Awake!” correspondent in Ivory Coast
WE ARRIVED in N’Djamena during the first days of August 1978. We had left our native land, France, to help in Chad with the vital work of preaching the good news of God’s kingdom. We realized that there were difficult conditions in the country. This did not discourage us, however, and we were anxious to get started in our missionary work. In the missionary home were three married couples and one single brother.
Our first contact with the population as we shared in Christian service was unforgettable. At just about every door we could fully develop a Scriptural subject of conversation and felt that the people were famished for Bible truth. We were very thankful to Jehovah for the privilege of being there to help.
The month of September 1978 brought to light the political duel between the professed Christian chief of state, President Malloum, and his Moslem prime minister, Hissein Habré. Starting in August 1978, the chief of state did little more than protest verbally, then rumors started flying. But we were not involved in politics, so Anna and I continued to talk to people about God’s solution to mankind’s problems.
It seemed that the armed forces of FROLINAT (National Liberation Front supported by Libya to the north) had gone on the offensive during September 1978. In town we saw many wounded soldiers, no doubt returned from the front. But even then, most people were not taking this news seriously. After all, since 1966 the fire of war had been burning in Chad; most of the population was indifferent to the news and rumors.
At night we regularly heard bursts of machine-gun and rifle fire, which seemed to indicate violence in the city. In the morning, around the table we would talk about what we had heard to be sure that we weren’t mistaken.
December 1978 saw a national assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses take place successfully here, although we had been apprehensive, due to the political climate.
In the month of January, the tension was such that we had to diminish our door-to-door activity somewhat in the Moslem quarters, where we had several times met up with problems. We pursued our activities more prudently, trying to get back to the missionary home as quickly as possible at nightfall.
At the vegetable market on January 27, the crisis came to a dangerous level with serious incidents. Submachine-gun fire and grenades were heard; there were several dead and injured. Schools were closed for a time. On 40th Street, where the missionary home is situated, we saw dozens of young Moslems shouting and brandishing arms. On the advice of several with whom we studied the Bible, we stayed at home waiting for calm to return.
It was at this time that we received a telegram from the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Nigeria inviting us to go to Lagos if it became necessary. Since the situation was getting worse, we took the initiative by filling out applications for visas to Nigeria. However, when things stabilized somewhat, we suspended these steps while waiting to see how things would work out. In spite of all these difficulties, we desired to pursue our activities in this land. In the preaching work we quickly forgot the local problems.
Sunday, February 11, was also a memorable day; that day, in Farcha, about 5 km (3 mi.) from downtown, almost all the local brothers, as well as all the missionaries, met in the morning at Brother Sarki’s house to listen to a Bible talk, after which we all went on a campaign of house-to-house preaching. Farcha sheltered the French troops to the number of over 2,500, as well as some units of the regular Chad army. Many publications were placed that Sunday. By the end of the morning, happiness was visible on the faces of the Kingdom proclaimers, in spite of the atmosphere of civil war.
N’Djamena, February 12: Anna and I rose as usual at about 5:45 a.m. We had breakfast with the family. Max and Pauline were on missionary cook duty that day. As for us, we left at about 7:30 a.m. to conduct a Bible study. On our motorbike we passed in front of the presidency. By the time we got in front of Chad National Radio we perceived that something was about to happen. There were armed men in firing position. The whole quarter was filled with armed and helmeted soldiers belonging to the FAN (Armed Forces of the North) commanded by Hissein Habré.
Then we went toward the large mosque along General de Gaulle Avenue. Along both sides of this street there were now men in combat uniform, in firing position. They belonged to the FAT (Tchad Armed Forces) under the direction of President Malloum.
We realized how serious the situation was. Cars were all over, headed for the most part toward the Farcha quarter. As for us, we wanted to get back home. We had to go through the gendarmerie quarter. People were running in all directions. We were about 100 m (325 ft.) from the home of our friend Seraphin, with whom we studied the Bible, when a grenade exploded, and this was followed by automatic-weapons fire. Our hearts beating at a hundred miles an hour, we prayed aloud to Jehovah for his guidance and help in making right decisions.
We decided to take refuge at the home of the employer of Seraphin—a French teacher married to an American. People were fleeing in our direction from the northeast quarter. We were received kindly and invited into the house. The man said that he had just returned from the university and that it was in flames. It was terrible!
A few minutes later another teacher arrived straight from Felix Eboue high school. He was especially frantic because of what he had seen. Chad National Radio was partially destroyed; violent confrontations between the FAN and the FAT were taking place at the high school. Already many students had been killed. He had just had enough time to escape the site and seek refuge in this zone where many foreign teachers and advisers lived.
Then there was a sudden calm and quiet. It was time to try to get back home. We had at least 3 km (2 mi.) to go. I put on full throttle in order to go more quickly. People were still fleeing in all directions. Finally we arrived at the missionary home. Max and Pauline were there; we could do nothing but wait, trusting in Jehovah, who had already helped us.
By now aircraft were flying over the city. At about 12:15 p.m. they started firing heavily on the Kabalai quarter. The whole city echoed the bursts of automatic-weapons fire, explosions, as well as heavy mortar fire. It was war, the feared confrontation.
We started packing our bags in case evacuation became necessary. We listened carefully to all news bulletins on the radio (France International, Voice of America, Radio Canada International). We were living tense hours, not knowing how things would work out. During the afternoon helicopters flew over our part of town firing on it, but happily our home was untouched.
At bedtime we arranged a shelter under the bed as protection against stray shells. There under our beds we could hear the whistling of bullets, some ricocheting off our metal shutters!
On Tuesday, February 13, the fighting continued just as fiercely. We were really wondering about our situation but were confident in Jehovah. Anna and I realized that even if the worst happened we still had the wonderful resurrection hope. We felt within us a helping force in those critical moments.
By Wednesday morning, February 14, the fighting seemed to have stopped, except for isolated firing. We were watching the street from our windows. Plenty of armed men were on the street corners. The radio said that casualties were heavy. We decided to make a better shelter by using literature cartons. Since Olaf and Barbara were in the “bush” visiting the congregations, we moved into their room, which was less exposed than ours at the front of the house.
We got ourselves ready for a third night of fighting. This was to be the most terrifying; the violence of combat was noticeably more severe than during the preceding nights. There, under our makeshift shelters, flat on our stomachs, squeezed against each other, we could hear the rat-tat-tat of automatic weapons and the explosion of heavy mortar bombs. At any moment a shell could demolish the house. About 50 m (160 ft.) from the house the northern camp had set up a rocket launcher on the roof terrace of an apartment building. Each time a rocket was fired there was a deafening noise. Once we thought that we had had it—one of the rockets misfired and fell near the house with a shattering explosion. The falling debris of the rocket and dirt echoed on our tin roof. Real fireworks! At about 7 a.m. the fighting stopped again.
In the street there were still the comings and goings of those fleeing the combat zones. Many had a few belongings rolled up in a straw mat on their heads.
That day Anna and I read the Bible and made supplication to Jehovah to guide us in our decisions concerning the future. We went to bed, and the night was relatively calm in comparison to the preceding nights. The opposing forces had signed a cease-fire.
Before long everyone made his decision. Max and Pauline, as well as Patrice, would go by car to the south by way of Bongor, 250 km (155 mi.) away, to Cameroon and then Nigeria. As for Anna and myself, we would try to reach the airport. Actually, being as we were in the middle of a civil war, no way out seemed likely or possible.
That Friday night was spent largely in prayer as we needed Jehovah’s direction. Sleep wouldn’t come. We were wondering what the next day would bring. Anna and I got up very early, made two white flags, got the motorbike ready, and then listened to the complete African news bulletin. The cease-fire seemed to be holding. It was the best time to try to reach the French military base. With sad hearts we left our three companions at about 7:45 a.m. Later, they would head in the direction of Chagoua bridge.
When we went out, few people were on the streets. We drove in first gear in order to avoid giving the impression that we were fleeing. Arriving on the main street, we had to decide which way we would go. Soldiers were on the corners ready to fire. We asked some Moslems which would be the safest way to reach the airport. They indicated the shortest route. Seeing that the way was deserted, we took the risk. Oh, how we prayed to Jehovah during that unforgettable trip!
The results of the war were there before our eyes—houses deserted, munition cases here and there. We greeted the people we met en route in order to relax the atmosphere. Approaching street corners, I slowed down as much as possible as there were hidden snipers. But our white flags could be seen from afar. This quarter had really suffered. There was no noise; all seemed dead. As we passed the gendarmerie, dozens of soldiers (under the command of Colonel Wadal Abdelkader Kamougue) aimed their guns at us. We made a friendly gesture. They didn’t reply, but they let us continue.
Now we were in front of the prison, with soldiers on both sides, but no one slowed our flight. It was as if they didn’t see us. Next, we took the avenue that led straight to the airport. All the woods around the airport were burned. Charred bodies were scattered about, and houses blown open by bombs had a sinister appearance.
On arriving at the airport we were directed to the welcoming service. We explained that we had come from the Moslem quarter in the northeast part of the city. The military authorities said that it was a miracle that we had been able to get by the gendarmerie. They told us that others had tried to reach the base but in vain. Some Europeans who had attempted this means of escape had been slain.
That afternoon, about 800 corpses were buried in a common grave. Hundreds of bodies were still visible in various quarters of town: Kabalai Moursal, Saaba Ngali, Bobolo, St. Martin’s Basin, by the National Radio Station, downtown. These corpses had swollen to double their normal size, and hungry dogs were starting to eat them. The smell of death hovered over the city.
The number of dead in the capital was now estimated in the thousands. A member of the Health Service told us that the hospital, which also had been shelled, was overflowing. We saw wheelbarrows carrying bodies of those terribly mutilated by knife wounds. Several embassies had been destroyed and the U.N. building burned.
The authorities commended us for the initiative taken, as they had been aware of our situation, but had been unable to intervene to evacuate us. Since all our papers were in order, the French authorities gave us a meal and put us on the next flight out on an airforce plane. After a wait of several hours on the runway, our plane took off for Libreville, Gabon, at 6:30 p.m. We were sad to have to leave N’Djamena under such circumstances. We were sure that it would be a long time before we could come back to this country locked in civil war.
The plane landed in Libreville at about 10:00 p.m. All the French national evacuees were looked after by the French embassy. We were lodged in the Okoume Palace Hotel.
Since the Society had suggested that we go to Nigeria, Monday morning we went to their embassy to get a visa. The consular officer absolutely refused us a visa since we were French and evacuees from Chad. He wanted nothing to do with us. Even a 24-hour visa was refused. What should we do? We had very little money on us.
From there we could, of course, very easily accept evacuation to Paris, but we desired to remain in missionary service in Africa if at all possible. With Jehovah’s help we decided to try to go to Abidjan in Ivory Coast. With the help of the Air Afrique passenger agent, who was supervising the repatriation of Air Afrique personnel and their families evacuated from N’Djamena, we were able to get two tickets, Libreville-Abidjan-Dakar. They even kindly gave us a reduction as missionaries—this in a country where the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses is under ban. There were only two places left on flight RK 103. We were overjoyed to be able to stay in Africa.
Thus, on Tuesday, February 20, we arrived in Abidjan at about 3:45 p.m. and went through customs at the airport without any problem. How happy we were to be here, appreciative of Jehovah’s protection! After some searching we finally found our Christian brothers. We’ll never forget the welcome and the love extended to us by our fellow missionaries. All the brothers we have met in Abidjan have shown themselves to be full of goodness toward us.
Here in Ivory Coast we are continuing to sanctify Jehovah’s name and are enjoying the preaching work in a residential quarter of the city very much. What a privilege it is to tell others about Jehovah’s purpose to bring true peace and security to all who love righteousness! (Mic. 4:2-4; Ps. 46:8, 9)—Contributed.
[Blurb on page 13]
“At night we regularly heard bursts of machine-gun and rifle fire”
[Blurb on page 14]
“Under our beds we could hear the whistling of bullets, some ricocheting off our metal shutters”
[Blurb on page 15]
“Dozens of soldiers . . . aimed their guns at us”
[Blurb on page 16]
“Corpses had swollen to double their normal size, and hungry dogs were starting to eat them”
[Map on page 12]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)