Out of Country
Sunday, November 27, 2005
He shouldn't have been there. Ahmat Soubiane knew he'd eventually have to pack up his wife and four young daughters and leave the official diplomatic residence. He wasn't the Republic of Chad's ambassador to the United States anymore; the house no longer was his. After five years in the post, he had been recalled for expressing opposition to his boss, Chadian President Idriss Deby.
But he'd stayed -- for 16 months. By law, the Soubianes had become squatters. So they were braced for trouble. And one afternoon, it came.
Someone started banging on the door. They heard the sound of wood cracking as someone kicked it in. And suddenly the place was swarming with people.
There was Mahamoud Adam Bechir, the new ambassador from Chad, along with his driver, his cook, his charge d'affaires. And there was Bechir's lawyer, as well as a squad of young men who broke down the door.
The politics of Chad, a landlocked country virtually in the middle of Africa's Sahara, had been visited upon a quiet cul-de-sac in Montgomery County's Hampshire Green community, the official home of the Chadian ambassador. That July day, Soubiane and Bechir, the dueling diplomats, faced off for 12 hours at the residence, surrounded by officers of the Secret Service, the Diplomatic Security Service, Montgomery County police and State Department officials.
Their test of wills reached a negotiated end a couple of days later in talks brokered by State Department officials. Bechir, who'd presented his credentials to the White House, took up residence in the official Chadian home. Soubiane, his wife, Zarga, and their four daughters -- Amina, 13; twins Izza and Iman, 12; and 6-year-old Souad -- found refuge in the home of a friend in Columbia.
They had relocated. But the Soubianes' life was still in limbo. And the battle was far from over.
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As boys in primary school, Soubiane and Deby had been chums. Later, they became comrades in the struggle against the Chadian dictator Hissene Habre, whose government stands accused of arresting, torturing and killing thousands of ethnic citizens during the 1980s.
Such brutality happened amid anti-Habre forces as well, and Soubiane experienced it firsthand. During the struggle in the mid-1980s, he was tortured while imprisoned by an opposition group in the mountains of northern Chad, and then fled to Libya.
Meanwhile, Deby had emerged as a rebel nationalist who wanted to unify and democratize Chad. So when Deby led the overthrow of Habre in 1990, a jubilant Soubiane joined their victory ride into N'Djamena, the Chadian capital.
Soubiane helped craft the country's constitution. Deby appointed him interior minister, then a regional governor. Soubiane's commitment to democracy was spurred by those experiences, he says. Deby named him ambassador to the United States in 1998.