South Molucca. The Malvinas. Abu Dhabi.
These are places we don't normally hear of, places that enter our lives suddenly and violently, through war or terrorism. When they make headlines we rush to the atlas to find out where they are and what they are about, but what we really know about them is that they are places where people die, and their moments are brief and bitter. When their headlines fade they leave no legacy but pain, and the more they happen, the less we weep.
Now comes Chad, a former French colony that gained independence in 1960; a Beau Geste wasteland for Legionnaires and convicts, covered in the north by sand and in the south by rain; a landlocked slab of a country in central Africa with 4.7 million people, overwhelmingly farmers and nomads--50 different tribes, each with its own dialect--and almost no strategic or current economic value; a country divided by climate, religion and ethnicity, Hamitic in the north, black African in the south; a harsh, unforgiving country of great size but little charm.
Stanley N. Schrager, now special assistant to the director of the Peace Corps, was in Chad from '76 to '78. "Until a few months ago," Schrager said, "few Americans knew--or even cared--where Chad was, let alone what kind of government it had." He called Chad "a land of good people living in a geographic absurdity."
Mahamat Ali Adoum, 35 years old and one of 20 children born to a chief, sat down carefully, so as not to wrinkle his double-breasted brown suit. As Chad's charge' d'affaires, his country's spokesman in Washington, it was important that he make a good impression. Part of his job is to tell the American people about Chad. Most of what they already know is that Chad is far away and full of blood. What Adoum wants to do is wash that blood off his country's face.
Behind Adoum was a photograph of his country's embattled president, Hissene Habre, who seized power last year. To his right stood his country's flag, thick vertical stripes of red (for sacrifice), yellow (for the desert) and blue (for agriculture). On his left was an autographed picture of Adoum shaking hands with President Reagan. When he spoke it was in a gentle voice, but with a troubled tone.
"We need to have peace," he was saying. "We need to have time."
Because of the war, he was saying, his country has had neither.
The war in all its incarnations has been going on for 18 years, with no end in sight. A generation of Chadians has grown up knowing no peace, only intermittent truces.
"When the fighting starts they leave; they go to neighboring countries," Adoum was saying. "When the fighting stops, they come back. It is the way of life. They come back because they love their country. But they do not love the war."
Because of the war, Adoum was saying, there is not even an ambassador to the United States. The last ambassador was recalled in 1979. Chad would like to have an ambassador here; it plans to send one. "But since the country is facing such economic difficulties it is too difficult to name ambassadors. It costs a lot of money to have ambassadors."
There is no railroad; the country cannot afford it. Because of the war, the money goes into weapons. The roads are not good, not even in the cities; they are mostly dirt, and they do not stand up to the rainy season. There are no bridges, no tunnels. How can there be an infrastructure when there is hardly a structure?
"We are very, very far from other countries," Adoum was saying.
The only place it is 1983 in Chad is on the calendar. There are telephones in the big cities, but not in the countryside, and the country is as big as California, Texas and Oklahoma put together. There is so much country and so little city--only 18 percent urban. An American in Chad is a stranger in a strange land. There is no television, only radio. There is no McDonald's, no Kentucky Fried Chicken . . . "although if they wanted to come they would be welcome." There are no computer games. Adoum laughs at the notion of computer games in Chad. "They have not reached Chad yet." If they do they will likely come from France, Chad's major trading partner, military guarantor and overall lifeline.
"The country is poor," Adoum was saying. "The people are poor. The people are hungry now. Because of the war. And because of the drought. Chad has never had time to develop itself. But if we have peace we can produce our own food. We have millet, rice, peanuts and cattle. Our fish are the best in Africa. You see, Chad is potentially a rich country. The Chadian soil contains many things. There is oil. We need to have peace to build a pipeline to the capital. There is uranium and manganese and tungsten. American companies like Conoco know that Chad can be a very rich country." And so, apparently, does Libya's leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi. Adoum charges Qaddafi with responsibility for the war. "It used to be civil war," Adoum was saying. "Now it is with Libya."
Adoum shrugged his broad shoulders and said, "We cannot develop because Qaddafi won't let us. He makes the war."
Adoum's Chad, the land of his birth, land of his people, "is a beautiful place." He does not mention its northern desert, a sea of sand, where nomads wander on camels, their natural enemy the relentless, parching sun. He says, simply, "The north is dry." The center, he says, is a little bit green; the south, very green. There are mountains in the north and east, he says, "and the people are very open, very peaceful." When asked if it is hot, Adoum shakes his head. "No. Not hot. Warm." Surely he speaks of the south, because in the north it can reach as high as 130 degrees. Even in the south it can reach 110 in March and April. But from May to October, "it is not too hot, just warm." And from November to February, Adoum says, "it is a good time for the tourists."
Adoum wants American tourists. Chad wants American tourists.
Who doesn't want American tourists?
There are wild animals to see, to photograph, to hunt in Chad. Elephants and gazelles and giraffes. A night in a hotel, Adoum was saying, "is very cheap, only $15 to $20." In the capital, N'Djamena, there are two big hotels. There used to be three. But "because of the war" there are now only two. A good meal, Adoum was saying--steak, fish, vegetables, wine--"is really cheap, maybe $10."
But the American tourists--the "50 to 60" who came last year--were unlikely to see Chadians staying and eating at the two hotels. The average Chadian earns only $120 per year, and although cattle is the main export, the average Chadian must content himself with boule, a wet African bread made of millet, and stew and tea. "The people are very poor," Adoum was saying. Because of the war.
Schools are free. There is even a university in N'Djamena. Anyone can go. Anyone, Adoum was saying, can become anything he chooses. But the World Almanac says that only 15 percent of the population is literate. If you are poor, and you must work as soon as you are physically able, then what does a free school matter?
It is warm in the embassy. Very warm. To an American it seems hot. Adoum is talking about the military situation, stressing the fact that his country seeks peace but that Qaddafi must withdraw from Chad or the fighting will go on, when he is asked: If there was one thing--just one thing--that Chad would like from the United States, what would it be?
Adoum is caught short.
"That is a very delicate question," he says.
His hands, which were folded across his chest, open up and become paddles in the air. His expression, which was knit in seriousness, widens into a smile. His voice, which was somber, rises into a laugh.
"We need everything," Mahamat Ali Adoum says. "We need everything."