We Americans who have spent time in Chad remember ourselves lamenting the fact that the United States had no policy toward Chad back in those days, how the United States rather ignored the expansive desert country. That was, of course, long before today's headlines. If it were not for the tragedy inherent in this recognition, our Chadian contingent would note with considerable bemusement that until a few months ago few Americans knew--or even cared--where Chad was, let alone what kind of government it had.
But all that has changed, and, to a degree, the United States stands prepared to assist those willing to take on Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi in his bid to install a puppet government in Chad. Those African hands and others subscribing to a geopoliticial view of Africa and the world would have to admit that a Qaddafi- dominated Chad would potentially endanger our strong allies, Sudan and Egypt, which is perhaps Qaddafi's real goal in all this.
But there is more to it than Qaddafi, or Libyan ambitions, or security for Sudan and Egypt, or French policy toward its former African colonies. What is lost is the human face of Chad, that aspect that mysteriously created near-emotional bonds among old Chad hands, American and French alike. The geopolitics aside, Chad is a land of good people living in a geographic absurdity, a country that by all rights, except for the whimsy of the European colonial powers when they divided up Africa at the end of the 19th century, should not really exist. But it does exist, and civil war, and now foreign intervention, has dogged its impoverished steps since independence.
It is a country that virtually lives on what veteran beer-drinkers concede to be one of the top local beers in the world--Gala Beer--from the apparently incapable-of-being-duplicated waters of the Logone River; and no matter how grave the domestic situation, the Gala Brewery kept functioning and producing its magic elixir.
I remember flying in a small plane with a Conoco pilot and a visiting journalist. The pilot's name was George Suhre. He lived across the road from me in Ndjamena, and had been in Chad flying for Conoco for nearly 10 years. As we overflew Lake Chad he pointed out a small group of wooden bark canoes in the middle of a desert; that was the spot, he said, where a fishing village had existed just a few years before. Now all that remained were the eery decaying canoes, caught in a real-life time warp. That, said George, was what the "scientific mind" meant by desertification.
But I remember George for another reason. In the "First Battle" for Ndjamena, in the spring of 1979, shortly after I had been reassigned, I was told that George Suhre had taken a bullet in the head while standing in his kitchen and died immediately from the wound.
There were more deaths after that, of Chadian friends and acquaintances. But even the protagonists take on their own individual characteristics.
There was former president Felix Malloum, overthrown by Hissene Habre in 1979. I remember my farewell call on Gen. Malloum the week I departed. We sat and drank--what else but Gala Beer?--and, as the threat from the north pressed down upon him, he looked around his office at all the doors and remarked, strangely out of context, that, as I could see, a president has "many exits."
Hissene Habre was then Malloum's prime minister, and I remember taking him a book by John Kenneth Galbraith as a farewell gift. Habre then began to talk about Galbraith and economic theory, how he had studied Galbraith during his student days at the Sorbonne. Here, I remember thinking, was perhaps a new breed of African leader; that after the pangs of the post-independence period and the military coups, there would arise the educated, pro-Western younger generation. That still may be true.
There was a long evening spent drinking champagne and watching a videotape of the New York Cosmos and Pele with Col. Kamougue, then foreign minister, and the recognized leader of the southern blacks. Kamougue had good taste in French champagne, and, with his ubiquitous small children darting about the well-guarded house, he spoke of what he wanted for his children, and for his country.
There were long nights with groups of Chadians at my home, the green Gala Beer bottles cluttering the dining room table, shirt-sleeves rolled up after dinner, and long discussions of the most recent turns in U.S. policy, and freedom of the press, and race relations in America. There were visiting lecturers at the now bombed-out American Cultural Center on Avenue Charles de Gaulle in downtown Ndjamena. And there were my Chadian employees who fled across the river into Cameroon, and later wrote me letters filled with both pathos and a gritty determination to return to Chad some day.
There were the long overland trips with the ambassador, who was determined to visit every single one of the 100 Peace Corps volunteers at their sites --and he did. As we would approach in our van, flags flying, the village crowds would gather and the legendary Chadian hospitality would take over.
The Peace Corps, the human symbol of America's concern for the Chadian people, is gone now from Chad, and they are no doubt sorely missed. When they return--and I am confident that they will--it will be a sign that things are better.
We should not be distracted from Chad and its people. Chad's ultimate political destiny remains up for grabs. But it is right and proper that it should concern us. And that we should care.