In Chad's war-weary capital: bullet holes, hunger, and hope
This hot, dusty capital of Chad is not a pleasant place these days. On entering the city, it is immediately apparent that Chad is a nation at war - and that it has been so for years.
Much of N'Djamena is in ruins. Twice in the past four years battles have been fought here between factions struggling for control of the government. But there has been periodic fighting since independence in 1960.
A year ago President Hissein Habre, then a rebel leader, drove former President Goukhouni Woddei into exile. Woddei, backed by Libya, is now the rebel , mounting a stiff challenge to unseat Habre.
In N'Djamena itself, the destruction and neglect caused by years of civil strife can be seen everywhere. At least half of the white-plaster buildings constructed by the French in the old city core have been destroyed.
Of those that are standing, many are mere shells - their interiors gutted by bombs and their outside walls pitted with bullet holes. Of the streets that are paved, many are cratered with holes from past military assaults.
The once finely manicured gardens that lined the streets in the colonial period are overgrown with weeds or choked by the sands that sweep in from the desert.
Only N'Djamena's great mosque, the Mosque Roi Faycal, is unscathed - a fitting reminder, perhaps, that it is the Muslim north, and not the Christian south, that controls Chad's central government.
Despite the physical ruin and the difficulties of living in a poverty-stricken nation, residents of Chad's capital are resilient. Modern conveniences do not exist for most of them, and for some family members, almost every waking hour is spent gathering the essentials for survival: food and water.
During the day, the labyrinth of narrow streets and small shops that make up the market is packed with people buying and selling what few goods are available. Many are produced locally; others are smuggled across the Chari River from neighboring Cameroon.
At night, both the cry of marabouts leading prayers from the Koran and the rhythmic sounds of African music from city night spots can be heard in the streets.
Consumption of alcohol is prohibited by Muslim law, but drinks are sold freely nonetheless, perhaps as a diversion from the daily struggle for survival and the tensions of war.
Chadians are keenly aware of politics and of the fighting taking place in the northern part of the country. Daily radio broadcasts goad them to rally behind the government effort to defeat the rebels.
Posters of President Habre, clad alternately in Muslim religious clothing and in a three-piece suit, are plastered on the walls of almost every building. Below his pictures are quotes from the leader, asking Chadians to fight against external aggression and to pray for unity and peace.
By far the most prevalent feeling among Chadians now is weariness of the war and the damage done to the nation's efforts at reconstruction and development.
One N'Djamena student says, ''We have had war here since independence and especially since 1979. The people are tired of war and the suffering it causes. The people of Chad want peace so that they can rebuild the city and make their lives better.''
Another in N'Djamena agrees: ''We have little to eat because we have not been able to work the land. We have no medicines and we have very little education. When the war ends, it will then be possible to rebuild Chad and start toward development.''
The mood of N'Djamena residents seems to be that the blame for Chad's current conflict rests with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who, according to one Chadian , ''wants to keep Chad destabilized so that he can continue to occupy our country.''
Goukhouni Woddei apparently has few friends left in N'Djamena. Many were killed in the fighting that drove him from the capital. Others have fled to Cameroon. Those that are here seem to support Habre.
Says one Chadian: ''When Goukhouni was president, there was no government. There was no law and order. He and his ministers did nothing to rebuild the city. They just used government funds to enrich themselves.''
Perhaps Woddei's greatest mistake, he and others say, was the former President's links with the Libyans. To highly nationalistic Chadians, Woddei's apparent deal to allow the Libyans to continue occupying the Aozou Strip in northern Chad in exchange for military supplies is seen as an unforgivable act.
''He is not a man of this country,'' says one Chadian. ''He is a traitor because he sold the Aozou to Libya.''
A southern Chadian says, ''While the (Woddei) government sought to divide the people according to their different ethnic and religious groups, Habre is trying to build unity. . . . We Chadians now realize that he is the best man for building peace in Chad.''
Whether Habre is able to achieve peace remains to be seen. Woddei still controls much of the north, but Habre's troops have had some recentbattle successes.