by James R. Bullington
In talks on the Foreign Service, I’ve often told this story about the reaction back home to my new career:
After several months of training in Washington, I visited Chattanooga over the July 4, 1963, holiday. At a barbeque hosted by my parents, people were curious about what I was doing since I had graduated from college. “Why, I’ve joined the Foreign Service,” I proudly announced to the first couple that asked. Their eyes widened and their jaws dropped in consternation. “Now why in HAIL would yew go and do a thaing like that?” asked the husband. Further conversation revealed that they mistook the Foreign Service for the Foreign Legion (about which they had recently seen some old Hollywood movies on TV), and they couldn’t imagine why I would want to go and fight for the French army in the Sahara Desert.
Among my parents’ friends and neighbors, the American Foreign Service was totally unknown, but most Americans were familiar with the French Foreign Legion because of numerous movies about it from the 1920s through the 1960s. The most notable was Beau Geste, released in 1939.
Today the Foreign Legion remains a significant part of France’s military establishment, especially in former French colonies. Just as at the time of its 1831 creation, it consists of foreign volunteers, who sometimes come with problematic backgrounds and are permitted to enlist using a pseudonym. They serve under French officers and can eventually gain French citizenship. The Legion is noted for its rigorous discipline and storied bravery. Along with the exotic locales in which it fights, this is why so many movies (77 listed in Wikipedia) have been made about it.
My only encounter with the Legion came in Chad, where I was assigned as deputy chief of mission (DCM) immediately after my graduation from the Army War College in 1979. This assignment was largely a result of my three years of wartime service in Vietnam, which was deemed to outweigh my lack of previous Africa experience. Chad had just been designated an “unaccompanied” post, so I would have to leave my spouse, Tuy-Cam, and our two daughters behind in Washington. But it never occurred to me to protest assignment to a dangerous or “hardship” post. Moreover, a DCM job is a critical steppingstone for further career advancement, and I welcomed the chance for some excitement.
Chad and its Civil War
Chad lies within the Sahara Desert and on its southern fringe. It’s divided demographically between the Muslim north and the mostly Christian south. Like many other French African colonies, it gained independence in 1960.
Southern Christians, more educated and favored by the French, dominated the new government and its army, but by 1965 a civil war had begun between the government and northern rebels demanding a greater share of power. This conflict persisted, with varying intensity, for the next quarter century.
The February 1979 fighting that drove the southerners (and US dependents) out of N’Djamena, the capital, brought to power a loose, mutually hostile coalition of northern factions. A provisional government was proclaimed, but it never even began to function. The professional civil servants, almost all Christian, had fled to the south, and the desert warriors now in power were mostly illiterate and had no experience in governance. Political power remained with the leaders of the factions, warlords backed by ill-disciplined “combattants,”1 many of them teenagers, brandishing AK-47 assault rifles.
The two largest factions were the FAP (Forces Armées Populaires), led by Goukouni Oueddai, and the FAN (Forces Armées du Nord), led by Hissene Habré. They were bitter rivals. Nine other factions were included in the interim coalition government, but none had more than a few dozen armed combattants in N’Djamena. FAP and FAN, each with several hundred combattants, exercised police power and political control in separate parts of the city.
Government offices were occupied by combattants and their commanders, some of the latter with ministerial titles, but most normal civil government operations such as trash collection, public health, the postal system, etc. ceased to function.
Arrival in N’Djamena
This was the situation when I arrived in N’Djamena on July 25, 1979. “Welcome to the civil war,” said my predecessor as DCM, Tony Dalsimer, on greeting me at the airport. The ambassador had completed his tour of duty and departed in early July, so Tony was the chargé d’affaires ad interim. I was to have five days of overlap with Tony before he departed and I assumed that role.
On the way to N’Djamena, I had stopped in Paris for consultations at the French Foreign Ministry. The French were by far the most important foreign presence in Chad. They maintained an airbase just north of N’Djamena secured by a battalion of Foreign Legion troops. They also financed and operated vital public utilities, and they dominated trade and commerce. Moreover, several hundred French citizens, mostly colonial era holdovers, were still resident in the country.
However, as I learned in Paris and later from their ambassador in N’Djamena, the French had little influence over the Chadian warlords now in control, nor did they have any inclination to take sides in the civil war or to become otherwise engaged militarily except in self-defense. They shared our objectives of a negotiated end to the conflict, a return to political stability, and provision of humanitarian assistance, as well as our frustrations in trying to advance those objectives.
The embassy was staffed by 24 Americans — a third of them from State and CIA, a military attaché and his assistant from Defense, and the rest from USAID. There were more than 100 locally hired staff, all Chadian except for four Canadians, who were Baha’i missionaries and long-time Chad residents. A CARE office with three Americans was closely associated with the embassy because it administered a US food distribution program.
Like most small US embassies at this time, N’Djamena had no Marine guards. It was in a building crowded into the heart of the commercial district. For security, we were dependent on the local government, which is required by the Vienna Convention and centuries of diplomatic tradition to protect foreign diplomats and their property.
But given the anarchic situation in Chad at the time, protection by the government meant no protection at all. This did not seem to create a great deal of concern in Washington, and most of us in N’Djamena saw it as a risk that was our duty to accept as part of our Foreign Service careers.
Today, the State Department is much more sensitive to security threats and provides greater protection for its staff, including Marine guards and security officers at almost all embassies; but the risks can never be fully eliminated.
Conducting Diplomacy with a Non-Functioning Government
Since the new ambassador was not due to arrive until November, I was chargé for four months. This was a challenge, particularly since I had no previous experience in Africa. I did have experience in armed conflict and evacuations, however, as well as recent leadership training, and I welcomed this prolonged time as chargé.
I had meetings with FAP chief Goukouni Oueddei, who was the interim prime minister, FAN chief Hissane Habré, who was minister of defense, and other government and faction leaders. The foreign minister, who would normally have been my principal point of contact, was chief of one of the minor factions and had no real power, so my meeting with him was only a courtesy call.
French Ambassador Marcel Beaux, a senior diplomat with extensive Africa experience, including several years in Chad, provided a memorable caution: “You will find it very difficult to conduct diplomacy with a non-functioning government.” The information my Embassy colleagues and I collected enabled us to meet Washington’s need for frequent situation reports and analysis, and after a few weeks I recommended further cutbacks in USAID programs and staffing (to reduce our exposure and because the government was not sufficiently functional to utilize development assistance). USAID strongly opposed my recommendations, and they were not implemented.
Also, had my opinion been asked, I would have advised against Washington’s decision to permit adult dependents, who had been evacuated in February, to return to N’Djamena. I judged the security situation to be too fragile to have any more Americans at post than absolutely necessary. However, the USAID director and State Department Africa Bureau officers, who had extensive Africa experience, thought otherwise. They argued that the new government leaders had all expressed desire for continued American aid and good relations with the United States. Moreover, the people of N’Djamena and the occupying combattants seemed friendly, and there were no signs of anti-American attitudes. Foreigners had thus far never been targeted during the civil war, and the French, the most numerous members of the international community, had not evacuated their citizens. So, a reasonable argument could be made that the threat to foreigners was not sufficiently high to require evacuations.
Still, I continued to caution that there was no police force, the factions (especially FAP and FAN) were mutually hostile and had fought each other in the past, and the city was filled with hundreds of armed, undisciplined combattants. The danger, it seemed to me, was not from planned action against us but from random violence, banditry, and becoming “collateral damage” should fighting break out in the city. My experience in Hué during the 1968 Tet Offensive had given me a lively appreciation of the impact of urban combat on a civilian population.
The first crisis came when three armed combattants stopped a CIA staff member on his way home and forced him to drive to their headquarters. Their objective was probably to requisition a car for their commander. He was deemed uncooperative and was bound and detained at the headquarters. We learned of this incident about 9 p.m. from one of our local employees who lived nearby. It was in a part of town known to be controlled by FAN, so together with the Embassy driver I set out to find the FAN leader, Defense Minister Habré (photo below). We located his house about 11 p.m. and with some difficulty persuaded his security guards to let us in. After contacting subordinates, Habré acknowledged that an American was indeed being held. I explained the grave potential implications if our man, who had a diplomatic passport, were not promptly released. The best educated of the northern leaders, Habré indicated that he understood and would resolve the problem. I departed, and the captive and his vehicle were released as promised.
I saw this armed detention of an American diplomat as an indicator of the danger we faced and a portent of worse to come. Washington viewed his prompt release, unharmed, as an indicator that the danger level was not high and could be managed. Two weeks later, another American lost his vehicle in an armed hijacking. Also, the combattants began to requisition (i.e., steal) food from the CARE warehouse, effectively ending our program to feed refugees and war victims. Other embassies experienced similar problems. Gunfire could be heard in the streets most nights.
Ambassador Don Norland and his wife, Pat, arrived in November 1979. He was an experienced, capable professional diplomat, and both Don and Pat became friends. After Don completed his introductory calls and settled in, I left for consultations and home leave in Washington.
I returned to N’Djamena in January 1980 to find that security was further deteriorating, with looting and banditry now extending to private homes and businesses as well as public property. Moreover, political tension was rising among the government factions, and additional combattants were moving into the city. At the embassy, we burned most of our classified files, updated and exercised our emergency evacuation plan, and prepared to further reduce our staff.
Combat and Evacuation
In the pre-dawn hours of March 21, we awoke to the sound of gunfire just outside the ambassador’s and DCM’s residences. Such sounds in the night were no longer unusual in N’Djamena, but this was more intense, widespread, and prolonged than before. The ambassador and I consulted, and he called French Ambassador Beaux while I conducted our regular 7 a.m. staff radio check, telling everyone to remain in their homes.
The gunfire continued all morning, and by noon we were able to determine that there was combat throughout the city between the forces of FAP and FAN. The embassy was located downtown in an area of particularly heavy fighting, and there was no way we could reach it without grave danger of being shot, so we instructed the staff to “stand fast” in their homes until further notice.
Without access to the embassy, our sole means of communicating with Washington was a short-wave radio installed in the ambassador’s residence for just such contingencies. Our communications technician lived in another part of town, so as the only person present with the technical skills to operate this radio (I was a serious ham radio hobbyist), I became our communicator. Through this link, we were able to provide situation reports to the State Department. My first report was that “the FAP has hit the FAN!”
As the day wore on, the chatter of rifles and machine guns was supplemented by the boom of mortar, rocket, and recoilless rifle fire. I drew on my Vietnam experience to tell our staff members, none of whom had ever been under fire in a combat zone, to resist the impulse to flee, and to make a shelter in an interior part of the house, where they would be much safer than anywhere outside.
Our plan, coordinated with the French, was that in the event of the outbreak of hostilities, Americans and other foreigners would drive to the French Air Force/Foreign Legion base in convoys, escorted by French military vehicles. However, a ceasefire was an essential part of this plan, as French policy was to avoid military engagement except in self-defense. The local telephone system continued to function (even though electricity and water had been cut), so it was possible for Ambassadors Norland and Beaux to contact the FAP and FAN leaders to try to arrange a ceasefire.
Nonetheless, combat lasted the rest of the day and evening and resumed the morning of March 22, continuing all day. Several American homes, including the ambassador’s residence, were hit by errant small arms and mortar fire, but everyone remained in their improvised shelters when the fighting became heavy, and there were no American casualties.
The night passed in relative quiet, but heavy firing again resumed the morning of March 23. A one-hour ceasefire had finally been accepted by the faction leaders, to begin at 10 a.m., but continuing gunfire indicated that it was not implemented. By mid-afternoon, the firing had diminished, and we determined, together with the French, that the best course of action was for foreign residents to form small convoys and make their way to the French base as best they could without the planned military escorts. This process began about 4 p.m.
The nine of us who were in the ambassador’s and DCM’s residences set off in three cars, each displaying a white flag. We were joined by a few French neighbors as we drove through the devastated city, and we reached the safety of the French base in half an hour. By nightfall, all of the American staff were on the base.
The French offered us a choice of evacuation by air to Douala, Cameroon, or by land via an escorted convoy to a ferry that would take people and their vehicles across the Chari River to Cameroon. Since we did not have our private vehicles or, as did several staff members, dogs to take along, the Norlands and I chose the aerial alternative. After dinner in the French mess hall and a hot night on cots in an empty warehouse, we boarded a French military cargo plane the next afternoon, March 24. The US consulate in Douala helped us arrange onward commercial flights to Washington.
The embassy staff had responded to the crisis with patience and courage, and thanks to the presence of the French base and its Legionnaires, everyone was evacuated safely. We were fortunate, in view of the combat and chaos in N’Djamena, to have avoided any deaths or injuries. However, we lost almost all of our possessions, which were promptly looted from our unoccupied houses. My greatest loss was of my complete collection of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs records. I’ve often told people that if they were ever traveling across the Sahara Desert and came upon an oasis where the people were bluegrass music fans, they would most certainly have found the grandchildren of the combattants who looted my records.
In retrospect, it’s clear that we should have closed the embassy, or at least drawn down to a skeleton staff of no more than half a dozen well before the situation forced a hazardous evacuation under combat conditions. Neither our interests in Chad nor our ability to affect the situation was sufficiently great to justify the risks.
After our departure, the conflict persisted until the FAN forces prevailed and Habré established himself as dictator in 1982. He was at least initially supported by the US, France, and other Western countries as a counterweight to the vehemently anti-Western Moammar Gaddafi in Libya, Chad’s northern neighbor, with which it had several armed conflicts.
Habré’s corrupt and brutal rule continued until he was overthrown in a 1990 coup. He fled the country, reportedly with $11 million, and lived opulently in Senegal. Eventually, a campaign by some of his victims resulted in a lengthy trial by an international tribunal of the African Union. Although indicted in 2000 for “crimes against humanity,” he was not convicted until 2016. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2021.
Today, Chad remains one of the world’s poorest and most conflict-prone countries.
1. I’m reluctant to use an English term such as “soldiers,” since this might imply a degree of organization, training, and discipline that they totally lacked. Thy were more akin to an armed mob than to a military force. So, I will use the French word by which they were known.
Jim Bullington was ambassador to Burundi and dean of the State Department’s senior seminar. He served three tours in wartime Vietnam, followed by assignments in Thailand, Burma, Chad, Benin, and Senegal. His post-Foreign Service jobs included director of international affairs for Dallas and Peace Corps director in Niger. He is the author of Global Adventures on Less-Traveled Roads: A Foreign Service Memoir, from which this article was adapted; and he was editor of American Diplomacy, 2007-2009. He and his wife of 55 years, Tuy-Cam, who was a foreign service national employee at consulates in Hué and Danang and the embassy in Saigon, are now retired in Williamsburg, Virginia.