The soldiers arrived in a pickup. There were five of them; they jumped from the back and entered the grounds of the presidential palace, leaving the driver to wait. The building stood opposite a sickly looking tree, which gave cover to the men who sat on the sidewalk chewing betel and spitting. The men watched what was happening with interest. The smell of burnt garbage and fruit rotting in the sun wafted through the air: it was scorching hot, the start of the dry season.
The presidential palace looked like a Baroque castle, like a Versailles in miniature, with a park and fountains with swans in them. We could see it as we approached, descending from the hill. The machine gun nests and six-foot-high concrete wall were the only reminders that you were in N’Djamena.
The detainees were led into the courtyard. Three men and a woman, all black. Their hands weren’t bound; they obediently followed one of the soldiers, who wore a red beret. He must have been the unit commander, because he was issuing orders.
The street had been blocked off by a military truck, and we wouldn’t be able go around it without attracting their attention. Mustafa spat on the ground and turned off the engine, then leaned against the handlebars. “We’ll wait,” he said. “The restaurant isn’t going anywhere.” He was my fixer, a Muslim. He had arranged my stay in the city.
We’d wanted to spend my last day in Chad quietly. He had decided to treat me to some local cuisine. The restaurants were on the city’s main street. We traveled on his motorcycle, as usual. Because of the truck, however, we would have to wait. From where I sat behind Mustafa, I watched the scene as it unfolded.
Without a word the three men stood by the wall; only their skin had become a bit paler and sweat beaded through their shirts. The woman began to shout. The man in the red cap kicked her legs out from under her. As she fell her shirt burst open, her breasts spilling out like two black water pouches. The other soldiers got a kick out of this and let loose with boisterous laughter. A smile broke out on the commander’s lips, flashing snow-white teeth.
“What language are they speaking?” I asked Mustafa.
“Zaghawa, I think.”
The conscripts slapped their knees as they laughed, pointing at the woman lying in the dirt. The woman began kissing the commander’s black boots. The man enjoyed this for a bit, but when the woman wouldn’t quit, he bent down and picked her up in his arms. The woman stood without protest. Her face was gleaming with tears. The commander said something to her.