Choice ~ Stephanie Bane

 

joined the Peace Corps in 1993.  Mostly I did it for the adventure, but people often mistook me for an idealist, and they still do.  They project their missionary fantasies – a disturbing mélange of things they learned about Africa in Sunday school, and Sally Struthers’ Save the Children ads – on to me.  Occasionally, someone will ask if the Chadians I lived among were civilized.   The question no longer stuns me into silence; I’m ready for it.  But I do give myself a moment to indulge in a vicious fantasy before I answer.  I mentally drop this suburban businessman, who works with me at an ad agency, into the Sahara desert.  Inside of a month, he’s hacked someone to death with a machete to get food for his family, because he lacks the imagination to get it any other way.  Fitting punishment for his belief in his own civility.

I met Soldat in Doba, the city in southern Chad where I lived with my American post-mate Laurie.  Soldat was a commander in the Chadian army.  Laurie and I were English teachers.  We inherited the unlikely friendship with Soldat from Stacey, a volunteer who’d been in Doba the previous year.  Dedicated runners, Stacey and Soldat met because they passed each other every morning, before the rest of the town was awake, trying to fit in their workouts before the heat of the Sahel made it dangerous. 

Soldat wasn’t a tall man, maybe about 5’10”, but he was physically imposing, with the build and body-confidence of an athlete. He showed us his running shoes on our first visit to his house.

“Adidas,” he said, smiling.  “Good shoes.” He held them up for us to see.  There was little left but two worn strips of rubber.    Wearing them was only slightly better than running barefoot.

“I got them in San Antonio, Texas.  I trained there on a military base.  I loved Texas.”

“What did you love about it?” Laurie asked.

“Steak.  Hamburgers.”  We’d been speaking in French, but he said the word “hamburgers” in English, with great enthusiasm.

Hamburgers are delicious,” he said.

“They are,” I agreed.  I’d been thinking about them non-stop since my arrival in Chad.  

“And sports,” he added.  “I love to run.”

Soldat was usually casually dressed, in a pair of black sweats, or in the green pants of his military uniform and a t-shirt.  I rarely saw him in full uniform; nevertheless, he always looked like a man in charge of the situation, even when wearing nothing but a pair of red shorts. 

That first day he introduced us to his wife, Sophie.  She was in her early thirties and tall, statuesque even, with a sparingly used but knockout smile. She volunteered with the Red Cross.  Soldat called his five children to us.  They lined up obediently, shortest to tallest.

“This is Boris,” he said.  “Sophie and I got married just before I went to the Soviet Union.  That’s where I was when he was born.  I went to school there, for four years.”

He gestured to the next child, a girl.  “This is Sylvie.  She was conceived on my first visit home.”

He moved down the row of children.  Each child was a story of separation, then reunion, with his wife.   Sophie joined in telling about it, how hard it was to give birth with Soldat so far away, how lonely she’d been without him.

Soldat framed his whole life in the context of his family.  He was a father and a husband, and the rest of it was just a matter of detail.   The detail:  he was a well-educated, high-ranking military officer.  He spoke Russian, French, some English, Arabic, Ngambay, and likely several other Chadian dialects.  He’d traveled the world, and he’d seen action here at home.  He was a valuable asset to his country.  But the way he talked about it, it was all a matter of when he could and could not spend time with his wife and children.

Sophie didn’t have the benefit of education and travel that Soldat did.  But she’d finished high school, no small thing for a Chadian woman.  She received some medical training from the Red Cross, and volunteered her time and effort at a local clinic.  She’d learned more and more over the years, and while she wasn’t a nurse by degree, her practical experience made her one.  Sophie and Soldat were well matched, and obviously in love.

Laurie and I socialized with Soldat and Sophie as often as they would let us.  With them, cultural differences were a non-issue. Sophie was open-minded and Soldat was experienced.  He’d lived like us, blundering his way through all manner of opaque social interactions in a foreign country, for many years.  He laughed sympathetically at stories of misunderstandings and confusion.

Soldat wouldn’t accept an invitation to our house.  He was sensitive to the negative impact it would have on the Peace Corps – a beneficial and supposedly apolitical organization – for two volunteers to be closely associated with a commanding officer in the Chadian army.  Mostly we spent time at his house, where it might naturally be inferred that we were visiting with Sophie.

Laurie and I hadn’t been in Doba more than a month when we heard the first gunfire.  It was at night, and very remote.  I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, and was accustomed the sharp crack of hunting rifles every fall.  But this was different – low and rapid, sustained.  Automatic weapons, something I’d only heard before at the movies.  Because of the distance, it didn’t seem to pose an immediate threat.  But we lost a few hours of sleep over it, and were uneasy enough to mention it to our Superintendent the next day.

 “Oh, yes, that,” he said.  He shrugged.  “That was nothing.  Just a little trouble in the bush, with the rebels.”

Neither of us responded right away.  He looked at us both.  “Okay?”

“Okay,” we both replied. 

We heard gunfire in the night, with regularity, the entire time we lived in Doba.  Sometimes, if it sounded closer than usual, we’d talk to each other about it.  We lay in separate bedrooms, under separate mosquito nets, but the stillness between bursts of gunfire was so complete we could hear each other speaking in whispers.

“Did you hear that?”

“Yes.”

“It sounded close, didn’t it?”

“Yes, but it didn’t last very long, did it?  Our neighbors would let us know if there was real trouble.”

Our neighbors always seemed to be sleeping in peace.

 

At the end of that school year, Laurie decided to return to the US for her summer vacation.  Soldat asked her to bring him back a pair of new running shoes.  We tried to find his size in the label of the remnants of his Adidas.  But it had been worn away.  No numbers left, just sweat stains.  Laurie took some paper and a pencil to his house one afternoon, and drew a tracing of his foot to take to a shoe store.

To show his appreciation in advance, Soldat invited us over for a meal.  He and Sophie killed a chicken.  They served marara, and jerky from a goat they were curing.  It didn’t occur to me until later that Soldat might have been preparing for time in the bush.  People don’t customarily cure meat in southern Chad – the best way to preserve a goat there is to keep it alive.

“I understand a lot of soldiers haven’t been paid,” I said.

Soldat nodded, mouth set in a grim line.   “I’m lucky.  Officers have been paid.”

I continued. “One of the teachers at the high school was held up at gun point by a soldier last week, right after he got his salary.  The soldier said he just wanted food.”

Soldat briefly made eye contact, then looked away.  “These boys aren’t real soldiers, not like you expect.   They weren’t trained.  Not like the men I met in Russia and the US.  Not like me.  They’re given a uniform and a gun.  That’s it.”

His tone was so dark that I dropped it.

 

I was aware of the episodic violence in Chad before I went, based on reading US State Department travel advisories.  I didn’t explore the obvious contradiction between the no-go warnings from the State Department and the presence of Peace Corps in the country.  It was difficult to learn much about the situation in Chad in those pre-internet days, but I wasn’t fearful about what I didn’t know.  What I didn’t know: I was on my way to address a teaching shortage caused in part by Hissène Habré, an ousted Chadian dictator who’d murdered thousands of his opponents among the intellectual class.  That the world would eventually come to describe Habré as “Africa’s Pinochet.”  And that many of my Chadian peers, who somehow survived Habré, were emotionally and spiritually damaged.  I wasn’t even fearful about what I did know – that in 1993, 58% of the Chadian population was malnourished.  I just didn’t understand what it meant: malnourished children die so easily.

Laurie and I both spent the summer break away from our post in Doba.  We visited our families in the States, and participated in training activities for new volunteers in other cities. During this time, overcome by an attack of reason, Laurie decided to end her service in Chad.  I dreaded returning alone to the increasingly hostile city of Doba, so I asked for reappointment to a smaller village, one I hoped would be safer.  I returned to Doba briefly to break up housekeeping, and give Soldat the shoes Laurie had bought him.

When I arrived at his house, all was not well.   Everyone in the family appeared to have lost some weight.

“I haven’t been paid since I saw you last,” Soldat said.  That had been three months before.  He shook his head.  “If I were in my own village we’d be fine.  We’d have our own crops.”

Soldiers, like teachers, were often appointed to posts distant from their home villages, and they were outside any local system for sharing land.   Apart from the few vegetables Sophie was able to grow in the yard, and some chickens and goats, they were dependent entirely on Soldat’s unreliable paycheck for food. Sophie occasionally received compensation from patients she treated at the clinic, but it wasn’t routine, and it wasn’t enough to feed seven people.

Soldat was holding steady.   In his thirties, he was a powerful man in his prime.  He could survive on almost nothing. But he’d stopped running, lacking the spare calories to burn.  He and Sophie were rationing all the food they had among their five children, who were beginning to appear malnourished.

Sophie looked worse than all of them, and right away I knew it was something more than hunger.  She was pale and had lost twenty, maybe thirty pounds.  She moved about hesitantly, like a fragile old woman.  Her gait suggested she was in physical pain; her face was blank.

She went about serving tea, and though she insisted on doing it herself, Soldat followed her, helping with small details.  When he wasn’t standing next to her his eyes followed her, even when he was talking to me or the children.

I hesitated before I finally asked what was wrong.  I knew she wasn’t starving yet, though most Americans couldn’t fathom how little she was eating. 

She sat down in Soldat’s lap.  He wrapped his arms gently around her.  It was an unusual thing for a Chadian couple to do in front of company – even a westernized couple like Soldat and Sophie.  For just a moment, she seemed grateful and relieved.  Then she untangled herself and moved to a nearby chair. 

“She almost died,” Soldat finally said.  “I nearly lost her.”

“What happened?”

“She was pregnant and lost the baby.  She hemorrhaged, almost bled to death.  She was in the infirmary for weeks.” 

“I’m so sorry,” I said, truly meaning it.  “That’s terrible.”

Soldat looked agonized.  He continued to watch her.

We were silent for a minute.  I marveled that she’d survived.  Transfusions weren’t available in Doba.  The “infirmary” was a cement building with no doctor, and limited supplies.  Sophie herself was one of the most qualified people working there.  Her presence with us suddenly seemed miraculous.  I got a chill.

“I did it,” Sophie said.  “I did it on purpose.”

“What?”  I was confused. 

“The baby.  I had to decide.  I could give him up now.  Or I could let him be born, and watch him die anyway.  Or I could lose one of them instead.”   She nodded toward her living children, playing quietly in the yard.   “Maybe more than one.”  She was almost completely expressionless.

“So I did it.  But I perforated my uterus.”

I was speechless. Maybe I didn’t understand correctly.

“I almost lost her,” Soldat repeated. 

She didn’t look at him.  She shrugged.   “There isn’t enough food.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“It’s my fault,” Soldat said.  “I shouldn’t have gotten her pregnant.  I couldn’t help it.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said again. The intimacy of this was staggering.  It was hard to take in.  The conversation would have been difficult even if we’d all been speaking English, but my mediocre French made it that much harder.   I wanted to communicate love and acceptance.  I barely let them know I understood.

I told them I was leaving Doba.  I had my camera.  We took pictures of the whole family together, Sophie sitting on the arm of Soldat’s chair, his arms loosely around her, and the children gathered around them.

 

My new post was a town named Donia.   I was assigned there along with Jason, a Peace Corps volunteer beginning his first year of service.  Donia was much smaller than Doba – remote, pastoral.  We lived with a family headed by a wealthy man named Thomas.  Thomas was a Sous-Prefect, a member of the regional government.  He was also a personal friend of President Déby’s, who’d assisted in the coup against Habré.  Thomas owned a compound, sprawling by rural Chadian standards, and Jason and I each had a room in the mud brick buildings otherwise occupied by Thomas’ wives and children.

There was a firefight within the first month of my time in Donia.  It was louder and closer than any fighting I’d heard in Doba, but by then I was so accustomed to the idea of “a little trouble in the bush,” that I didn’t even get out of bed to ask others in the household what they thought of it.

Jason, having just arrived, was not so unconcerned.  He sat up all night in the yard, watching and listening.

The next morning, we had breakfast together outside my room. As I sipped my sweet tea, Jason pointed at the unoccupied fifth building in the concession.

“That’s an armory,” he said. 

“What?”

“Yes. I was sitting out in front of my hut last night when a bunch of men went in, and came out again with automatic weapons.”

“Holy shit!”

“Yeah.  Holy shit.”

“Are you kidding me?” I demanded.

“No.  There’s an arsenal in there.”

“Sometimes the rebels cause trouble,” Thomas told us later, by way of explanation.  “I have to step in.” 

 

After this incident there were a few slow days in the market but otherwise life returned to normal for Donia, and normal was pleasant.  Donia was a much easier place to live than Doba.  With the notable exception of the armed guard now stationed at the entrance to our compound, there was little outward indication of civil unrest.  No military build-up, no unpaid soldiers wandering the streets demanding money from white people and rich Chadians.

Thomas’ relationship with Déby meant that teachers in Donia were always paid, and many of them enthusiastically embraced working with me.  The science teacher helped me integrate HIV and AIDS education into the curriculum.  The superintendent helped me secure funds from USAID to build brick classrooms.  Bricks represented major progress, as classes were being taught in grass huts that collapsed during the rainy season, and had to be built anew each year. 

Weeks, then months went by, and I thought of the unrest less and less often.  Occasionally it worried me: a soldier in the French Foreign legion visited Matt, a volunteer in a neighboring village.  He arrived in an all-terrain vehicle, claiming he was just there to give Matt a cold beer.  But the Foreign Legion was responsible for evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers in the event of serious violence, and we suspected the soldier was scouting the route.  

Still, I was focused on my own projects, and taking the idea of peace for granted, when I made a routine trip to the city of Moundou to collect my monthly paycheck.  On my return, from the vantage point of the bed of a moving truck, I saw people’s homes burning.  Two or three homes in several villages were on fire.  In other places, the houses had been burned the day before, and nothing remained but smoldering embers. There was an odd lack of activity around the fires: nobody watching, nobody trying to put them out. The men driving the truck did not stop to offer assistance.  My fellow passengers, all Chadian, were quiet.

“What’s happening?” I asked. 

Nobody wanted to answer.  “Déby’s soldiers,” someone finally said.  “Looking for rebels.”

 

Not long after that, I saw Soldat in Donia.  I was walking along the road to the market, and he was walking toward me, deep in conversation with two other soldiers.   I was surprised, and happy to see him.  In that first instant, it didn’t occur to me to wonder what he was doing there.   I greeted him, but he gave me a hard stare, as though he didn’t know me.   I froze, unsure how to react.   He moved on.  So did I – I didn’t have a choice.  Later that evening Thomas sought me out.

“Soldat sends his apologies,” he said.  “He couldn’t let you be seen talking to him in the street.”

“Ça va,” I said.  No problem.  As though I understood.

“He’s here on business,” Thomas said.  “He’d like to visit with you.  But it can only happen inside these walls, when he’s here to see me.  Nobody in the village should see you speaking to him.”

“Okay.”  I was relieved that Soldat had reached out.  He mattered a lot to me, and I agreed to have tea with him the next day, after his meeting with Thomas.  But the idea of business between Soldat and Thomas – the commander of a regular military unit and the commander of a regional militia – made me nervous.

 

Soon enough the reason for Soldat’s refusal to speak to me became clear.  Over the next twenty-four hours government troops began massing in the area.  Soldiers camped along the river, in the small, uninhabited floodplain between the village and the school. Walking to work in the grainy half-light of the morning I passed through groups of them gathered around their cook-fires.   Pools and eddies of grey smoke made the landscape strange and I felt uneasy.  The soldiers watched me silently as I made my way along the path. 

The classrooms were less crowded than usual that day, but we taught as though nothing was wrong.   When I walked home that afternoon, more soldiers had arrived.  But by this time I was expecting it, and the sun was shining, and I was less afraid.  That afternoon I graded papers and listened to the BBC.

“There are unconfirmed reports of Chadian troops massing near the border of the Central African Republic,” the announcer said.  “The Chadian government denies the presence of troops in the region.  The presence of troops within 100 km of the border would represent a violation of the current treaty between the two nations.”

That evening I had tea with Soldat, whose presence here, roughly 50 kilometers from the border of the C.A.R was officially denied.  I asked him about Sophie first. 

“She’s well.  Her health is better.”

I was happy to know she was still alive. Her hold on this plane had seemed so tenuous.   I wanted to probe further about her mental health, but Thomas was nearby, listening, so I didn’t.  This was no time to ask Soldat if he’d been paid, either.

“I’m sorry I didn’t speak to you in the street yesterday.”

“That’s okay,” I said.  

“You don’t want people to see me speaking to you,” he paused.   “What I’m here to do…” he trailed off. 

“It’s really okay.”  I realized now that Soldat and his troops were likely responsible for the homes I’d seen burning on my last return from Moundou.

We made an effort at casual conversation, but it was odd and stilted.  It seemed ridiculous now, to talk about hamburgers and running shoes.    

The soldiers remained along the river for two or three days.  Eventually, I made the usual walk to work, and found them gone – the camp abandoned, nothing but the ash of fire pits left behind.   When I got to school, there were few students in the classrooms.  The teachers were gathered in the conference room, a small building of woven grass containing benches and a large wooden table where we graded papers.  They were agitated.  I heard what happened to Elise, a tenth grade student, in bits and pieces, as they recounted it again for me and for each other.

“She was here early this morning.  She was hysterical.”

“They burned her house down.  They say her husband’s a rebel.  They want to know where he is but she doesn’t know.”

“They beat her. Badly.”

They didn’t say she was raped.   They didn’t have to.

“We couldn’t calm her, we had to force her to leave.  Some other students took her to find her parents– she’s from another village, and they’re walking there now. ”

The soldiers along the river had made their sorties into the bush at night.  Other homes had been burned, mostly in villages outside of Donia, where rebels were suspected of hiding.  Life in Donia returned to normal, but reports that villages further south were being raided and burned came by word of mouth.  The BBC still couldn’t get confirmation that government troops were moving along the border of the C.A.R, and the Chadian government continued to deny.

I never saw Soldat again.

 

Six months after that I was back in the States, my Peace Corps service complete. I’m not in touch with anyone I knew in Chad now, though I was in the beginning.  The news from them was almost always bad.  The women I knew wrote to tell me when they lost children to disease.  Matt, the volunteer who’d been visited by the Foreign Legion, got a letter from the chief of his village saying that all the women in the village had been raped, even the grandmothers, by government troops looking for rebels.  Based on the location of that village, it’s possible the troops were men under Soldat’s command.

I already said it – I never saw or heard from Soldat again.  I think about him now; I look for his face on the BBC website.  Even there, reportage of the situation in Chad is thin.  So few photos to contemplate: so few old men.  Forty is old in Chad; fifty is ancient, grizzled; impossible for a soldier.  I don’t dare hope it for him, but I can’t help but think of the bent and tired Chadian veterans of the Second World War – loved and cared for by enormous extended families they support on pensions from France.   Some of them are revered, and feared, for their ability to survive.  A wizard was rumored to be living outside of Doba, a man who could turn himself into rock, a pencil, a rag. In the heat of battle he disguised himself as an ordinary object, powerful magic by which he hid from death.

Maybe that has happened for Soldat.  He’s a grandfather, a papa, his children and their children live next to him and Sophie in the village where they grew up.  They have their own fields.  He’s a wizard so mighty, the evil that’s flowed around him, over him, and passed right through his hands, has left no mark.

 

 

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