Refugees and Legionnaires

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The first sign that I've left modern civilization-and whatever thin veneer of order might accompany it-appears as I try to exit baggage claim and customs at the international airport in N'Djamena, Chad. I walk through the customs doorway into the terminal lobby and suddenly find myself in a real-life variation of the jail scene in Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Except that the pressing, noisy crowd of people whose arms are draped around and reaching through the bars are wearing flowing white djellabahs and turbans instead of pirate garb. And I'm the one inside the cage.

As I make my way toward the armed soldier who guards the jail-cell door to the barred enclosure, I wonder whether the structure is meant to keep arriving passengers from bolting out, or the crowds of locals from bolting in. Either way, it doesn't seem like a good sign. The soldier opens the door a crack for me, yelling and pushing the crowd back while I slip through the gap and, using my best New Yorker-at-rush-hour skills, put my head down and maneuver my way firmly through the phalanx of bodies to get to the open air beyond.

"You're going to CHAD? WHY?" my college roommate-who lives in Zambia, mind you-said in astonishment when I told her it was a possible stop on my Africa trip. Standing in the crowded, chaotic airport terminal, I'm beginning to ask myself the same question. But I didn't come here for an easy or comfortable experience. I came, quite simply, because there's important flying being done here.

The Sudanese disaster zone known as Darfur didn't stay contained in Sudan for long. By early 2004, refugees had spilled across the border into Chad, and the violence followed soon after. The reasons are complex. All parties to the conflict are Muslim, so it's not about religion. In both countries, the violence is part Arab versus African, part tribe versus tribe, and part government versus rebel forces-not to mention government versus government. But the end result is that there's hardly a village left standing in eastern Chad now, and each of the official United Nations international refugee camps here is surrounded by several less-organized camps of Chadian refugees fleeing the violence within their own borders.

With very little infrastructure in the country, and (as far as I could tell) not a single paved road in the entire eastern province, airplanes offer a critical link to get people and supplies to the refugee areas-especially during the rainy season, when ground travel by anything but camel becomes virtually impossible.

That's where an organization like Air Serv International comes in. Air Serv is a secular, nonprofit organization that was founded in 1984 to provide planes and crews for international relief organizations-especially those that needed flexible and immediate air support for disaster or conflict zones in remote areas of the world.

Within days of the December 26, 2004, tsunami in Indonesia, Air Serv was onsite with a half-dozen helicopters and crews, shuttling supplies and medical personnel from MSF (Doctors Without Borders) to remote areas. Even as Tutsis were still fleeing the genocide in Rwanda, Air Serv began flying relief personnel into the area aboard two Caravans it brought in from nearby areas. And when the violence broke out in Darfur, in early 2004, Air Serv was the first aviation group to set up a base in eastern Chad to help the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) get personnel and supplies to the camps springing up on both sides of the border.

The pilots who fly for Air Serv in Chad are based in the eastern town of Abeche-a place so remote that there's still a fortified outpost of the French Foreign Legion there. As I step out of the plane in Abeche, I see dozens of AK-47-toting Chadian men-some in camouflage, others in flowing desert djellabahs-with turbans wrapped not only around the top of their heads, but coiled around their lower faces as well, so that all that shows are dark, hard eyes peering out of the fabric.

Substitute sabers for the AK-47 rifles, and they could be characters straight out of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand and Stars. But with the safety of my living room couch a million miles away, and surrounded by armed men whose eyes hold no warmth or goodwill, I suddenly begin rethinking all my romantic notions about St. Ex's tales of adventure in the African desert.

"From the outside, it might look safe here," acknowledges Myriam Huser, one of the Air Serv pilots in Abeche. "But it's not safe. People here are very unpredictable. And everyone has guns. Children have guns."

Myriam should know. She's been in Chad longer than any other Air Serv pilot has lasted there-since March of 2006. In that time, she's been hijacked, done medevacs of gunshot-injury patients from remote camps, been detained for five days after landing in Darfur and-along with the other Air Serv and humanitarian workers in Abeche-had to take refuge at the Foreign Legion base for four days last November when Abeche was overrun by rebel forces.

?Chad historically is a violent nation,? says Pauline Ballaman, Oxfam-Great Britain?s program manager at Goz Beida, one of the refugee areas in eastern Chad. ?It works on reprisals. Normally, the Sultan [of the region] could solve things, but now outside interests have reduced his power.? The result is a disturbingly high and palpable sense of tension and violence bordering on chaos. And the pilots who fly here are in the thick of it.

The Air Serv crew house is surrounded by high cement walls, topped with coils of razor wire, and few westerners in Abeche venture out after nightfall. Not that there?s much nightlife in this strict Muslim community, of course. Or other comforts, like paved or drivable roads, reliable electricity or running water. There is, however, an abundance of heat, dust, mud and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

In short, for anyone who?s ever fantasized about quitting their job and running away to be an adventure pilot in Africa, Abeche is a serious reality check. And yet, the two women I stayed and flew with there seemed to take it all in stride. In Myriam?s case, that might be because her last assignment with Air Serv before Chad was Iraq. Everything is relative, after all. But Air Serv?s chief pilot in Abeche, Lauren Stroschin, came to Chad direct from nine years of flying Dash 8s and Twin Otters in Alaska. Which means she?s no stranger to physical discomfort, of course. But Alaska still doesn?t prepare you for an armed and lawless place like Chad.

On the other hand, flying in Alaska does tend to give a pilot a good eye and feel for rapidly changing weather and airstrip conditions, practice in making decisions with little outside help, and really good airplane handling skills?all of which are important. The other critical traits for doing this kind of work are an easygoing, flexible and adaptable nature, and a love of adventure and challenge. And while Myriam and Lauren are different in many ways, they both have those last requirements wrapped up in spades.

I ask Myriam what she did when the rebels attacked Abeche, last November. Did she crawl under a bed, like I imagine I would? A grin spreads across her face and her eyes light up with excitement.

?No!? she says with a laugh. ?I went up to the roof to see what was going on!? Even when the crew retreated to the French Army base for safety, she was restless. ?I kept saying, ?Come on, we?ve got airplanes. We should be doing something. Evacuating people, getting supplies ? something!? I wanted to keep flying!?

And when I ask Lauren about coping with all the deprivations of life in Abeche, an equally broad grin lights her face.

?But it?s great!? she protests. ?I love this place. It?s like going back in time, before there were cars or any other part of modern life, where people use donkeys to get around or carry things!?

All this, mind you, in addition to being unarmed, civilian, western women, with no military back-up, tasked with asserting command pilot authority in a land of armed strongmen and a very strict Muslim culture. Myriam may be from a small town outside of Geneva, Switzerland, and Lauren may hail from urban Michigan. But somewhere in each of their ancestries, there must have been some serious pioneer blood.

The flying in Chad is like any other desert bush flying, with sandstorms and Harmattan winds that sweep across the northern deserts, and rough, dirt airstrips that blend into the surrounding sand during the dry season and turn into mud-slicked water slides when the rains come. The Twin Otter Lauren and Myriam fly is an impressive airplane for this kind of work?rugged and dependable, with a good payload and terrific short-field performance. But they still have tales of hydroplaning down watery airstrips and having to dig wheels out of unexpectedly soft ground.

As Lauren checks our passengers for weapons before allowing them to board at one of our stops, I ask if I can take some photos. Taking photos around airports?even remote dirt strips?is a very touchy thing in Africa; forbidden in many places. And in Chad, taking photos of any kind?anywhere?can quickly get you in all sorts of unpleasant trouble. Lauren looks around and says she doesn?t see any soldiers, so to go ahead. I hesitate and say maybe I should wait until I have a formal journalist?s photo credential, which is supposed to come through that afternoon.

?After all, we?re coming back here tomorrow,? I say. Lauren smiles wryly and looks at the overcast sky. ?Insh?allah??if Allah wills it?she says with a resigned gesture.

Insh'allah. Insh'allah, we will have water at the house when we get back to Abeche. Electricity tonight. Flyable weather tomorrow. No hijacking attempts. No local soldiers high on homegrown narcotics and making trouble. No rebel attacks.

Why, again, do these pilots put up with all of this?

"I wanted to be a better citizen of the world; get out of the U.S. and see what was happening in these places for myself instead of relying on Wolf Blitzer to tell me," Lauren says that evening. "And I wanted to give something back."

As for Myriam-when she was 19, her boyfriend was killed in a plane crash while flying relief supplies in Mauritania. "He always told me to pursue my dreams of being a pilot and flying in these places," she says. "So when he died, I decided, 'that's it. I'm doing it. I'm going to pursue my dream … and continue his.' "

"We're not in it for the money," another Air Serv pilot named Darryl Wade tells me with a shrug. "We're committed to the cause."

And in Chad, the cause is the refugee camps, where over 200,000 people now huddle togetwher in makeshift housing, having fled from levels of violence beyond my imagination's reach. "If it wasn't for UNHCR," Pauline Ballaman says soberly, "the Janjaweed (Arab militias in Sudan) would probably have finished off everyone who's now in D'Jabal (the UNHCR refugee camp in Goz Beida)."

And here's the thing. Yes, the flying and living conditions in Chad are tough, and the risk of banditry and violence is real. But I spend a morning at D'Jabal before I leave. And what I find there astounds me. I expect to find hollow shells of human beings, traumatized beyond recognition. But three years after these people fled their villages in terror, life is finding its way back into the stick shelters and fenced-in family enclosures here. New babies are being born. Children are playing and laughing. Men and women smile as I approach. Life in the camps is still extremely hard, and I have no illusions about any of these people being emotionally intact or unmarked. But it's still stunning, what even a little bit of safety and food can do to restore the human heart and spirit.

And Lauren, Myriam, Darryl and the other pilots flying in eastern Chad are providing a lifeline to help make that food and safety possible.

What will happen to all these refugees in the long run is a big and unanswered question, of course. But for now, they have a window of peace, safety and relative quiet. Which is more than I can say for where I'm headed next. Because just as I get ready to leave Chad, word comes that conflict in the eastern part of the Congo (DRC)-where I'm supposed to do some more Caravan flying with Air Serv-has heated up again. And rebel forces are already moving toward the town where Air Serv has its base.