“Regards”, Martin said, pointing through the window of the Land Cruiser at the desolate scrubland passing us by. “Une arbre de guerre.”
“Tree of War?” I thought to myself silently. “That’s an odd name for a plant.” I stared out of the bucking vehicle as it rocked in the potholes of the dirt track winding its way across the Sahel, trying to identify among the scraggy leafless thorn bushes a plant that would earn such a title. I was expecting something twisted, full of spikes and in some way menacing. And then I saw what Martin was referring to. The devastated, rusting remains of an armoured car, blown apart and lying in pieces in the dry dirt.
We were close to the Sudanese border in eastern Chad, in the middle of 2004, when hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled the boiling conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region and settled in the desert wastelands north of Abeche. It was my first field assignment with the aid agency I work for, and I was out in Chad for several weeks, helping put together a response for one of our donors to help the refugees in a remote location in the Sahara. We spent eight hours crossing barren drylands, passing sprawling refugee camps and, between them, hopeless little villages of local herders trying desperately to cling to survival in a hostile landscape. North of Tine the dirt track we had been following all day long evaporated, and we struck out across the sand-dunes with nothing but a set of tyre-tracks from the vehicles that had gone before us to navigate from.
After spending the night in the village of Bahai, where 20,000 refugees were camped exposed in the Wadi, we returned through the dunes. The Trees of War had followed us across the landscape- military trucks, technicals (pickups converted with tube rocket-launchers or mounted machine-guns to be vehicles of warfare) and tanks were littered over hundreds of square kilometres, testament to the battles that had taken place here a decade ago. Now-President Idriss Deby and his militia army had swept from Bahai and their bases inside Sudan and annihilated the government’s army in fierce fighting all the way to the capital N’Djamena on the far side of the country. It was a bloody coup with bloody consequences for the people of Chad, who have known little safety or stability since.
I spotted this tank as we returned to Abeche, when we were just an hour south of Bahai. Alongside the desert track were regular reminders of the battles. Turrets blown clear of their carriages, the crushed remains of a pickup’s chassis- even ammunition. On one occasion an artillery-shell lay motionless beside the track, and we watched with nervous expressions as the wheels of the Land Cruiser slipped past it with no more than six inches to spare.
The entire area used to be dotted with landmines. International agencies have cleared this segment of the desert, however the challenge with dunes is that mines get swallowed and move beneath the sand, so you can never get them all. So long as you follow the tracks of vehicles that have gone before, you should be safe.
“Slow here,” I asked Blandin, our driver, as we came upon this particular hulking wreck, framing it up with my old Canon T-70 and 300mm Miranda zoom lens. Blandin looked at me.
“Would you like a closer look?” he asked, then without waiting for a response immediately veered off the tracks and bounced straight across the dunes towards the destroyed tank. I exchanged a wide-eyed look with my boss Geoff, sitting beside Blandin in the front seat. As he brought the vehicle to a stop I did not get out, but leaned from the window and fired off a quick snap. Blandin looped the hard-top around and we rejoined the vehicle tracks a minute later, and the three passengers breathed a unified sigh of relief.
The image at the head of this post is that photograph.