Like many poor countries the bureaucracy is crazy — stamped on my passport I have a notice telling me to report to the emigration service within three days. The French general escorting the group of visiting journalists has to rescue me twice from a swarm of armed guards both to get me into — and later get me out of — the country.
On the trip into the capital city, N’Djamina, women and children are sorting through rubbish heaps while groups of men sit under the shade of trees on the roadside. The only visible ads are one for Guinness in bottles and one for a bank featuring the president, Idriss Deby, and his friend, Libya’s president Gadaffai.
I’m waiting to reach the city centre when I realise that we have driven right through it — a few streets of buildings behind high walls, some of them broken from various battles. The most presentable of these is the US embassy. The rest are a motley collection of government departments, the president’s palace and three hotels.
Avenue Charles de Gaulle was once lined in elegant acacia trees, but after the last coup the president had them cut down to deprive his enemies of cover from helicopters in future.
Out on the military airfield our flight across the country to the east, close the Sudan border, is cancelled because the plane has broken down. Later the eight of us board what is referred to as a “beach craft” for the two-hour flight. It’s like travelling over rutted and subsiding roads as it hits and recovers from air pockets. Below the land is typical central Africa — scrub scattered over desert.
We know we have arrived at Goz Beida when two hours later the pilot swoops down over an area where the scrub has been cleared — and takes to the skies again for a proper approach and landing, having reassured himself the sandy runway is safe.
A small band of Irish soldiers immediately drive up to the craft and greet us. They are followed by a bunch of young boys, their long robes flapping in the breeze.
A deep channel designed to take the water during the rainy season and drain it to a nearby wadi surrounds the Irish camp. In just three months the Irish have built a small town — Camp Ciara, called after the eldest daughter of the officer commanding the 97th Infantry Battalion, Lt Col Paddy McDaniel from Sligo.
What began as four small camping tents is now a sea of white tents of different sizes — the sleeping ones half a metre off the ground in preparation for the rainy season while container-like cabins house utilities including showers, kitchens and an internet centre.
All the equipment, armoured cars, tanks, weapons and communications was either flown in or came in more than 300 containers by sea to Africa and then driven overland — the same distance as from Calais to Lebanon.
This is Ireland’s most expensive ever peacekeeping mission at an estimated €57 million for the year while transporting the equipment and personnel cost about €20m.
Despite searing temperatures, conditions are relatively good for the 450 men and women, mostly from the Western Command, with air-conditioned accommodation, dome mosquito nets for sleeping, flush toilets and showers with warm water for a few hours each evening.
Water comes from a well on site, is rationed and 75% of it is recycled. The septic tanks are designed to be environmentally friendly and drinking water is imported.
“We’ve learned from our years of peacekeeping in hot climates that you need to look after people,” said Lt Col McDaniel.
Work starts at dawn around 5am with a break from 11am to 3pm when temperatures can reach 55C. The team of 10 chefs — professionally trained from both the army and navy, have three meal sittings to fit in everyone. Even in this climate, porridge is still the soldiers’ favourite and chef, Michael McDonnell, is particularly proud of his, which is made with milk; while navy chef, Brendan Fitzgerald from Hollyhill, Cork, produces a mean lamb stew.
Twice a week the job in the kitchen is easy as meals are from rations — pre-prepared meals in a bag, heated in hot water — or on the bonnet of a car in these temperatures. The rest of the week sees a choice for dinner ranging from pizza and chilli chicken to Irish stew with boiled potatoes and salad.
Shortly after parade at 6.30am armoured vehicles line up and prepare to travel out across the desert on a three-day patrol. Their route takes them by several villages, refugee and displaced persons camps and they hope their presence there will ensure greater security in a region where bandits roam with Kalashnikovs and rebels could start another Darfur at any time.
Meanwhile, building Camp Ciara continues with a last push to have the work finished before the rainy season now expected within weeks and that will shut them in until October. Work has begun too on the UN camp alongside Camp Ciara, preparing for the mid March take-over by the UN from the EU force.
The Irish camp has cost millions of euro and in line with EU peacekeeping arrangements each country picks up its own tab.
The Irish will sell on the camp to whoever takes over next — probably the UN, and if the Irish remain but under UN control, the Irish authorities will lease it to the UN.