We don’t really hear much about a lot of countries until something horrible happens there; extra attention if that catastrophe happens to westerners. Then, glaring spotlight of international media becomes focused for one brief moment, and then disappears.
In April 1974, the world’s attention briefly turned to Chad, an African country bigger in area than South Africa or France, when in the northern part of the country, at Bardaï, in the Tibesti Mountains, a group of rebels kidnapped a German doctor and two French citizens. One Frenchman managed to escape and the doctor was ransomed by the German government, but the second archaeologist — Francoise Claustre — was held hostage.
Her ordeal put the Chad rebellion on the frontpages of newspapers, as did her husband Pierre’s status as a senior development bureaucrat for the French government. The French government which had deployed a thousand French soldiers in the region at the request of the Chad government to contain the rebellion of Tibesti, was in the midst of a fraught presidential election, and responded ineptly: it sent a soldier to negotiate with the rebels (with a secret mission to sow dissent among the rebels). When this plot was revealed, he was tried by a “revolutionary tribunal”, and hanged.
Most of France simply believed she would be executed, but Pierre struggled to get his wife out. Leading the negotiations himself, he joined his wife as a hostage and brought the world’s media attention to the Toubous rebels and their leader Hissène Habré. Habré, formerly educated in France with his perfect French and denunciations of colonialism, would be affectionately nicknamed the ‘Sciences-Po Guerrilla’ in the media. Among the media who came were two prominent photojournalists Marie Laure De Decker and Raymond Depardon (photos above). After they flew back from Tibesti, they were arrested by the Niger government, which also confiscated their films, but their subsequent photos and videos — serialized on the covers of Paris Match week after week — galvanized the French government to take action.
After pressure from the rebel’s main patron, the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, the Claustres were released; Francoise spent thirty-three months in captivity. Depardon made a movie about the Claustre Affair, La Captive du désert in 1990. De Decker continued to photograph Chad and published a magisterial book “For Chad”, containing many photos of Habré and his fighters. Habré who eventually turned on Gaddafi finally seized power in 1982 and ruled for eight ruinous years. Last year, he was found guilty of human-rights abuses, including rape, sexual slavery and murder of 40,000 people, and sentenced to life in prison. De Decker lamented this fate of the charismatic rebel leader she fondly called “Hissène”, “When your friends of yesterday become killers, it’s hard.”
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