MAO, Chad — For three bloody years, Chidi Yira Outouman and his fellow Toubou rebels in Chad's northern Tibesti Mountains fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Libya in a civil war against the national troops of President Hissen Habre.
But when the government soldiers showed up a few weeks ago, they were on a rescue mission: Chidi and more than 100 Toubou refugees under Libyan attack were evacuated by truck to the safety of this oasis town, 450 miles south along trails marked by two tire tracks in the soft desert sand.
The Toubou nomads had switched their allegiance abruptly in October, and within days the Libyans had chased Chidi and others high into the rugged mountains above their homes in Zouar. They hid there for three months, encircled by Libyans, sneaking home at night for food and water.
"The Libyans were trying to destroy us," Chidi said recently, sitting cross-legged on a blanket in his temporary home. "They destroyed our palm trees, they destroyed our cattle and our homes, they even dropped bombs on our little boys. We rejected the Libyans but they refused to leave."
The recent arrival here of Chidi and other refugees from the rebel forces in the Tibesti is one of the small signs of hope beginning to appear in this country pockmarked by poverty and two decades of war.
In a matter of weeks, the nature of Chad's strife has changed dramatically. Long a civil war between various factions, with Libya helping one group or another, it is now a war between a virtually united Chad and an invading Libya. Once a war that Chad was losing, it is now a war that the country appears to be winning, despite being outgunned and outmanned.
"The Libyans have done one good thing--Chad is more unified than I've ever seen it," says a Westerner who has spent most of more than 20 years in Chad and seen the fighting shift like desert sands, motivated at times by religious rivalries, at others by geographic, tribal, political or purely personal quarrels.
But even the most optimistic military analysts here and in the West say the war is far from over. They predict a sharp increase in the fighting soon when Col. Moammar Kadafi tries to offset his recent embarrassing setbacks in Chad with a major offensive. Kadafi, sources here say, is determined to replace what he has called a "hostile regime" and put Chad firmly under his control.
Libya has 12,000 troops, or nearly a third of its army, in northern Chad or near the border, the Western military analysts say. Kadafi's warplanes continue daily bombing runs in the north, causing few casualties "but blowing up a heck of lot of sand," in the words of one analyst.
Kadafi's troops are poorly disciplined, morale is low and the war is unpopular back in Libya, these analysts say. A Libyan army transport plane from Chad landed in Egypt last week, with the six soldiers on board reportedly seeking asylum.
The Chadian troops, on the other hand, are well-trained, highly motivated and, with the Toubou rebels now on their side, know the vast northern terrain of their country much better than the interlopers.
Libyan casualties, at 1,000, outnumber Chadians' by 5 to 1, and Chadians have either shot down or confiscated at least 15 Libyan warplanes as well as hundreds of Libyan tanks, trucks and sophisticated weaponry, most of it Soviet-made.
French Air Patrols
The Chadians have no air force, but French air force Jaguar and Mirage jets roar off a runway in the capital in N'Djamena day and night to patrol the 16th Parallel--the line that France has drawn across the center of Chad and vowed to defend from Libyan attack.
The French, with a multibillion-dollar military effort in their former colony, have increased troop strength here from 900 in December to 2,000 in recent weeks and sent soldiers to Abeche and Biltine, near the 16th Parallel. The United States is giving Chad $20 million in military assistance this year, including three C-130 transport planes and shoulder-fired missiles that Chadian soldiers have used to keep Libyan bombers at bay.
Several hundred refugees from the war up north have been taken to Mao, 150 miles north of N'Djamena on the apron of the vast northern desert. Mao, which means monkey in the local language, is a village of several hundred gray, mud-brick homes, built within tall perimeter walls thrown up as protection from the frequent sandstorms. The people live on the food they grow on the outskirts of town, in oval plots under palm trees nourished by subterranean pools of water.
The relief agency CARE has provided some food for the refugees; the local citizens of Mao have donated blankets and water.
Chidi was the only man in his tribe who made the trip south. The 70-year-old tribal chief said he was too old to fight and had been chosen to lead the women and children to safety.