Sunday, November 27
He shouldn’t have been there. Ahmat Soubiane knew he’d eventually have to pack up his wife and four young daughters and leave the official diplomatic residence. He wasn’t the Republic of Chad’s ambassador to the United States anymore; the house no longer was his. After five years in the post, he had been recalled for expressing opposition to his boss, Chadian President Idriss Deby.
But he’d stayed — for 16 months. By law, the Soubianes had become squatters. So they were braced for trouble. And one afternoon, it came.
Someone started banging on the door. They heard the sound of wood cracking as someone kicked it in. And suddenly the place was swarming with people.
There was Mahamoud Adam Bechir, the new ambassador from Chad, along with his driver, his cook, his charge d’affaires. And there was Bechir’s lawyer, as well as a squad of young men who broke down the door.
The politics of Chad, a landlocked country virtually in the middle of Africa’s Sahara, had been visited upon a quiet cul-de-sac in Montgomery County’s Hampshire Green community, the official home of the Chadian ambassador. That July day, Soubiane and Bechir, the dueling diplomats, faced off for 12 hours at the residence, surrounded by officers of the Secret Service, the Diplomatic Security Service, Montgomery County police and State Department officials.
Their test of wills reached a negotiated end a couple of days later in talks brokered by State Department officials. Bechir, who’d presented his credentials to the White House, took up residence in the official Chadian home. Soubiane, his wife, Zarga, and their four daughters — Amina, 13; twins Izza and Iman, 12; and 6-year-old Souad — found refuge in the home of a friend in Columbia.
They had relocated. But the Soubianes’ life was still in limbo. And the battle was far from over.
* * *
As boys in primary school, Soubiane and Deby had been chums. Later, they became comrades in the struggle against the Chadian dictator Hissene Habre, whose government stands accused of arresting, torturing and killing thousands of ethnic citizens during the 1980s.
Such brutality happened amid anti-Habre forces as well, and Soubiane experienced it firsthand. During the struggle in the mid-1980s, he was tortured while imprisoned by an opposition group in the mountains of northern Chad, and then fled to Libya.
Meanwhile, Deby had emerged as a rebel nationalist who wanted to unify and democratize Chad. So when Deby led the overthrow of Habre in 1990, a jubilant Soubiane joined their victory ride into N’Djamena, the Chadian capital.
Soubiane helped craft the country’s constitution. Deby appointed him interior minister, then a regional governor. Soubiane’s commitment to democracy was spurred by those experiences, he says. Deby named him ambassador to the United States in 1998.
Soubiane, 49, sits for an interview wearing gray slacks, blue blazer and white shirt. He speaks softly, slowly, his English deeply accented by the Arabic and French that are his more familiar tongues. His bearing is formal, befitting a diplomat, a politician, as he methodically describes his falling out with his old friend.
“We fought together. We came to power together. And we had a commitment to build democracy,” Soubiane says.
But in 2003, he believed that Deby was moving away from democracy.
Deby was in his second term, facing the end of his rule, when Soubiane learned that the president was pressing for a constitutional amendment that would scrap presidential term limits.
Soubiane wrote a letter urging the ruling party in Chad and the president himself not to do so. Of all provisions in new democracies, term limits are among the most important, Soubiane says.
“All the countries who respect this point go on to development,” he says.
Human rights advocates and the State Department expressed their concern at the constitutional change, which one U.S. official said “opens the door for him [Deby] to stay in power.”
Deby’s response was to fire Soubiane and order him home.
Soubiane especially regrets no longer being part of the talks on Chad’s newfound oil wealth. As ambassador, he had served as a negotiator with the World Bank on the oil pipeline project that has made Chad the newest “petro-state” in Africa. Soubiane expresses pride in the formula his country created with the bank to spend revenue wisely and avoid the waste and corruption that have afflicted Africa’s other petro-states.
But Chad this year was ranked one of the world’s two most corrupt countries, along with Bangladesh. The country has a frightening record of human rights abuses — extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions — under Deby’s regime. Soubiane knows all this. Indeed, he had been part of the Deby government.
Yet there is a certain naivete about Soubiane as he expresses his surprise at what happened to him in the United States after he defied Deby.
Nothing happened. That was the rub. It seemed to make no difference. He heard nothing, he says, from those people who propose democracy for other countries. He expected, at least, for his asylum application to be decided.
“Where are these people who every day are talking about democracy and good governance?” Soubiane asked. “I sacrifice my position. I sacrifice my family. I sacrifice my privilege to step up and to say [of Deby], ‘This is wrong.’ ”
In July, Chadian presidential term limits were, indeed, scrapped.
And the new ambassador broke down the door.
* * *
The Soubianes have no income, no jobs, no legal papers, no right to leave the United States pending their asylum application. They are living in donated housing in Columbia, and the girls are worried about their safety and struggle to fit into their new schools.
To Soubiane, it seems that the only people standing with his family are the ordinary people who have learned of their plight and have stepped forward to help them.
Like Bob D’Angelis. He knows nothing of Chad, but he does know a thing or two about helping students in distress.
He is a student support official with Howard County schools and was alerted to a potential problem earlier this fall. A couple of new students at Harpers Choice Middle School were highly emotional and prone to crying. It was the Soubiane twins, Izza and Iman. They were attending Harpers Choice along with their older sister, Amina.
Iman wrote a poem that seemed to reflect her lasting fear of the men behind the door, the men who came to evict them.
How would I know who is behind the door?
How would I know what could happen?
How would I know what to do?
Why should I be punished? Why should I be the problem? …
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