Bows at the ready, Chad villagers battle kidnappings

Villagers in southwestern Chad have formed groups to counter a wave of kidnappings (Joris Bolomey)
Villagers in southwestern Chad have formed groups to counter a wave of kidnappings (Joris Bolomey)

Bows and spears to hand, young villagers file through a wood in southwestern Chad, watching their leader for signals as they train to counter kidnappings.

Breaking up into small groups, some crouch behind eucalyptus tree trunks while others crawl on through the undergrowth in the early morning sunlight.

Another signal is given and everyone stops in their tracks -- the strings of the bows and the elastic of slingshots are drawn back in the direction of an imaginary target.

A chorus of raised voices orders the hostages be released and that weapons be put down.

For more than 20 years, isolated villages in the densely populated Mayo-Kebbi Ouest region have been a hunting ground for kidnappers.

Feeling abandoned by the Chadian state, residents have formed committees to fight the wave of abductions using the few means at their disposal.

"Around 1:00 am, armed men came into my father's house and abducted us with my cousin," student Beatrice Naguita said, blankly staring into the distance.

- 'Tortured' -

"For two weeks as captives in the brush, while my father got together the sum demanded, we were tortured," Naguita, 22, said of the April 2023 ordeal.

"As a woman, I lost my dignity," she added, speaking in the ochre earthen courtyard of her home in Pala, the region's main town.

Barka Tao, coordinator of the Organisation for Support of Development Initiatives, said precise figures for kidnap victims were hard to come by.

"Some people refuse to talk out of fear of reprisals, but there could have been nearly 1,500 victims in 20 years," he said.

It used to be children from the Fulani semi-nomadic herder community, also known as the Peul, who were targeted because the group was perceived as wealthy.

But over the last decade, farmers, traders, civil servants, teachers and NGO workers have also been taken; no one is beyond risk.

Tao's organisation says kidnappings have been on the rise, with ever-higher ransoms, increasing violence and, at times, resulting in the death of the hostage.

One of the poorest countries in the world, Chad, a vast Sahelian nation in central Africa, has long grappled with rebellions and coups.

Its less arid regions, such as the south, also see frequent and deadly clashes when sedentary farmers accuse nomadic herders of allowing their animals to graze on their land or trample crops.

- 'Complicity' -


Kidnappers can also benefit from the complicity of some within the villages, Tao said, adding it was sometimes due to jealousy or just for payment.

"There is also complicity among village chiefs and even within the security forces," Tao said, showing documents with contacts purportedly found in kidnappers' telephones.

The authorities did not respond to AFP requests for comment on the claims.

Security Minister Mahamat Charfadine Margui acknowledged that local collusion occurred.

He said that after he took up his job in March 2023 he removed local officials in the area, including the governor and gendarmerie commanders.

"But that didn't solve the problem. It's much more complex," he said.

Kidnappers also hide out and operate on the other side of Chad's porous borders, in Cameroon and the Central African Republic.

Army reinforcements since 2020 have not stopped the scourge.

- 'Eyes and ears' -

Another hurdle is that the region -- known as the Triangle of Death -- is outside the state's control, said Nestor Deli, 51, a journalist and author who has been writing about the kidnappings for more than 20 years.

"The state seems more preoccupied with rebellions in the north and it considers that an epiphenomenon," he said.

All over, residents have had enough, taking it upon themselves to get organised into committees to keep watch.

"We are like civil intelligence agents. We are the eyes and the ears of the governor and security forces, to whom we pass the information," Amos Mbairo Nangyo, 35, who coordinates one of the groups, said.

"We guide the gendarmes in the bush, but we are also the first to go after the criminals following a kidnapping," the manager of a security company added.

"We chase them, armed with our bows and our spears," he continued, watching his recruits train in the woods.

Mbairo Nangyo claims that more than 4,000 young people have joined anti-kidnapping groups.

Faced with the Kalashnikov-wielding kidnappers however, they have little at their disposal.

"It's dangerous volunteer work and we ask the state for resources so we can move about, motorbikes and horses or even just boots," he said.