N'Djamena, Chad — To Chadians, the civil war here involves thousands of fierce desert fighters battling with rifles on the stark northern terrain. They fight brutal, lightning-quick battles, then lapse into long periods of preparation for the next confrontation.
Reporters covering this conflict wage a different kind of battle - a frustrating effort to get the facts on fighting that they never get to see. For them, Chad's conflict is an ''invisible war.'' The Chad government does not allow reporters to go to the front lines - or anywhere near the war zones.
The press is restricted to N'Djamena, the capital, and covers the war chiefly by racing around a circuit of daily press conferences. No reporter wants to cover a war this way - and it is all the more frustrating because there is a lack of useful, reliable second-hand sources in the capital.
We catch a glimpse of the war from time to time. Every once in a while, jeeps carrying mounted guns and weathered, tough-looking troops in fatigues and turbans roar through the capital.
When you look close, the troops seem very young - some of them just boys. But they are a determined lot. And their courage is legendary.
''You'd never want to face one of [President] Habre's or [rebel leader] Goukhouni's men in battle,'' says a Westerner who has lived here many years. ''They are fearless. It's part of their culture. They are warriors.''
You can imagine these troops fighting near Oum Chalouba or Biltine or withstanding Libyan bombings in the palm groves of Faya-Largeau. But these cavalcades through the capital give only hints of what may be happening at the front. And for us reporters, they make the war seem all the more distant.
Although we have been barred from the war zone, the size of the press corps is mushrooming. Three weeks ago, there were five journalists here; now there are 150.
Nowhere is the influx of journalists more apparent than in the infamous telex room, where the print reporters file their stories. In the afternoon and early evening, the scene resembles the New York Stock Exchange with telex tapes, manuscripts, and people everywhere. One of my colleagues labeled the room the ''zoo,'' another calls it the ''circus.''
The press ritual is always the same: Meet at the Hotel Chari at 8:30 a.m. for the French military briefing. Then off to the French Embassy for its 10 a.m. briefing (which the Chad government recently canceled because it was toom informative). Back across N'Djamena at 11 to catch the American Embassy briefing. And finally, at 12, meet at the Ministry of Information to hear the quick-tempered Chadian minister, Soumaila Mahamat, deliver his daily diatribe against Libya and Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
Some reporters have tried to get to the front. For example, a few once rented a private plane at $500 per person to fly to the eastern town of Abeche, but the Chadian government found out and refused to give the pilot a permit.
More recently, two French journalists surreptitiously hopped on a flight heading for Abeche. They were arrested on arrival and sent back to N'Djamena on the next plane.
It is also rumored (by not too reliable of sources) that some reporters offered to fight with President Habre's troops just to get a firsthand view of combat.
To some Chadians, the press corps itself looks like a small army. Whether traveling to our briefings by moped, by taxi, or on foot, we follow one another around like some sort of battalion. Veteran journalists here describe the press corps in N'Djamena as the ''herd.''
Most of the information given to the press by the Chadian government seems so distorted (especially concerning the Libyan military buildup and the number of Libyan troops in the country) that much of it has to be discarded.
Still, the Chadian government seems pleased with the Western media's reaction to its propaganda efforts. The minister of information even began a recent press conference by saying that he was ''so happy to see so many film crews and journalists'' here.
Eager to solicit French and US military aid and well aware of the power of the Western media, the government has encouraged a massive influx of journalists. And it adjusts its actions to get maximum coverage. For example, the government often parades Libyan and rebel prisoners in front of TV cameras and photographers, knowing that such displays will keep Chad on the front page of the newspapers and on the evening news.
The size of the press corps also has given the Chad government an excuse to keep reporters away from combat areas.
When the government announced two weeks ago that, after five weeks of fighting, it would allow 10 of the 150 reporters to fly to Abeche, there was a near riot. United States journalists were yelling at the French, the French were yelling at the British, and everyone was yelling at the Chadian who made the announcement.
That plane still hasn't left. Information Minister Mahamat says, ''It's just too dangerous for so many journalists to be traveling outside N'Djamena. There's a war here.''
But keeping reporters cooped up in the capital has had an effect on the quality of reporting, and on the city as well.
Taxi drivers, hotel managers, and restaurant owners are clearly pleased. ''Business has never been better,'' a worker at one of N'Djamena's two main hotels said recently. ''We haven't had a room free for over two weeks, and the restaurant downstairs is always full.''
A taxi driver says: ''I've done quite well these past few weeks. The journalists are good for business. . . . But there was more money in N'Djamena when the Libyans were here [when rebel leader Woddei was in power].''
Other Chadians, who have not profited from the influx of the Western media, are more skeptical about the journalists' long-term impact on Chad.
''I think it is very good,'' a Chadian said in answering a question about the impact of reporters on the country. ''We need as much help as we can get in fighting the Libyans, and if you write about our struggle in the West then it is good.''
He paused, then added: ''But we have had war in Chad since 1965. Where were all the journalists then? And there will probably be fighting after the Libyans are gone. Will all the reporters still be here?''