Chad: French assassin soldier a victim of the African sun?

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Not a lot has been made of the 27-year-old French soldier of Brazilian origin who went on a killing spree in Chad on Tuesday. His capture on Thursday has raised questions about the mental state of soldiers trusted with guns as psychotherapists seek to come up with an explanation on what may have gone wrong. The soldier was part of a UN mission, which took over peacekeeping operations in Chad last month.

According to Lt Col Francois-Marie Gougeona of the French Defense Ministry, the physically exhausted soldier, now identified as Josefa Da Silva was arrested when he stopped to quench his thirst by a well in the hot, semi-arid and rocky hills a few kilometres east of Abeche. Confirming the soldier’s arrest, Chadian Minister of Interior, Ahamat Bachir, said “he was disguised as a civilian when he was captured in Arkou (…) he is being questioned by the Chadian military”.

Josefa Da Silva was a member of the French Foreign Legion in Chad, tasked to keep peace and protect civilian refugees. The French legionnaires are part of the Eufor force that has for the past year helped to protect refugees from Darfur. Da Silva who was struck with madness shot dead his sergent, one of his colleagues, a Chadian soldier after which he immediately fled his military base, Camp des Etoiles, in the city of Abeche. He later shot and killed a Chadian civilian, stole his horse and headed for the heart of the Sahara; the semi-arid terrain towards Sudan.

Shady past and second chance

According to French military sources, legionnaires are taught to survive under some of the harshest conditions for at least three days. He was captured on Thursday after Helicopters and troops from the European Union and UN peacekeeping missions, as well as Chadian police and army soldiers were deployed to capture the gone-mad soldier.

Herve Morin, French Defence Minister said the French authorities had no explanation for the soldier’s actions other than he was seized by a fit of madness. However, reports from the French media indicate that Josefa Da Silva had frequent “mood swings” and even once deserted and hid in Ethiopia, but the French legion thought it would be best to give him a second chance after he was caught and sent to France to be “corrected” for thirty days. About eight months after his correction, Josefa Da Silva is said to have volontarily asked to be part of the group sent to Chad.

The French legion is very different in its operations. Although applicants undergo comprehensive psychological examinations, most of the people they recruit are from diverse backgrounds and countries, some very violent and unstable.

What happened that day

On the fateful day, the soldier is reported to have had a violent argument with his colleagues after which he decided to calm his temper by taking a nap only to wake up, grab his Famas and start shooting in all directions. Da Silva is reported to have passed a series of psychiatric tests before being accepted into the Legion in February 2007 and so whatever may have gone wrong within the past years remains up for psychological analysis.

According to mental health experts, for many people with mental health problems, it is not a single factor or type of factor that leads to the development of mental problems. It is often the case that a series of events eventually trigger mental illness including severe psychological trauma suffered as a child, poor ability to relate to others and genetic factors. Most of them have, however, questioned why someone suffering from severe mood swings could be allowed to handle a gun.

Victim of the African Sun?

But far from these analysis history has it that some people may just not be capable of handling the severe desert heat in the region. During the colonial era the French called this phenomenon “la Soudanite” (the Sudanite). It is recalled that in 1899, two French officers who went to seek their fortune in Chad eventually become extremely violent, massacring, torturing, maiming and raping their way through the region. The officers were diagnosed as victims of either syphilis or the African heat.

According to the Chadian minister, Chad will review conventions that bind Eurfor, France and his country in such matters before deciding on which entity is to handle Josefa Da Silva’s prosecution. France, meanwhile, is reported to be doing all in its power to handle the case.

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