They returned to the beginning. War approached, and the city was being emptied. I walked two miles into the wild with a boy who showed me how Gaga – and the country, the Central African Republic – was being turned inside out. The jungle paths had become the alleyways of a more secretive, older form of civilization: these identical, curving roads without signposts in which I became lost, and these homes of leaves and bent branches. The roofs collapsed in each rain shower, the boy said, and had to be built anew.
We were at the front. The sounds of the bombs were like thunder, instinctively making me look up, again, only to see that the sky was clear, and the repeated clarity of the sky was confusing. The sun was brilliant, like a jewel, the jungle thick with humidity and the people were moving their lives to the bush, isolating themselves because trust between human beings had been broken and there was no security in openness. Association in the jungle was kept to a minimum: we heard voices within the leaves but the boy did not want even to look. Suddenly, while I was walking beside men wounded by gunshots, their arms and legs wrapped in dirty gauze, I was forced off the path and into the foliage by an old woman coming down from Gaga holding above her the wooden frame of a double bed.
‘Maman,’ I called out, half in surprise.
She said, ‘Help us, son.’
Living in Rwanda, I had heard of the war in the Central African Republic. But when I called people in the country to obtain more information, their words only confused me. Basic questions could not be answered: how many dead, where, killed by whom? It was not clear that the perpetrators of these killings were allied with their official leader, President Michel Djotodia. Reports of killings would reach the capital days or weeks after they had occurred. I came to the Central African Republic in an attempt to witness and record what was happening. At the airport in Cameroon, while waiting for my connecting flight to Bangui, I saw footage of a foreign reporter wearing a flak jacket, which I did not possess, declaring that she had ‘discovered’ evidence of a new massacre of a few dozen people. I did not know what to make of that report. It seemed at once significant and to explain little of the giant, mounting conflict.
I arrived to find that this was a war of walkers. People walked to and from the shifting front lines, often through the jungle, avoiding the roads. There were many fronts across the Republic, and no one I asked, among the foreign peacekeepers, government soldiers or the militias that opposed the government, could tell me how many, or where they were. A former government soldier told me that after losing a battle he walked for two months and circled the front to find only villages of dead people. The heroes were the cobblers. Everywhere in the country, even in the bush, you could see them frantically sewing footwear for those who needed to flee.
It was their own government the people feared. The government was pillaging and killing, and seemed to have no interest or competence in governance, but it had been recognized by the United Nations and granted all the legal protections due a state. Many Central Africans I spoke to did not understand how such a brutal force could be granted legitimacy. Peacekeepers had arrived to protect both the people and government bases and those who opposed the government were being disarmed. At international conferences world leaders discussed solutions. Who should be responsible for the country? The government had the most powerful army, so it had to be recognized. But the government was killing the people. So who else should we recognize? The Central African people were rising up against the plunder and rape resulting from this diplomatic absurdity, forming militias armed with home-made hunting rifles. And this confrontation by the people’s militias – called the anti-balaka, or anti-machete – against the government was how the city of Gaga, situated in the jungle, had become the war’s newest front.
What is the Central African Republic? It is a central African republic, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan and South Sudan. Its people, central Africans, are Central Africans. This country, identified by capitalizations, was seized in March 2013 by a rebel force called Seleka, which has caused an emergency of global proportions. Several thousands have likely been killed, but over such a vast territory, much of it so remote, that the true toll is still unknown. Seleka – ‘alliance’ in the local language, Sango – brought President Michel Djotodia to power, forming what is now the government of the Central African Republic. But after its conquest the Seleka’s many foreign officers from Chad and Sudan escaped Djotodia’s authority and declared their own fiefdoms. The president has said, ‘I’m in control of my own men, those I don’t control are not my men,’ as if it were an explanation. Meanwhile, the Seleka fighters who rule over the towns as small kings do not know the land and, not speaking Sango, communicate with the population through interpreters. They have taken local officials hostage and made them sign decrees in the name of the government. In many towns I visited I heard the same story: the colonizers who are our government came door to door and plundered our money, food, medicine and killed our young men.
The Central African Republic’s war began in December 2012, when Seleka invaded the country. The president then was François Bozizé, the last in a long line of military officers who had seized power in a coup d’état. Coups in the Central African Republic were traditionally supported by France, but Bozizé, who held office for ten years, had been aided by Chad. Bozizé later spurned his Chadian benefactors, who returned as Seleka, allied with Central African Muslims and other anti-Bozizé militias from Chad and Sudan. This coalition of fighters moved easily through the Republic; cities were captured with hardly a fight, according to former Bozizé soldiers and General Abdel Kalil, a confidant of President Djotodia. ‘We would reach a city,’ General Kalil told me in his crumbling home near the president’s office in Bangui, ‘and there would be a little fire but suddenly Bozizé’s forces would flee and we would take the town without either side suffering casualties.’ General Kalil told me he had earned his rank of general in one of the few fierce battles during Seleka’s invasion, about eight miles from Bangui, when he saw what he thought was a pigeon that had been shot fluttering on the ground, only to realize it was a piece of his flesh. I met some of Bozizé’s soldiers at a military garrison where they had been detained by the Seleka. I asked why they had capitulated so easily. ‘Bozizé did not trust his soldiers with heavy weapons,’ one of them said. ‘He feared we would overthrow him.’ Rather than arm his troops, Bozizé called upon the South African army for support. But after suffering casualties while battling the rebels, the South Africans left the country.
This occupation of the Central African Republic by Seleka harks back to a history of regional kingdoms in flux. The fabled Sudanese warlord Rabih az-Zubayr ruled most of the Central African Republic until 1900. Ten years later the territory became part of French Equatorial Africa, which also included Chad. Barthélemy Boganda, a Central African independence leader in the mould of the great African statesmen Nkrumah, Nyerere and Biko, named this country the Central African Republic because he wished it to be part of an African federation, a United States of Africa. His vision was one of African unity; but he also worried that his country might otherwise be annexed by newly independent and relatively powerful African states like Guinea or Ghana. Boganda was killed – some say by the French – in a 1959 plane crash, one year before the Central African Republic gained independence. His country was left with its peculiar name but bereft of his vision. The Republic has since suffered five coups. France has retained a portion of its colonial role. Its forces have secured strategic parts of Bangui, with the tricolour flying atop the airport.
When I returned from the bush, walking past a procession of villagers carrying their things on their heads, Gaga was shuttered – the blue, brown and yellow doors of the shops interspersed the avenues of homes whose bricks had disintegrated and roofs were burnt off, all empty but for the pigs: these were also the occupiers. The Seleka are almost entirely Muslim – the country was predominantly Christian – and its fighters had killed people and plundered homes but had not touched the pigs, which had taken over the towns in this inversion of man and beast, of civilization and nature. As people scurried to take shelter in the jungle, the pigs made love in what had once been the kitchens and fed on corpses left on the ground.
I grew uneasy about staying in Gaga, at the front, for I could see that the anti-balaka was pushing back the government: from points in the forest rose black plumes of smoke, each closer to us than the last. The government forces here were led by Commander Yusuf and his deputy, Tony Montana, who aspired to be ‘wicked’ like Al Pacino in Scarface, though his voice had not yet broken.
‘What about the approaching battle?’ I said.
‘Our boys are winning,’ Yusuf replied, sounding convinced.
‘Then why are the people fleeing Gaga?’
‘Which people are fleeing?’ He said he was not aware.
I could not allow myself to be found in this government base, for I might be taken to be a Seleka supporter.
The heat of the afternoon was soporific, and mixed with the tension. I sat beside Yusuf for an hour, waiting to see if he would push back the anti-balaka, when a white pickup burst over the hilltop and into the base. A group of armed boys, chains of bullets wrapped around their bodies, shielded a government general. I had been correct: the battle was at a tipping point. What followed was a scene of a general’s fury at the front. Four civilians on a motorcycle appeared, hoping to pass the barrier and exit Gaga.
‘Stop!’ screamed someone from the general’s entourage.
‘But we want to cross,’ the villagers pleaded. They were made to get off the bike, which was in good condition, and told to continue on foot with their casseroles, ladles and mattresses. The general, in his olive-green suit and open-toed leather sandals, pointed at Yusuf and began to shout insults, saying Yusuf had sent fifteen fighters to their deaths against three hundred assassins. ‘Are you a soldier?’ the general bellowed. The question may have been rhetorical: Yusuf had told me that he was a professional diamond miner. The general hurried down the hill to Gaga’s city centre with his entourage of boys. I followed him at a distance.
Behind me the boy Tony Montana took charge of the base and in his high-pitched voice ordered soldiers many decades older than him to rearrange the chairs and be still. ‘We need some quiet, why are we talking so much?’
‘Who is talking here?’ a soldier said.
‘Do you want a whipping?’ said Tony. He began to dismantle his AK-47, undoing springs and screws and in irritation attempted to jam a bullet into a cartridge already full. He told his soldiers that he needed to think, and that he needed to work out how they were going to win this battle or they could all be killed that same night.
‘Is there any Islam here?’ The general’s voice resounded in the marketplace. His arms were raised, his fingers pointing to the sky. ‘We need motorbikes and petrol,’ the general said, ‘so we can defeat the enemy. Will you help?’ He knew that the front was in danger of being swallowed by the anti-balaka, that in some hours they could arrive at this place. His boys began to swirl around the marketplace, grabbing motorbikes; petrol was emptied into them from plastic bottles. I was witnessing a scene of procurement in this war, which was so inchoate that a few vehicles poached from poor villagers might make the difference between victory and defeat in a battle. The market smelled of fumes. The general climbed onto one of the bikes, crushing its suspension under his weight, and headed into the jungle with his twenty boys and their heavy weapons. I could hear the roars of the engines after they were out of sight. The people in the market had fallen silent.
I found a government fighter in a white singlet on the dirt road into the jungle. I told him that I wanted to follow the general. He shook his head because he did not understand.
‘Aarabiya?’ he said.
‘Sorry, no Arabic. No French?’
‘Sorry, no French.’
‘English?’ I offered as a last resort.
He slapped my back. ‘My friend,’ he said, ‘my name is Colonel Aktahir and I come from Sudan.’ So in this city hardly accessible to the world outside we were speaking the language of the colonizer.
But the colonel refused to let me into the jungle. ‘Who will guarantee your safety?’ he said.
I told him that I wanted to witness the general’s victory. He promised a report of the towns the general would protect. But I knew that if the anti-balaka were winning – why else would the general have arrived at the front? – the government would be brutal, as it had been since the war’s beginning, and that with thirty-five men, even well armed, the general could not take on three hundred. What would he do inside that jungle? I had to find a way inside. Perhaps it was possible to take another route.
The boy who had taken me to the new civilization in the jungle, to the houses of leaves, was sitting on the edge of a cemetery dug for victims in Gaga from that past month. Speaking softly so the Seleka would not hear him, he told me that four major towns lay on the road the general had taken – Camp Bangui, Zoé, Dombourou and Carrefour – and that their many thousands of residents were at risk, for the Seleka would assume that they were aiding the anti-balaka. There was another way to reach those towns, on a poor road. You could only walk, or possibly go on a motorbike, and it would take you hours but it was the only other axis, and maybe it was free of the Seleka. A friend of the boy told me that the journey would take a day. Another villager I asked said that it would take fifty hours.
Four days after I saw the government general – he was also Sudanese, Colonel Aktahir told me, and his name was Abdallah Hamat – ride into the jungle from Gaga, I arrived in the early morning at the town of Bekadili. I was accompanied by Lewis Mudge, a Human Rights Watch researcher I knew from Rwanda, here to research recent massacres, and Thierry Messongo, a Central African journalist. I was apprehensive about going to Dombourou and Camp Bangui, the towns in the jungle that General Hamat had likely attacked. I wanted Lewis and Thierry as companions. But they feared the journey would be too dangerous. I was not being helped by the motorcycle drivers in Bekadili, who were themselves afraid to go to a place of recent battle. No information had emerged from Camp Bangui in four days – only rumours of an attack. No survivors had arrived from the town, and no one had gone to see, not even from Bekadili, which was on the main road and had access to motorcycles.
I tried to convince a group of drivers to make the journey. It was their community, their people who had been struck. Should someone not go and see what had happened, and possibly report it?
‘We suffer too,’ the drivers said to me.
‘More than those people in those villages?’
‘All right,’ I said, ‘that’s fine then, we won’t go.’
But I waited and watched as they began to chatter among themselves. A man would tell me he was ready; minutes later he would tell me he was too afraid. I said aloud, to no one in particular, that if it grew too dangerous we would turn back before reaching the towns. Two hours later I had three committed drivers. Pack your bags, I told Lewis, we’re going in.
Reassured by the drivers’ willingness, he and Thierry agreed to come.
The forest was dense and the road almost formless. The drivers kept speaking of a ‘highway’; we arrived at the highway, a strip of dirt. Such were the axes that the people used to traverse this country. There were few roads: a strip was so precious that it was referred to as a highway. We rode through tall grass that ripped across and burned our faces. Looking over the driver’s shoulder, I could not see the road.
‘Is the road still there?’ I yelled out.
‘Yes, it’s here again,’ he said.
‘Are we all together?’
The drivers exchanged honks. The other motorcycles were at some distance from us. ‘Yes we are.’
‘How many hours to Camp Bangui?’
‘But you said it would be one hour?’
‘The road is long, no.’
Near Camp Bangui we passed bundles of clothes on the road, towels and skirts that had been dropped by someone. I saw the small shirts of babies, and my mind conjured images of a mother fleeing with her children, but under the stress of the attack unable to hold on to their things. I thought of the infants hiding in the bush, naked, with nothing to clean them but leaves.
The road forked; to one side was Dombourou, closer to Gaga, where the government might still be present. The other road led to Camp Bangui; we took it, hoping that the soldiers had retreated. A cadaver appeared on the roadside, his eye eaten out and covered in larvae, the body still whole to its toes and fingers. You could see where the head had been shot. Our drivers clicked their tongues. ‘The body will curse us,’ one of them said.
Camp Bangui was burnt. Casseroles lay on the ground, still filled with food. There were flashlights, towels and bicycles flung from their places; I could still feel the life around me, feel the people who had been sitting and standing in these places, making their tea and fried dough, listening to the radio, talking to their neighbours. The town’s homes were roofless, almost all burnt. No one had come to pick up the fallen things that could be useful; no one had come to bury that corpse. From somewhere in the village, from inside one of the homes, we smelled the stench of another decaying body.
Thierry called out, his voice tense; our voices were all strained and seemed somehow solitary. Lewis walked around like a chicken, his arms now flailing, now on his head. Thierry shouted out that it was all right, that the government was gone and that we were friends. He shouted and shouted and in the distance we saw the first person. It was a woman in a red shirt and a black skirt; and she came running down the town’s central avenue, looking at each of our faces, as though she was stunned, and stopping for just a moment to shake my hand and say, Thank you, thank you.
It was that first moment of trust; she had been in her place of hiding, she had heard us, believed us and decided to expose herself; and she had survived. At that moment I felt our presence had overcome some portion of the fear, that the people had gained some trust in the community of strangers. More people emerged from the bush, some running towards our motorbikes. ‘Do people know what has happened to us?’ a man asked me. They said the village had been torched. They said it was General Abdallah’s forces that had destroyed the town, and they showed me burnt things that I did not know could burn in this way, whole, like some animal on a skewer: a school, a motorcycle, a human. The citizens had defended themselves against the government and had been winning, when the general, in an act of desperation, employed the method of the Janjaweed in Sudan. He rendered the town uninhabitable, sending the people the message that they should submit, that if they dared to resist, more of their country would be destroyed and more dead would be counted. The Seleka had few fighters – such brutality was its way of occupying the country while they plundered its timber, gold and ivory.
The Republic was burning, here one village and there in the bush another. We could not count how many, and with the people so afraid most of the destruction would never become known. But the villagers told me they would no longer be intimidated. ‘We are tired of seeing our women raped and our homes destroyed.’ Like the colonizers of old, this government had divided the people – it had entered villages and separated the Muslims from the Christians. The Muslims had to point out the Christian houses, the ones to burn. One community was thus set upon the other. The Muslims were now complicit, and knew that they would be decimated if the government were one day defeated. There was talk in the country of an impending genocide.
The journey to Camp Bangui had taken four hours and it was already three in the afternoon; if we stayed any longer we would not return before dark. ‘We should leave,’ my driver said. I knew that it was not good for us to be in the jungle, during this war, at night.
The tension of the journey had got to me, and I could not sit properly on the motorcycle. We fell, the motorcycle spun and I had a bloody knee. The driver was mad at me for not sitting properly, he said we were losing balance with the way I was sitting, that I should press closer to him so we were one mass when the motorbike swayed and jumped. But I was not able to hold steady. Two hours in, as we rode through the rivers, and walked through them as well and covered ourselves in mud, after my feet had hit a hundred times little stumps of trees that people had cut to ankle height, so that my shoes were broken and each new impact with a stump made me wince and the soles of my feet could now feel the mud, it all got to me and I told Lewis I needed to stop, I needed to go. He called out to our convoy, ‘We have a caca d’urgence!’ An urgent shit. I got off my bike and trudged, sweating, into the bush and did the job. When I returned I found my driver solemn, for such things can happen to anyone, and he had seen that I had been affected, that my guts had given way; and though I was not able to sit any better for the rest of the journey he would not scold me.
On the road back to Bekadili we passed through a village where men were preparing for revolution; they tilled their fields, tended to their livestock and turned the cranks of their peanut grinders, their rifles slung over their backs. The guns were artisanal, made for hunting small animals; to kill a government soldier they would have to shoot him twice or three times. But the villagers told us that they were the sons of this country and ready to die to reclaim their land from the colonizer, that the test tubes of medicine stuck against their heads and the vials of powder and the leather satchels of herbs that they carried would protect them like the elements of the gods and would make them invulnerable to the government’s bullets. Their long-barrelled guns now in their hands, the men said that they would move upon Bangui, that they were not afraid. The battles were only beginning, they told me, and the war would need to get worse before they could be free.
We were driving now by the light of the moon, the engines revving, and I was almost asleep on the back of my driver, unable to take the journey any more, unable to think about that city inverted, its people removed, of that woman holding up her bed and the feeling of shock in the town that had been burned. The leaves in the forest were silver in the light and large like machetes. We saw a hut that was empty. The people, with nowhere to go, were retreating into the bush, and it was from the bush that they would emerge, this burning bush.
Could it possibly be genocide? The question was already being asked when I was in the Central African Republic in November 2013. It remains unanswered. The world has been unable to stop the killings in that country, despite repeated warnings and cries for help. It is as though, through the genocides and massacres of the twentieth century, we have learned little. We are conscious but inert.
Statistics, perhaps, give some measure of what has happened. Twenty per cent of the country’s four and a half million people have fled their homes, many to the bush. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, though no one has counted the number of dead. One and a half million people are at risk of hunger. In May 2014, 100,000 displaced people still squatted in view of the diplomats, journalists and aid workers who flew into the capital’s international airport. Some 100,000 anti-balaka were at large, voicing rhetoric that Muslims should be killed. More than 300,000 people, mostly Muslim, have fled to Chad and Cameroon. Entire villages have been emptied. The price of cooking oil has risen from 41.50 per kilogram to thirty dollars. Eight thousand peacekeepers, some working valiantly, have proven ineffective against the violence. A 12,000-strong United Nations force is due to arrive nearly two years after the war began, in mid-September. Ban Ki-moon has said foreign experts are needed to rebuild the nation.
It is now clear that what I was witnessing was the implosion of the country. The anti-balaka I saw in the bush eventually moved on to the capital, Bangui, bringing chaos. Some gained revenge for loved ones they had lost to the Seleka; others instigated their own violence. The Seleka’s President Djotodia was forced out of office – largely due to the irritation of Chad’s President Idriss Déby, the region’s kingmaker – and replaced by Catherine Samba-Panza, a conciliatory figure who would not pressure powerful figures like Déby and former President François Bozizé, whom the Seleka toppled. But the Central African Republic, at this moment, needed the opposite: someone with power, who could stop the state from collapsing, and who could stop the people from killing each other.
Back at home, I have watched footage and seen photographs of lynch mobs operating in broad daylight. Muslims are chased on the streets by men brandishing machetes, as children might chase each other in a game. The victims run in circles, arching their tense bodies away from their pursuers. Spectators stand, hands behind their backs, observing passively as though this was ordinary life. Muslims have been taken apart like toys and burned in the capital’s streets. Children have been beheaded. People have confessed to cannibalism.
Many of the people I met on my trip have been killed. Tony Montana, the Seleka boy soldier I met in Gaga, was apparently tortured and murdered by the anti-balaka, as was the Seleka commander Yusuf. The chief of Bekadili was shot dead by the Seleka as they were driven out of the area. The Bekadili majlis, a thatched-roof open structure I was given shelter in for one night to sleep under a mosquito net, has been destroyed. The French photographer Camille Lepage, whom I had met briefly, was found dead in May, in a pickup driven by anti-balaka fighters. The brave motorcycle driver who took me to Camp Bangui is, I’m told, still alive.
Muslim leaders who have appealed for restraint have themselves been killed, and as the rhetoric is thus made more violent so are the acts. Bangui was once home to 140,000 Muslims. By the summer of 2014, fewer than one thousand remain. International peacekeepers are informed about spontaneous killings but often arrive too late. A ceasefire agreement signed by the anti-balaka and the Seleka in late July has fallen apart, as both sides have fragmented into groups that have continued attacks.
New peacekeepers may stop some of the carnage. But they also bring risks. This year the peacekeepers – ill-informed, under-resourced and poorly advised – even contributed to the conflict. Suddenly concerned about abuses by Seleka soldiers, international forces began to disarm the government troops. The anti-balaka seized upon the relative calm to mobilize in the bush. Well intentioned and with only a little effort, the peacekeepers thus swung the country to a new disequilibrium. The anti-balaka rose, and the Muslims, who had relied on the Seleka to protect them, found themselves exposed.
Central Africans need a sense of justice. The former President Bozizé and his family are said to command factions of the anti-balaka, while officials in Chad and Sudan are allied with Seleka. Many of these leaders direct their forces from abroad. Sheltered from the rising violence in the Central African Republic, they continue to fuel it, hoping to gain control of the country – but what sort of country do they hope to rule? – or profit from diamonds, ivory and gold during the chaos. There are reports of a slaughter of elephants by the Seleka in southern Central African forests. Gold and diamond mines worked by villagers are controlled by the Seleka and anti-balaka. Forests are being razed to export timber. Sanctions have been imposed by the UN on Bozizé, a Seleka leader called Nourredine Adam and the anti-balaka politician Levy Yakete, but the Central African Republic now operates as a separate world, supplied by traffickers. The sanctions cannot replace local magistrates.
Justice has meanwhile become personal and imaginary. Central Africans kill those they imagine are guilty of crimes, and those whom they imagine will be guilty of crimes.
Facts would help to correct such imaginings. But who knows what happens twenty kilometres outside the capital? There is little information, whether for the formulation of international policy or for immediate life-or-death decisions. Local NGOs like Le Réseau des Journalistes pour les Droits de l’Homme are trying to help civilians who do not know where it will be safe for the night or where to find food or a working hospital.
There are no genocidal pamphlets in the Central African Republic, no radio broadcasts calling for extermination, no gas chambers or industrial killing machines. What we have in this country are identities that have been cleaved apart, and turned upon each other. Bodies are scattered. The twenty people killed in one village are not just twenty, but part of many hundreds and thousands who are being killed across the country. What are we seeing?
Photography © Camille Lepage / Hans Lucas, from On est Ensemble. After hundreds of Christians are killed by Seleka, Christians retaliate by looting and burning down mosques. Bangui, Central African Republic, 10 December 2013.