The Central African Republic is a landlocked country that descended into crisis after a coup in March 2013 by a rebel coalition called the Seleka, who then installed their leader Michel Djotodia as the country’s first Muslim president. He was unable to control the fighters who went on killing, raping and pillaging, prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response.
The plane touches down around 7 a.m. We’re in the Central African Republic, a country in crisis. As usual, the morning light is sublime, but something’s changed since my last visit. There are now 100,000 displaced people sleeping rough at the Bangui airport, some along the edge of the runway.
Strangely though, this horrible scar of misery across the country I love was rather beautiful to behold from the sky.
As we get off the plane, the noise from the camp is immediate, as is the sound of gunfire. Chadian members of the African intervention force have just opened up on the crowd that has gathered to protest our presence.
I get my bags and walk a short distance and spot my three colleagues: Kathy, Bienvenu and Miguel, wearing helmets and bulletproof vests. “Happy to see you,” they say. “And above all, welcome.”
Hotel, shower, and we’re off to a press conference. On the way, we learn that “something” has happened on one of Bangui’s main roads. We gear up and head off in the direction of the city’s northern exit. On the road, a group of “anti-balaka” fighters — some of the Christian militiamen who took up arms to counter the Seleka rebellion that seized power last March — stop us. They are bedecked in large lucky charms, are very excited and mostly very young.
They tell us they’re responding to an attack. They seem restless. They’re speaking loudly and brandishing machetes. Silhouetted against the sunlight, it takes me a moment to realise that one of the men is holding a man’s foot. It has been freshly severed.
The body is lying there, naked, on the side of the road. The corpse’s face is in a pool of blood and is being slowly absorbed into Bangui’s dusty ground.
We move on a little ways. The scene is repeated with another corpse. One man is holding a chopped-off hand. Another, just a child, is waving a severed penis.
“We’ve done a good job!” he yells. We take photos, we film. That’s our job, it’s what we’re there for, and the sheer horror of what we are witnessing requires more than simple words to be understood.
From now on, I figure it’s best to stop counting. I’m here for 15 days and this is all relatively minor compared to what the rest of the country has had to deal with in recent days, when one morning hundreds of bodies were found along roadsides.
The images are brutal. The photographer Miguel and the Paris photo desk will have to choose carefully to find the right shots that both attest to what happened while preserving the dignity of the victims. Not that there’s anything dignified about these scenes.
One day goes by in these vile conditions. I spend Christmas on patrol with the French army before joining my colleagues for a chat. The next day, anti-French demonstrations, then clashes between one armed group and another military force, send us back on the road.
We never really know what happened but we tally the dead. Sometimes it’s Muslims, sometimes it’s Christians. Some of the bodies have been tied up. People tell us of mass graves, though it’s too hard to get access and verify claims.To write about Central Africa, you need to put things in their proper context and not simply reduce things to a religious conflict. I’ve been here enough to know that things are infinitely more complex than that. You have to explain the various forces at play, the “anti-balaka” militiamen, the Seleka “ex-rebels”, the African intervention force that includes a Chadian contingent who are accused of having ties to the Seleka, and of course the Sangaris, who Muslims say are connected to the anti-balaka fighters.
We speak to everyone and make sure we are welcomed among all the groups: Muslims, Christians, fighters, people fleeing the violence. Some days are harder than others, when tempers flare and misery turns into frustration, frustrations into exasperation and exasperation into violence.
“They were eating that guy”
Fifteen days go by. I’m tired, but I stay another week. One evening, on patrol with French troops, I see something. On the side of the road in one of the neighbourhoods plunged into darkness, I see a commotion. I see a body.
There’s cries of hatred and of madness. I don’t understand the scene and it hurts to fully fathom what happened.
“Holy shit, they were eating that guy,” says a soldier with night-vision goggles.
The next day, or maybe the day after, everyone was talking about this Muslim that the Christians had eaten. “We’re gonna do the same to (President) Djotodia, we’re gonna eat him!” said one smiling demonstrator before the president resigned.
The darkest of taboos has been broken.
After the president resigns, there are scenes of joy in the streets and people shoot guns into the air. But nothing is finished.
On the road, I bump into an officer who is becoming a friend, and some Christians I know who open a beer to celebrate. There are also anti-balaka fighters who smile at me while clinging to their guns, thinking their hour has come. And there’s a Muslim friend, who a few days ago offered me a lucky charm.
These charms, or amulets, are a strange thing in common between the Seleka and the anti-balaka. They all wear them. Mine apparently make me invisible at times, and have stopped bullets coming my direction, so I’ve not needed the heavy bulletproof vest I’ve been wearing for three weeks. Considering the number of people injured by bullet or by machete that I’ve seen flooding into the hospital, I decide to give the vest away.
I love Central Africa. I delight in telling foreign soldiers and journalists who have only known the country in chaos that I knew it before. I was naive to have thought that these terrible things could never happen here.
Before, I wrote with humour — now it’s more difficult. Maybe things will get back to normal one day, who knows? I won’t be making any predictions.