Well hello! It’s been a while, but I’ve finally found a time to write about life here in the quartiers of Bangui in the Central African Republic. To set the tone: just about 45 minutes ago I was standing inside a sweltering bakery, inhaling the aroma of fresh bread, and even the bread-furnace-heat couldn’t drive me outside. The sun was setting on the market, my driver has just picked up a case of cold beer and I’m on my way home. Home. Yes, because these days Bangui really does feel like home. And I don’t want to live anywhere else at all.
Yet these last two weeks have been rough; really tense, with people being killed on the streets every day and the stink of fear all over town: it began with the pointless slaying of a man who drove on his motorbke from one quartier, or district, of the city to another, and died for it: his intentions are disputed – some claim he threw a grenade into a a crowded street, others that his only crime was being from the Muslim quarter of ‘5 kilo’ market. He was murdered, his body torched, his toasted corpse then dumped outside a local 5 kilo Mosque in a horrible act of provocation. Less than 24 hours later a Christian taxi driver was murdered in 5 kilo in retaliation: and all hell broke loose.
For the first couple of days I couldn’t leave my home because of heavy shooting and grenade attacks, and the danger of being caught in crossfire. I was scared. Would this be a repeat of March 2013, when Seleka rebels ran amok and took over the Capital in a matter of a few days? There were chilling similarities: behind this apparently religiously-motivated violence were the dirty hands of the anti-Balaka: a rebel movement (in the loosest sense of the word) who rose up against Seleka mid 2013, and had now surrounded Bangui, demanding the resignation of President Catherine Samba-Panza and PM Mahamat Kamoun, due, they said, to a financial scandal involving the CAR President, Angola and a missing aid donation of $2.5 million.
Confused? We all were.
For the first days of this latest crisis-within-a chronic-political-crisis Bangui residents also complained bitterly that 6,581 peacekeepers deployed to date by the new UN MINUSCA mission were not protecting them, but in some cases standing by as shops and homes were ransacked. The small town just outside Bangui where my driver lives was suddenly attacked: eight local people were killed, including at least one child and 26 homes burnt to the ground. The locals were terrified, then furious. They chased the local anti-Balaka leader, Mr Douze Puissance (Twelve Strengths, I kid you not) out of town with the others and say they will not have them back.
The President meanwhile, flailed; the anti-Balaka demanded positions in the CAR Transition Government. Their leader, Edward N’gaisonna, was apparently awarded a post in charge of petroleum, with the understanding that two of his men currently being detained in Bangui’s Nkaraba jail would also be released. But we are still awaiting official confirmation of these ‘negotiations.’ Bangui residents meanwhile told me they felt betrayed, bewilderd and most of all, extremely unprotected; ‘We have no-one at all to defend us’ a street vender told me.
She and other venders crowded round me when I ventured into the city centre for food; people begged me to buy something so they could eat; the banks were closed for days. My assistant had to walk literally milies in and out of town, because his area was so wracked with violent armed criminals that taxi drivers refused to drive there, and the locals residents could not venture from their homes with their telephones, money or even food. Whole districts were barricaded by anti-Balaka, who effectively imprisoned local populations. I tried to insist we escort my assistant back to his home, but both he and my driver refused. ‘They will just attack you and steal the car’ said my driver. So we dropped him my off at a busy crossroads, and stood watching as he and a wave of hundreds of others walked towards the anti-Balaka, because they all needed to go home.
So how can I say I want to stay in this poor, violent unstable country? Well, things have improved these last few days: Bangui has calmed down. The UN and the other resident military – French and the EU forces – finally gained control of the situation, and the anti-Balaka (which has become a CAR brand name for general thugs and criminals) melted away into the quartiers. But they have not left town, and they will be back. Probably quite soon. Because nothing has been resolved, just shelved if you like, until the next time.
The CAR political crisis needs long term dialogue between all ‘actors’ including rebel groups, military, and local activists. Otherwise this violence will just erupt again, as it has every 3-4 months since I first arrived here, almost a year and a half ago. Central Africans deserve better. I want to stay in CAR because I love working with Central African communities; for me these are the people who will ultimately change the dynamics of life here. This week I head out of Bangui to the northern city of Bria to start a new community project, and I cannot wait to board that small UN plane and land back out in the bush again’ – it’s been too long.
Yesterday, to celebrate the quiet and the tentative calm after the violence of ten days, I swam at the Bangui Rock Club pool, played tennis, then danced at the local Mbeye night club. And still got home by 7.30 pm. We still come home to roost early in Bangui, just in case…..