There are few ‘facts on the ground’ to go by, as this bloody and grim Central African situation is still evolving. But having been out on the streets of Bangui for the last couple of days, I can offer these glimpses of what life is like here at the moment, and what the people of this city have been through.
We drove through Bangui this morning, and it was calm. There was some traffic on the streets, no taxis, but aid agencies and the Red Cross were moving: Red Cross staff have had the grim task of picking up the dead bodies, and taking them to the local Communautaire Hospital, where the morgue is now more than full. My driver, a jovial man who has lived here in CAR for more than 40 years, told me he took the same route yesterday, and counted at least sixteen dead bodies strewn along the road.
But this morning people were moving, not in great numbers but it was really encouraging to see ordinary Central Africans walking the streets, and buying bits and pieces from small stalls and stores. We didn’t see any corpses, though we know many have yet to be found.
Unconfirmed radio reports say more than a thousand local people have been killed here since Thursday: at the northern edge of Bangui, out in Pika 12, Seleka thugs conducted house-to-house searches, looking for men of any age, taking them out from their homes, and killing them on the spot. They also ransacked houses, taking everything. Thousands of families fled the area, and are camped out in local Catholic missions and churches. They are being protected by the French military. A friend of mine who runs a monastery in an area that lies close to the airport, called Boy Rabe, tells me some 9,000 people have taken refuge within the walls of the monastery. There are also at least 2,000 people, many of them young men, camped out at the airport. They are also being protected by the French military, and have refused to leave until Seleka are taken off the streets of Bangui. The young men say they are being targeted by Seleka and fear for their lives.
They have reason.
At the Bangui Amitie Hospital, men from Seleka apparently went from ward to ward, and dragged some 25 injured men from their beds, claiming their injuries were proof they belonged to the anti-Balaka, who attacked Bangui on Thursday. These men were dragged out to the front of the hospital, and shot dead there on the street.
The anti-Balaka, which is not a movement but merely disparate gangs of men whose only common thread is their hatred of Seleka, meanwhile combed the streets of Bangui for Muslims, and committed equally horrific acts of violence, including slaughtering men at a local Bangui mosque. They carry primitive weapons, including home-made guns, and machetes, and are now infamous for maiming people, and slashing off their limbs.
I cannot independently confirm any of these reports, but have heard them from several different and reliable sources, and they illustrate the brutalities the people of Bangui have endured these last few days.
During this brief horrific siege of Bangui, I have been relatively very safe, as I live extremely close to the French embassy, on the riverfront. But on Thursday morning vehicles packed with Seleka sped back and forth dawn till nightfall, piling weapons into the city. A man in military combat paced back and forth around my front gate, wielding a Kalashnikov and a machete. He really frightened me.
When I did, out of sheer frustration, walk to a local bakery on Friday afternoon, the city centre was deserted of civilians, but filled with Seleka. Many of them looked incredibly young, teenagers, with wild excited eyes. They shouted to each other in Arabic, and looked as though they really believed they were taking part not in real life, but a movie. They really frightened me too.
As many of you will know, 1,600 French military reinforcements have now arrived, and will begin their disarmament of Seleka tomorrow (Monday) morning. Everyone I have spoken to Bangui is glad that they have arrived, and believes that they can secure the city, and pull it back from the brink. Helicopters are flying overhead, and fighter jets, in order to let Seleka know they can’t win this one.
The question of course is what will happen once Bangui has been militarily secured. Because life here has to go on. The house of President Michel Djotodia has been ransacked by civilians enraged at his inability, or refusal, to protect them. He has lost any semblance of credibility. The question is who will now lead the country through this difficult, painful transition.
Given all of the above, how can I share even the faintest spark optimism for this country? All I can say is whilst I don’t believe this bloody power struggle is over, I think can be brought under control. This country is not on the brink of genocide, nor a religious war between Muslims and Christians. It’s dangerous, and disingenuous, to write about this conflict as a religious war in waiting. Seleka is not an Islamist organisation, but an uneasy and uncoordinated coalition of thugs, including non-Muslims, Chadians and Sudanese, whose only interest in the Central African Republic is what they can pillage from it. And many are now fleeing the country, in fear of the French military.
When Bangui has been secured, which could take weeks or even months, disarmament of the rest of this porous country will have to rolled out, which is a long term national and international commitment. A national programme of rebuilding shattered national institutions is also vital. The judiciary, legal and civil services, the lifeblood of any kind of system of human rights, need to be reconstructed and sustained. Without human rights there will be no long-lasting security of any sort here. And a national programme of reconciliation, to begin to heal communities shattered by atrocities committed by Seleka, and others, needs to run alongside it.
Those of you who read my previous posts will know how much I love this country, and that I’m leaving for Christmas, but coming back in the New Year. I am quite heartbroken about what happened in Bangui this week, but somehow I think CAR will get shakily back on its feet.
When I went to the Communautaire Hospital this morning, I met a young man lying on a mattress in one of the hospital corridors. He had a drip in one arm, and the other was heavily bandaged, and heavily bloodstained. I asked him what had happened.
‘I was shot’ he said. His voice was very weak.
‘Who shot you?’
He told me it was Seleka who shot him, and that he has several bullets lodged in his arm and back.’I was with them’ he said. ‘I thought it was a good idea to join them, but then they shot me, and now I know that I’m finished with them.’I don’t know if he was shot by mistake or deliberately by somebody in Seleka. But he is a teenager, he’s probably lost the use of his left arm. And now he sees Seleka for what they are.