Sometimes, when looking at scenes of my daily life in Bangui – like the MBYE nightclub where I dance most weekends and the Bangui Rock Club where I play tennis – I am struck by the fact these images aren’t represented by any international media coverage of the Central African Republic (CAR). This country has a serious image problem!
So it’s barely surprising the vast majority of people who’ve never been to CAR (which lets face it most travellers aren’t planning to) believe this country continues to be wracked by all-out rebel war and, thanks to the BBC, cannibals feasting on children in public. In many ways my blog is devoted to the other, unreported stories that rarely make it out of CAR. I don’t insist on being upbeat, but the coverage I read often doesn’t resonate with my own experiences of living and working here for more than two years now. The great thing about a blog is free reign to post your own narrative.
I defy anyone to come here to Bangui, walk around – which you still can as long as you avoid certain areas and go back home or to a bar before dark – and not find something to make them smile. A cold glass of passion-fruit juice sitting on a wooden bench overlooking the Oubangui River, that divides CAR from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, did it for me today: wooden dug-out canoes were gliding back and forth and the late afternoon light was sublime…..
But today two separate stories put me in a poignant frame of mind: at 5.45 am this morning a parol of Rwandan UN peacekeepers returned to their base from an early-morning tour of Bangui, when one of the Rwandans turned his gun on his fellow peacekeepers, killing four, before another Rwandan soldier killed him. Eight others were injured in the attack. The Rwandan Defence Ministry says it suspects ‘terrorism’ and hasn’t ruled out mental health. The perpetrator was apparently a Rwandan Muslim. It’s been reported, though not confirmed that he left a note saying he was avenging the killing of several Bangui Muslims last week (including the Muezzin of the Central Mosque) when UN peacekeepers attempted to apprehend a Seleka operative who is still walking free. Six UN peacekeepers have been killed in Bangui in this last week.
MINUSCA, which has 850 Rwandan peacekeepers deployed across CAR, is launching an immediate enquiry into the Rwandan killings: but we’ll never know what was going through that peacekeeper’s head when he pulled the trigger on his own men.
The second incident seems so small in comparison: an elderly French priest finally on his way back home has just had his Bangui home burgled by armed men. No one was killed or injured, but lots of stuff was stolen, including a passport and a computer. The priest, who I know personally, has spent thirty years of his life here in CAR and is leaving for good in a week. He believes the house was being watched. He is an old-fashioned man and I don’t agree with everything he says, or does, but when I met him today he looked terribly sad. After decades of service he is now leaving with frightened memories.
Bangui is all these things: beautiful, ragged, troubled, hopeful, friendly, wracked with thieves and self-defeating. There’s no neat philosophical ending to this post: a very troubled foreigner has turned on his own brothers, and young Central African men have just turned on an elderly foreign priest. And Bangui, who still needs hope more than most cities in the world today, has been bruised by both.