As some of you already know, I recently moved to Bangui, the Capital of the Central African Republic. I like it here: mind you, I’m not exactly slumming it. My apartment in ‘Centre Ville’ is comfortable and air-conditioned, with guards and a house-keeper. Posh houses here have staff, and I’m a bit mortified how quickly I’ve got used to it. But I’m living in this unaccustomed luxury because it is safer
The garden walls are topped with razor wire and the guards work round the clock. On one side of our compound is a barracks for FOMAC (the Multinational Forces of Central Africa which has several thousand peacekeepers here). The street behind us, meanwhile, has another barracks – for Seleka, the rebels who stormed Bangui in March, ousting the incumbent President Bozize, and installing their own leader, Michel Djotodia. But Seleka are accountable to no-one.
The quartiers, or districts, beyond centre ville, are the real heart of the city. I want to know the realities of Bangui street life, but the first time I crossed into the neighbouring quartier, I did feel anxious. Because I’m white, and here in Bangui white people negotiate the city in white four-wheel drives. They don’t walk through shabby quartiers alone. Many people looked surprised to see me, most say hello, and so I’ve spent a fair chunk of these last few weeks wandering the quartiers of Bangui. I always get back to centre ville before dark, always carry my mobile phone, and I’ve never had any trouble at all. Maybe because I never see Seleka in these streets. They wait until nightfall.
The quartiers of Kilometre Cinque, Bimbo, Boy Rabe and the ominously named Combatant are too far from centre ville to walk. But I’ve visited all of them by motorbike, with one of staff from my compound. The Central Africans I speak to in these outlying districts repeat, one after another, how dangerous it gets after dark. ‘We don’t move after eight o’clock in the evening. Everyone stays at home.’ They tell me about Seleka thugs, and bracquers, heavily armed gangs, (who are sometimes one and the same) banging on doors, or just breaking them down – and pillaging whatever they want: mobile phones, TVs, money and cars. Bar owners have told me about Seleka troops strolling inside, demanding drinks and leaving when they’ve cleaned the place out, without paying a thing.
Two nights ago Seleka troops entered the quartier of Boy Rabe, which lies out near the airport, at dusk. Officially, this was an operation to disarm supporters of the ousted President, including his former soldiers. Heavy gunfire cracked across Bangui all night. By dawn ten people had been killed – including four young children – dozens of others were injured, and streets across Boy Rabe had been looted. The majority of residents fled into neighbouring quartiers and towards the airport in torrential rain, a human wave of fear. The following day they returned to trashed houses and broken communities.
The Seleka military command has, apparently, acknowledged and apologised for the looting (I say apparently because this is only what I’ve read) but has justified the military operation itself. I didn’t go into Boy Rabe the day after, because I was told that it was still dangerous. But I did visit the neighbouring quartier of Combatant, which was almost skin-pricklingly quiet. Yesterday, Seleka Minister of Security, Nourredine Adam, was accused of being involved in a coup to overthrow the current rebel leader, Michel Djotodia, but not kicked out of the Government, just moved into a new portfolio.
Is Seleka splintering under the weight of its own vicious power struggles, or is it consolidating its violent grip on its weary people? The UN is describing the Central African Republic as ‘on the brink of collapse.’ When I walk through the quartiers, I don’t get the impression of a nation racing towards anarchy. But the rule of law is dissolving because Seleka has total impunity.
Yesterday afternoon I spoke to Joseph Bidoumi, who has been the President of the Central African League for Human Rights for twenty years. ‘We are used to coups in this country’ he told me. ‘But this time is different. We’ve never known such violence and violations. We are worried that Seleka is going to go into every quartier in this city and intimidate the entire population.’
Rumours are circulating the city like vultures. All I can confirm is that people here in Bangui are tired, and getting very scared.