Chaos Reigns in the Central African Republic

by Thilo Thielke, December 5, 2007


The war in Sudan's Darfur region has spread to epidemic proportions and is now plunging the neighboring Central African Republic into chaos. This is just adding one more problem to a country that has been torn apart by its own internal divisions for decades.

Laurent Djim-Woei Bebiti leads a group of rebels known as the APRD in the Central African Republic.

The captain is in good spirits. "Look how beautiful my pistol is and how nicely it sits in my hand," he says. "I made it myself." Laurent Djim-Woei Bebiti swings his right arm around and aims the weapon -- in reality little more than a sawed-off shotgun -- at his men, then into the humid forest and finally into the air.

He stands there, one arm stretched to the sky, the other holding up his trousers, a rebel wearing a dirty, green uniform, a knife and satellite telephone slung hanging from his belt. His boyish face is half-covered by a floppy, oversized hat, and thin stubble covers his chin. The captain is 35 years old.

Suddenly Bebiti's mood changes without any apparent reason. His eyes flash wildly and his men anxiously huddle up, clutching weapons including rusted shotguns, spears, machetes and knives, Kalashnikovs and rifles.

Bebiti's group calls itself the "People's Army for the Reestablishment of the Republic and Democracy," or APRD. Behind that grand title hides a bunch of desperados -- 10-year-old kids wielding World War II-era rifles, medicine men with their amulets and magic powders, and adolescents with pirate bandanas on their heads.

The forests are home to this motley-looking militia opposed to the government in the capital Bangui. The inhabitants of the Central African Republic call their country "Bê-Afrîka" -- the heart of Africa -- in Sango, their native language. The country is halfway between the Mediterranean and South Africa, and it would take almost as long to drive to the Atlantic Ocean as it would to the Indian Ocean, if of course the roads were navigable.


A Century of Chaos and Grief

The place that ship captain and writer Joseph Conrad wrote about in his famous novel "Heart of Darkness" more than 100 years ago couldn't have been far from the disease-ridden central African swamps and their native pygmy populations. The region also holds the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of the AIDS and Ebola viruses. In addition to being the continent's geographic center, the Central African Republic epitomizes Africa's many ills.

The country is plagued by a number of interrelated wars. Across the Ubangi River in neighboring Congo, rebels led by ethnic Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda are embroiled in a bitter struggle with government troops dispatched from the capital Kinshasa.

The northeastern part of the Central African Republic, which is about the size of Afghanistan, is home to a guerilla organization that calls itself the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) and is most likely supported by the Sudanese government.

Forests in the northwestern part of the country have been the hideout for the APRD's would-be warriors since June 2005. There are also other rebel groups that tend to change sides as frequently as they change names, a number of which receive their weapons from neighboring countries.

The government in Bangui, for its part, receives support from neighboring Chad, from peacekeeping forces from Gabon and the Republic of Congo and from a few hundred French paratroopers. France, once the dominant colonial power in Central Africa, still feels responsible for maintaining stability in the region, though the "Grande Nation" has not been overly particular in its choice of allies in the region. For instance, Paris supports Chadian President Idriss Déby against Sudan-backed rebels.

In the Central African Republic, the French are currently allied with President François Bozizé, a man who road a military coup to power and is notorious for human rights violations. But Paris isn't overly concerned abut Bozizé's reputation because, without him, the country could easily slip into the same kind of civil war over power and natural resources that has plagued Congo for years.


Refugees Flood from all Directions

Sudanese displaced woman sit outside their shelter in western Darfur in 2004.

More than 200,000 refugees are wandering about in the Central African Republic. Most of them are internal refugees, but some are from neighboring countries that have been plagued by wars for years -- Chad, Congo and Sudan. About 80,000 Central Africans have fled to countries including neighboring Cameroon.

A small contingent of European troops will soon be arriving in the northeastern part of the Central African Republic as part of a European Union mission to establish peace in Chad, where heavy fighting recently re-erupted. Whether the force, which will consist mainly of French soldiers, will succeed in establishing control over the murderous chaos there seems doubtful.

The human rights group Amnesty International calls the country "a hunting ground for armed rebel groups, government soldiers and bandits." On the list of the world's poorest nations, the Central African Republic ranks 172 out of 177. Only 30 percent of children attend school.

The average life expectancy has been falling since 1970 and now stands at 39, which is even lower than that of war-torn Afghanistan. More than half of the country's four million inhabitants are illiterate. According to United Nations estimates, one in three Central Africans is in need of humanitarian assistance.

Ironically, the Central African Republic has the potential to number among Africa's wealthiest countries. It has many natural resources in abundance: plenty of water, forests full of tropical hardwoods, uranium, gold and diamonds.

Central African Republic troops punish villages for allegedly helping APRD rebels.

The rebel leader Bebiti lives less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of the provincial capital Paoua in a hut made of sticks and bamboo leaves. Most of the villages within a 50-kilometer radius are abandoned. Hardly any houses are still intact.

The former inhabitants of these villages now live in the forest hiding from plundering government soldiers and scattered Chadian marauders, who once fought on the side of President Bozizé, a former general whom Chad helped bring to power in the spring of 2003.

After the coup, the Chadian mercenaries waited in vain for the wages they had been promised. They eventually started to plunder, murder, and sieze what they felt entitled to. When it comes to violence, though, Bozizé's presidential guard is every bit their equal. Here in the country's north, it has torched village after village as punishment for allegedly collaborating with Bebiti's APRD rebels.

"If we win the war, we will hold elections and bring back democracy," Bebiti promises. "But first we must eliminate the Chadians and their puppets in Bangui."


An Overwhelming Situation

It's fair to say that the impoverished country "faces an impending disaster," as Marcus Prior of the World Food Program puts it. Sleep-deprived and unshaven, Prior has been traveling in the bleak region for days. "The situation is overwhelming," Prior says. "People are hiding, and we have trouble figuring out how to get to them."

On this day, Prior and his group are in Bedamara 1, a village about 50 kilometers northeast of Paoua, to help distribute food supplies to 1,300 former villagers who have been hiding in the forests. It is the first time that aid has reached these people since they fled into the jungle about a year ago. They emerge shyly from the underbrush to accept the supplies of American cornmeal and cooking oil.

Diego Moroso, a 31-year-old Italian with the aid organization Cooperazione Internazionale, is in charge of distributing the food. Moroso is an experienced aid worker who has spent time in Darfur and northern Uganda, but he hopes to leave this country as soon as possible. "Chaos and corruption are endemic here," he says.

His assessment also holds true in Bedamara 1. When the head of the village assembled a list of the names of those who were to receive the food packets, he charged each of the 250 families 100 Central African francs -- about ¤0.15, or almost half the daily wage of the average Central African. Moroso was simply too exhausted to object to the obvious corruption, something he apparently became resigned to long ago.

Bedamara 1 is more than 400 kilometers (249 miles) from the capital Bangui. Claude, a gaunt old man, squats in front of the Hotel Ubangi selling portraits of the former tyrant and self-appointed Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa. The country has only gone downhill since the French helped oust Bokassa in 1979. "People long for Bokassa's authoritarian hand," says Claude. Souvenirs bearing the likeness of the monarch, who had himself crowned 30 years ago in an opulent ceremony paid for by the French, are Claude's top-selling item.


Nostaglia for a Mass Murderer

Former Central African Republic leader Jean-Bedel Bokassa during his 1977 coronation in Bangui. The self-proclaimed emperor spent six years in jail after being convicted in 1987 on charges ranging from cannibalism to murder. He later died of a heart attack.

But what the street vendor is really selling is nostalgia for a mass murderer. During his reign, Bokassa had scores of his political rivals killed. He had the disabled loaded into planes and dropped over the rain forest at 20,000 feet, and he allegedly fed prisoners to lions. After Bokassa was overthrown, it was claimed that body parts were found in one of his freezers.

The country's elite, who pull the strings behind the scenes, tend to appear under cover of night on the terrace at the "Relais des chasses" where the menu includes antelope carpaccio and the band plays songs about nights in Paris and the sparkle of the Champs-Elysées.

The "Relais des chasses" is something like the country's nerve center. On a typical evening, it also plays host to French soldiers, UN workers and Russian diamond merchants and weapons traders.

"It's crazy," says Kersten Jauer, a German UN official, "that Bokassa, of all people, is now being worshipped in this country once again. But the people just can't stand the chaos any longer." According to Jauer, average income has declined by more than a third since 1977 and the only intact buildings in Bangui are from the Bokassa era.

Jauer's colleagues at UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, focus their efforts on the country's northeastern part, where more and more people displaced by the Sudanese civil war are pushing their way across the border. Thousands of refugees from Darfur have entered the Central African Republic in just the last few weeks. Fleeing shelling by government troops, their trek to the neighboring country took them two weeks.

Now they live in makeshift tents. Attending to their needs is a difficult and time-consuming task. It takes the World Food Program's trucks 16 days to reach the border region from the capital. If the UFDR guerilla group had not signed a peace accord with the government some time ago, even this difficult route would have remained blocked.


Fighting to Make a Buck

It seems like only a matter of time before the next armed conflict erupts in the region. The mood is tense in Sam-Ouandja, a town near the Sudanese border and the aid convoy's destination. "We have 60 armed men in the city alone, we have two brand-new pickups that we stole from the army, and we have justice on our side," brags a tall young man named Issa, who identifies himself as the local head of the UFDR rebel group. He has put together a group of men armed with bazookas and machine guns.

A general from the government forces eyes the rebel leader suspiciously, while a French liaison officer, who has been given the thankless job of preserving the peace between the two parties, stands on the sidelines.

After spreading to Chad, the war in Darfur now threatens to destabilize the Central African Republic. It is an open secret that the Sudanese government in Khartoum supports the UFDR.

Even if the flow of money from the Sudanese capital were to be cut off, Issa and his fighters have sufficient resources to wage a war on their own. The northeastern part of the country is a diamond-mining region where new mines are being dug everywhere and prospectors are feverishly shoveling and sifting through the dirt.

People like Mbjanaka Mathurin, 32, are here to try their luck. For the past three weeks, Mathurin and two other young men have been toiling in a five-meter-deep (16-foot) hole in the ground. So far, he hasn't come up with more than a handful of tiny diamonds that have earned him only a few dollars. But, like everyone else here, Mathurin dreams of finding the huge stone that will make him rich.

Mathurin dreams of wealth, a wife and having his own moped. And he also dreams that he could one day be as well off as Abdelrahman Bashir, the so-called "patron," who owns so many mines here that he now needs 31 employees.

But the war approaching the Central African Republic from Sudan could quickly destroy Bashir's dream.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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