Chaos Reigns in the Central African
by Thilo Thielke
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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