An Israeli Woman’s Journey Into Africa’s New Heart of Darkness

A writer travels to the Central African Republic to witness a nation torn by Christian-Muslim violence, corruption and poverty.

Tamar Baraaz

In a sleepy government office in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, an attempt to obtain an exit permit from the city turned out to be a challenge. “Someone has to sign the form,” the clerk said, “but his aunt died. Come back tomorrow.”

The day before, in the hallway, the clerk applied a different approach. “Give me money,” he said. “I’m poor.” My answer: “Only if the permit comes tomorrow.” Sure enough it came, after a four-hour wait.

Still, the handwritten form had to be typed and printed out. But since the Muslim rebel group Seleka took over Bangui in 2013, there are hardly any computers in the office. And forget photocopiers or telephones — the rebels looted them.

The clerk somehow produced a printed form, but when he wanted to give me his business card, he had to tear it from a piece of paperboard. “We don’t even have scissors,” he said.

The rebels did more than loot government offices. They burned the municipal archives, including birth and marriage certificates, and let the prisoners out of the jails, turning Bangui into a city of chaos and violence.

“I understand why the Muslim tribes established Seleka and took over Bangui. Their merchants would travel on the roads with all the required papers, but the police still arrested them and demanded bribes, which increased over the years,” a Christian said.

“The whole system was corrupt and went against them. When they took over the capital, the army surrendered without a fight and gave them the weapons. With a government that only cared about its own interests, not even the army felt particularly patriotic. But then Seleka came to power and was swept away in a wave of murder, robbery, looting and rape, mainly against Christians.”

In response, the Christians set up the Anti-Balaka (“anti-machete”) militia. But the self-defense group quickly began using the same methods — rape, looting and murder — against the Muslims.

In short, people who had lived in peace were killing their neighbors. Children on both sides were drafted into the fighting, and Joseph Kony, who operated in Uganda, slipped into the east of the country. He kidnapped children and used them as soldiers and sex slaves.

According to a report two months ago by Save the Children, around 10,000 boys and girls are serving as soldiers in the Central African Republic.

Anti-Balaka spokesman Igor Lamaka says his group is “a popular movement that came from the people. We established it to protect ourselves from Seleka. If we hadn’t, wouldn’t be sitting and talking to you now.”

In a pub in a Bangui suburb, Lamaka speaks with enthusiasm, surrounded by waiters and customers who nod in agreement. But his enthusiasm fades when asked about his people’s violence.

Tamar Baraaz

“Among us there are people who don’t respect the cease-fire agreement. They have weapons, but they have no food, and the government does nothing to help them. So we are in this situation. But we condemn them, and I would be the first to condemn the kidnappings. We aren’t guerrilla fighters anymore. We are an organization that promotes peace and is in a dialogue with some of Seleka’s leaders,” he said.

“The problem is that rival groups exist there, too, just like the rebels from Chad or Sudan who joined for political reasons. They are in contact with Al-Qaida and Boko Haram, and letting the chaos go on. They want a Muslim country. Even the provisional government, which wants to extend the transition period and remain in a position of power, isn’t doing enough to impose order.”

With the increase in violence, international organizations have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe in the Central African Republic, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned of genocide. But almost two years since the fighting started, half a million people have been uprooted from their homes and live in camps.

Human Rights Watch recently warned that both sides are using rape as a weapon, and that Muslims still live in enclaves in the west of the country in terrible conditions and without freedom of movement.

The children’s swollen bellies

An exit permit from Bangui turned out to be critical. The buses stopped running when Seleka came to power, but the people still use trucks and motorcycles on the narrow dirt roads. So the checkpoints remained, and with them corrupt police. “You need a transit permit,” a police officer said at a checkpoint. “Give me 5,000 francs and you can go.”

When I refused, he agreed on 2,000 francs. “I have connections in the UN and in the government,” I told him angrily, “and that will work against you if you delay me.” Although the sum of my connections was a conversation with Cambodian technicians, the officer stamped my passport.

The journey continued to a remote village on the banks of the Ubangi River. The village, which could be reached only on foot, looked like it belonged in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” There were traces of the days when slave ships plied the river: a French ship in ruins, overgrown railway cars and a police station destroyed by Seleka fighters.

Opposite the police-station ruins, someone had spray-painted “Anti-Balaka!” and added drawings of knives and machetes. When the young men of the village were drafted, the Muslims fled their homes and crossed the Ubangi River in boats. No Muslims live there anymore.

“They are there now,” said Mafoko, one of the villagers, pointing toward the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the other side of the river.

The swollen abdomens of the children in the village and in the nearby Pygmy colonies were hard to miss. The reason: a diet of only yams, bananas and a local vegetable with little nutritional value. And the water worms do their work in the villagers’ bellies.

“Once there were organizations that fed the inhabitants, but they also fled to Congo,” Mafoko said. “Imported food has become more expensive because the Muslim merchants fled with them.”

A farmer of about 20 showed me the scars all over his body. “He joined the Anti-Balaka,” Mafoko explained. “Seleka killed his friend and he wanted to take revenge. He killed people until Seleka captured him, stabbed him all over his body and put him out of commission for months. Today he’s a farmer who works the land and keeps away from violence.”

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Kidnappings in broad daylight

Since the Central African Republic won its independence in 1959, it has become Africa’s Wild West. Far from the international spotlight, it has attracted shady diamond dealers, robbers from neighboring Chad and Sudan, and rebels who overthrew governments one after another.

Despite its mineral wealth, it’s one of the poorest countries on earth. There are no roads outside the capital, where old taxis ply pothole-pitted roads.

Col. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who declared himself president for life in 1972, was overthrown in 1979. He was known for feeding his enemies to the lions and eating their ears himself.

“We see Israel as an example,” said Lamaka, the Anti-Balaka spokesman. “It’s a desert but it’s still developed. We have a great deal of water and natural resources, but we have no roads or hospitals. I hope that one day we will develop toward that.”

The country experienced several rulers from the fall of Bossaka to 2013, when Bangui became the Christian-Muslim battlefield. The government asked for UN intervention, and the United Nations, France and the African Union sent in thousands of troops.

Seleka agreed to give up power in January 2014 and stepped down in favor of a provisional government. In July, Seleka and Anti-Balaka signed a reconciliation treaty.

Although the violence then diminished, it was too late. Rebels on both sides refused to give up their weapons. They turned their backs on the leaders and formed robber gangs. Now they live in the forests, where they lie in wait and loot trucks. They rape and murder if anyone gets in their way.

“Two days ago there was a gang in the area that was chasing somebody to settle a score,” Mafoko said. “They chased him into the jungle, raided a Pygmy village, looted it and killed one of the villagers.”

Just 60 kilometers outside Bangui, the only protection the government can offer is an improvised checkpoint with a single police officer, without electricity or cellphone reception. Life in the village seems too quiet — the drums are heard until the middle of the night, and everyone spends their time in song, dance and religious marches.

Every home has a machete. For now the machetes are used to cut yams, but everybody knows that if the chaos returns, the machetes could be their only defense.

When we returned to Bangui, we learned that Anti-Balaka had kidnapped several people, including the culture and sports minister and three aid workers, though they were quickly released. Some of the kidnappings took place in broad daylight in neighborhoods patrolled by armed UN troops, but nobody relies on them anymore.

Meanwhile, aid organizations only use aircraft to get from place to place, but they are filled to capacity. The aid organizations are paralyzed anyway.

It was once a beautiful country, said a French person who lived in Bangui for most of his life and raised children there. Once they could walk to a party and walk back home after 2 A.M. Now nobody can go by foot in the city and nobody leaves home after 6 P.M.

The 2,000 Muslim refugees who sleep in tents in the yard of a mosque no longer believe that the government will protect them. Outside the mosque, there are two or three streets where people can walk around. Outside this area, they are vulnerable to attack by Christians.

“We are in prison here,” said Ali, who has not been downtown in two years. “I can’t go into the city to buy food and look for work. When I was sick, a Christian neighbor volunteered to take me to the hospital. He told the staff that I was a Christian and they operated on me, but two hours after the operation the nurses said that people had discovered my identity and wanted to kill me. I got out of there.”

Machetes against rifles

Dr. Ione Bertocchi, a French missionary in her 70s, stayed in the Central African Republic when most of the aid groups fled.

“In January last year I traveled from my village to the nearby hospital to deliver a baby whose mother’s life was in danger. On the way we saw a stream of refugees, who told us to turn back. But the woman was in danger and we had to get there, so we kept on,” she said.

“When we got there, the hospital was empty and the staff were hiding in the church next door. I persuaded the staff to come to the hospital to deliver the baby. I stood outside to keep watch, and then I saw the Anti-Balaka. Hundreds of barefoot villagers wearing rags and carrying machetes. People from the area, people we knew.”

Bertocchi convinced Anti-Balaka to give the hospital a pass. “They burned the homes of Muslims and took everything they owned,” she said. Once the baby was delivered, Bertocchi hid in the church with another 2,500 people, Muslims and Christians.

“The Seleka came two days later. Five-hundred fighters with rifles. They burned the homes of the Christians, looted the mission and killed people,” she said.

“This was a quiet country once. People lived peaceably with one another. And then one day, in the nearby village, men from the Seleka came and stabbed Christians who were drinking alcohol in the market. After that, the young Christians ran away, organized and took up arms — and the situation went out of control.”

Col. Mohammed Abu Bakr sat in a Seleka base in Bangui. The capital’s residents were once terrified of that base, but today the complex contains ruined buildings and people there play checkers in the yard. A UN soldier guards the compound.

Abu Bakr is a quiet man with refined mannerisms. It’s hard to believe that he’s a Seleka man.

“In the 1990s I took part in the revolution that failed, and I had to run away to Gabon. I lived there for 20 years. When Seleka took control of Bangui, I hoped I would finally be able to live in a regime that cared about Muslims too, and I came back. I came to this camp to help build the new regime and was disappointed,” he said.

“All the robberies and murders — that wasn’t the goal. They didn’t want to set up an Islamic state. Some of the people in the camp were actually Christians. Christians became a target of violence only because of the politicians who gave the struggle a religious aspect.”

Tamara Baraaz is a writer and backpacker who has visited less-developed countries such as Afghanistan, Somaliland and Iraq.