A dispatch from the war in the Central African Republic
Nobody could tell me the dead man’s name. It was a little after nine on an oven-hot late January morning in the district of Combattants in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. The man had been lynched by a mob only minutes earlier. He lay at the side of the tarmac road with his head cleaved open, his left hand hacked off, his genitals stuffed in his mouth, and his blood running into the gutter. He had been wearing a green Adidas tracksuit when he was attacked, but such was his assailants’ ferocity that, by the time I arrived with GQ‘s photographer, his clothing stuck to his skin only in patches. Now, as women and children observed the scene, a teenage boy thrust a knife into the dead man’s flesh. A few locals took pictures on their phones. Somebody laughed.
And still, nobody could say his name. At this moment in this -conflict, it had become unimportant. He was “un Musulman” – a Muslim – and this description served both as his dogtag and his death sentence.
The mob moved down the street. The situation was tense and confused. French troops arrived in armoured personnel carriers, as did African Union peacekeepers from Equatorial Guinea. There was a volley of gunfire very close – the jolting sound of one champagne cork-pop after another – but it was not immediately clear who was shooting at whom. We soon saw that it was French soldiers in bulky flak jackets who had fired warning shots in the air, as they attempted to secure a house a few metres away. We also saw the reasons why.
The same gang of machete-wielding men who had killed and dismembered the man up the street had found themselves another Muslim, slit his throat, and hacked at his corpse. There can only have been five or ten minutes between the murders. The second body lay within the courtyard of a trader’s house. It was as savagely mutilated as the first. The contrast between the coal-black of the victim’s skin and the lurid red of his opened skull was unforgettable. Nobody knew his name, either.
The Central African Republic is in the grip of a crisis in which acts of extraordinary cruelty have become commonplace. From the outside it looks like a war about competing faiths: Muslim against Christian, the old story. But religion – or at least, theology – is a sideshow. This is not a conflict about contesting interpretations of scripture. There are no crusaders here, no jihadis. Not yet at least. No, this is a war about names – which kinds of names belong in the country, and which do not; about who deserves a name, and who does not. In the Central African Republic, these questions have been answered in blood.
Where does such rage come from? CAR has long been ranked among the poorest nations in the world, but its problems stretch far beyond poverty. A landlocked territory around the size of Texas, with enviable natural resources including diamonds and gold, it has been cursed, since its independence from France in 1960, by a string of rapacious leaders. In 2007, Crisis Group reported that the country had become a “phantom state” lacking “any meaningful institutional capacity” and blighted by politicians who privatised national resources- “for their own benefit”.
But even by these low standards, CAR has recently plumbed new depths. In January and February, when I visited, the country was riven by sectarian conflict. Before this crisis, the CAR was a predominantly Christian country, in which Muslims made up about 15 per cent of the roughly 4.5 million population. Those numbers, you will notice, are in the past tense. By the time of my visit, tens of thousands of Muslims had already fled the country as a result of the persistent threat to their lives and property. By now, tens of thousands more will have joined them.
“At this rate,” Human Rights Watch reported in mid-February, “there will be no Muslims left in much of the Central African Republic.”
CAR’s Muslims and Christians have not always hated each other so violently. Many Central Africans interviewed for this article said that until the events of the past months, they lived in close proximity to people of different faiths, and enjoyed good relations. Neighbourhoods were mixed. There were few ghettos. Muslims were often traders, the heartbeat of mercantile life. Interfaith marriages were common; business relationships thrived. But, at a certain point last year, the dynamic in the country changed. Almost all interviewees, whether Muslim and Christian, used one word to describe that moment: Seleka.
The Seleka – the word means “alliance” in Sango – comprised a group of militias drawn from the lawless and largely Muslim north of the country, and included many fighters from Chad and the Sudans. In March 2013, they fought their way into Bangui, deposed President François Bozizé in a coup d’état, and installed their own leader, Michel Djotodia.
According to the testimony of numerous witnesses, the Seleka committed grave atrocities against CAR’s Christian majority, including rape, and the murder of children. They specialised in particularly cruel deaths: civilians tied up and left to die in burning huts; enemies hogtied and thrown into rivers to drown. Mass graves of Seleka’s victims are still being unearthed.
Although the Seleka did not justify their violence with religious language, it was during their period of power that sectarian rhetoric entered the conflict. The Seleka were seen by their victims not only as “Musulmans” but also, because of the large number of Chadians and Sudanese among them, as “étrangers” – foreigners. Soon, all of CAR’s Muslims – even those whose families had lived for generations in the country – began to be seen in the same light.
In response to the Seleka’s grim regime, a ground-level militia sprung into action, armed mostly with knives and sticks. They were called the anti-balaka. (The word means “anti-machete” in Sango; it derives from the supernatural protection against machetes the militia are thought to possess.) A few years earlier, the anti-balaka existed as a vigilante force to deter bandits, as well as to protect cattle against theft from a nomadic Muslim group called the Peuhl. Now, in their new guise as enemies of the Seleka, their numbers swelled with loyalists of the deposed President Bozizé.
In early December, just as the United Nations was voting on whether to enlarge a peacekeeping mission to the country, there was an attempted counter-coup by the anti-balaka. A fierce battle ensued in Bangui. Precise tolls are nigh-unreachable in this conflict, but it was estimated that more than 1,000 people were killed, and tens of thousands displaced, in that week or so of heavy fighting. France’s military deployment, known as the “Sangaris”, grew to 1,600; the African Union peacekeeping force, or Misca (Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite Africaine), to 5,000.
It was nowhere near enough. The refugee crisis worsened. By the New Year, around one million Central Africans had been driven from their homes by the fighting. At the international airport, where the newly enlarged French force was based, a vast camp sprung up. Christian refugees camped in the fuselages of old propeller planes, and made fires alongside the runway. By February this year, that airport camp had become a city. Around 100,000 people were living there, still too scared of the Seleka to return to their homes. They had built barbershops, public showers and T-shirt stalls. There were even makeshift cinemas where enterprising kids charged 25 Central African francs (around 3p) to watch a film on a tiny screen – or, for a 25-franc premium, Manchester City vs Chelsea.
International pressure eventually told on Djotodia’s government. He resigned on 10 January, and the phantom state lurched into a fresh limbo. There was no leadership, no army, no tax collection and no civil servants – a complete absence of national agency. By the time I arrived in Bangui, the CAR had elected a new president – a former mayor of Bangui named Catherine Samba-Panza – but it was unclear what she could do to halt the violence. At a ceremony she attended to reform the national army in February, a suspected former Seleka soldier was hacked to death and burned by uniformed members of her newly minted army in full view of the international press.
As Seleka’s power waned after Djotodia’s removal, the anti-balaka took their opportunity to exact revenge. All Muslims became targets. The anti-balaka’s rhetoric became increasingly extreme. At the time of writing, Seleka continued to terrorise northern areas of the country, but there was no doubt which way the pendulum of power had swung. The Muslims were being run out of the country, and those who remained risked annihilation.
Despite the naked evidence, there was for a long time an unwillingness in diplomatic circles to use precise words to describe the situation in CAR. To do so was to invoke the ghosts of previous, tragic failures of the international community – Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur. And then, on 12 February, Antonio Guterres, UN high -commissioner for refugees, became the first high-profile figure to say it. What was happening in CAR, said Guterres, was “massive ethno-religious cleansing”.
Guterres was right. Whole neighbourhoods disintegrated before your eyes. Bangui – a ramshackle, tightly packed city of fewer than a million people, which sits on the stately Oubangui river in the southeast of the country – was like Seventies Belfast on fast-forward. And, although the conflict had no observable frontline, its general progress was inexorable. Area by area, the capital became a place where it was increasingly dangerous to live as a Muslim.
On the morning of 1 February, we visited the neighbourhood of PK5, the last predominantly Muslim area of Bangui, at the invitation of a man named Nouroudine Sy. A large, eloquent man of 39, who wore a freshly ironed shirt and a Bluetooth headset, Sy had been a diamond trader before the war. Now, he was in the process of funding and organising a new Muslim militia in PK5, with the express purpose of fighting back against the anti-balaka. He called his new army the Movement Musulman Centr’Africaine, and claimed he had 300 volunteers. We saw a few dozen of his eager young men at the MMCA’s makeshift headquarters.
PK5 was buzzing that morning. Market stalls were open, and the streets teemed with people. But the grounds of the mosque overflowed with refugees: displaced Muslims from other parts of Bangui. Sy said that the neighbourhood was becoming “a jail”. And even this jail, he said, might not be safe for long.
“We are surrounded,” he said, in crisp English. “[The anti-balaka] want every Muslim out. They think every Muslim is a Seleka. We are not Seleka. We are just Muslims. The Seleka did bad things, but Seleka is over. That’s why we are buying weapons. That’s why these young men have volunteered to risk their lives.”
To understand Sy’s predicament, you had to view his neighbourhood from the Christian stronghold on its border. Looking south and downhill from the roundabout at Place de la Reconciliation – with its statue of a dumpy white dove of peace mocked by the mayhem that regularly unfolded there – one could see all the way through the district of Miskine, a formerly mixed Muslim-Christian area, to PK5. Between those two points, fighting broke out in sporadic and unpredictable ways. Often, the anti-balaka arrived from other districts to attack the remaining Seleka and Muslim militias here. The violence would be followed by a bout of looting, in which shops and homes were destroyed.
Every day brought the sound of gunshots, and a tally of wounded or dead. In six days in February, the International Red Cross treated more than 150 victims of gunshot or machete wounds at their nearby emergency- room. Most were from Miskine. Over a three-day stretch in the same period, they collected 56 dead bodies from the streets.
Corralled, the remaining Muslims in PK5 could feel the heat. Most fled when an opportunity arose. Some decided to stay and defend themselves. That was where men like Sy came in.
We drove north from PK5 in convoy, and into Miskine, through a no-man’s land policed by a dozen or so Burundian troops. Buildings lay empty. In the near distance, smoke spiralled from a burning rooftop. Standing on the main road at the southern end of Miskine was a posse of Muslim men carrying guns. On the other side of the street, Christian civilians went about their business. It was an uneasy moment. When the Burundian troops patrolled past the Muslim gunmen, their rifles were stashed away (the peacekeepers have a mandate to disarm militias, and this militia were not in the disarming mood). As soon as the Burundians left, the illicit weapons re-emerged. There would, the boys promised, be fighting that day.
They were as good as their word. Later that afternoon, the sound of gunfire rang out across the neighbourhood. The Muslim militia had attacked the anti-balaka in Miskine and killed “four or five” Christian fighters. But their victory would prove pyrrhic. By Monday, the Muslim community relinquished any claim they had to the -southern end of Miskine. Their houses were ravaged. Roofs were taken off, furniture stolen. The cab of a monster truck was set on fire, while looters removed its tail-lights. Despite the attentions of French troops, who fired warning shots and tear gas at the crowd, there was nothing that could be done to stop the destruction. Days later, PK5 itself began to empty.
This pattern repeated itself across the capital, and the country. The exodus of Muslims was monstrous in scale and origin. The anti-balaka may have begun its life as a “self-defence force” against the Seleka, but it had transformed into an aggressor whose aim was the destruction or removal of the entire Muslim population of the CAR.
The anti-balaka were everywhere. They stood at makeshift checkpoints, vast machetes slung around the necks, occasionally a -stockless rifle at their sides. Their dress was deliberately eccentric. Some wore women’s wigs. One fighter, who was driving towards Bangui on a motorbike, had somehow attached a live pigeon to his maroon beret. Another wore cut-out swatches of an Yves Saint Laurent carrier bag on his chest.
All of the anti-balaka wore gris-gris – amulets made from cloth, plastic, or spent AK-47 rounds – and then blessed by a witch doctor to offer protection against attack. Even though many of their number would associate themselves with the Catholic or Protestant church, the “Christianity” of the anti-balaka was underpinned by a -powerful connection to traditional animistic beliefs. (Many Muslim fighters also wore gris-gris – a reminder that the Abrahamic faiths barely began to explain this war.)
The secrets of gris-gris were closely held. At a checkpoint on the outskirts of Bangui, I asked a lavishly decorated anti-balaka chief named Eric Seleboy about his “medicine”. He said he had learned how to fight by visiting a witch doctor. It was, he said, the only military training he had undertaken. But what was in the medicine that gave him strength?
“Without it, we can’t fight,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”
In early February, the anti-balaka’s stated mission appeared to be almost complete. In the capital and the south of the country, the Seleka were largely ousted. But the anti–balaka’s vengeance for Seleka’s crimes was not yet sated, and they were increasingly- well-armed and well-organised. At their main base in Bangui, in the district of Boeing – so named for its proximity to the airport – there were hundreds of anti-balaka fighters, most of them dead-eyed and hungry boys, with a cache of automatic weapons. Many of the fighters repeated their justification for violence against Muslims: “Every one of them is a Seleka.” It wasn’t true, but the narrative had become convenient, as well as deadly for the remaining Muslim population.
In this way, the conflict continued its cruel progress. In Bangui, the fighting was bad enough, but worse seemed to be happening in the countryside, where civilians were offered scant protection from the thinly spread peacekeeping forces. The Seleka, largely pushed north towards the Chad borderlands, continued to commit atrocities. The anti-balaka’s campaign of revenge against Muslims everywhere else gathered momentum. The reports reached Bangui in fragments: 75 Muslims killed by anti-balaka in Boda; 25 massacred by Seleka in Nzakoun.
In early February, we visited the gold-trading town of Yaloke, 230km north of Bangui, driving past many villages where every single house had been burned. Yaloke had once held as many as 30,000 Muslims and eight mosques, but since the fighting began, the population had been scattered and divided. Now, the town was split three ways into an anti-balaka force on its southern border, a central Muslim area where one mosque still operated, and another anti-balaka force to the north. Despite the assurances of the French commander in the region, who promised to protect the Muslim population, the writing was on the wall. Several days later, the anti-balaka gave the Muslims 24 hours to leave. Most were evacuated by Chadian troops, and watched as their homes and businesses were burned to rubble. As of 13 February, according to Amnesty International, only 742 of Yaloke’s Muslims remained.
Life went on, and it didn’t. The war was a strange waking nightmare. Most foreigners who spent time in CAR’s furnace remarked on the conflict’s psychedelic horror. How to explain it? For one thing, there were so many actors, each with their own abbreviation and agenda: French “Sangaris”; Misca from Congo-Brazzaville, the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, and Chad; Chadian special forces; anti-balaka; Seleka; the national army, FACA; and a clutch of short-lived militias. Because of this, odd conflicts, alliances and dissonances- occurred. In Yaloke, the Muslims had daubed their mosque with paeans of praise for the French, Merci Francois Holland [sic]; in PK5, where the Muslims believed the French were arming the anti-balaka, the graffiti- read Non A La France. In Bangui, we twice witnessed anti-balaka engaging Misca troops. Once, in PK5, there was a ferocious battle between a Muslim militia and a Burundian patrol.
But the war was worse than confused. There was a macabre theatricality to the violence. For instance, the anti-balaka said they cut off the hands of their Muslim victims because it was “the same hand that killed their parents”. Their savagery, in other words, was not random, but designed to send a particular message. (This semiotics of mutilation is nothing new, or particularly “African”. When the Roman orator Cicero was lynched by the mob in 43 BC, his head and hands were displayed in the forum. Fulvia, the wife of Mark Antony – who had been the target of Cicero’s invective – took pleasure in piercing the dead man’s tongue with pins.)
Many anti-balaka also sent a message by wearing the Muslim boubou robes of their vanquished enemies. It was a form of mockery. In a looted Muslim house in the capital, one Christian man split his sides as he held a Qur’an and pressed his forehead to the ground in imitation of Muslim prayer. Another anti-balaka fighter we met in a village about 100km north of Bangui, named Wilfred Doulou, wore a particularly lavish boubou, with a large crucifix over the top. I asked whether his stolen robes put him at risk from his fellow Christians.
“No,” he said. “Everybody here knows I’m a Central African” – that foreignness of Muslims, again – “everybody knows me.” Wilfred made a small concession to his safety by taking the boubou off at night, and changing into his jeans. His neighbours, he said, might not -recognise him so easily after dark.
Another flavour of the craziness: in formerly Muslim areas, houses were looted, and then claimed by someone who wrote his name and telephone number on the wall. As often as not, the house was then destroyed. Steal a house and then knock it down. It made no sense. Once, I witnessed a large villa – which formerly belonged to a Muslim minister in the CAR government – ravaged in the PK8 district of Bangui, while a Porsche Cayenne stood untouched in the front yard.
Even the most tragic moments were touched by the insanity. On 24 January, another former government minister, a Muslim named Dr Joseph Kalité, was dragged from his car, attacked with machetes, and mortally wounded. A few days later, his remaining family and entourage were still living in their walled compound in Combattants, when a grenade was thrown at their front door. Anti-balaka gathered up the road, seemingly ready to attack. Some Misca troops decided it was time to evacuate the besieged household.
I was among four or five journalists who arrived to witness the moment. We were talking with Kalité’s people by the grenade-shattered- gatehouse when one of them mentioned that he was worried about his giant tortoise. Tortoise? we asked. The animal was brought out. It was vast, perhaps 80kg. One of Kalité’s security guards demonstrated how strong the animal was by standing on its shell as it walked around.
Kalité’s family couldn’t take the tortoise with them, they said. But they didn’t want to leave it behind, either, because the mob would surely kill and eat it. And so a French journalist rescued the unfortunate beast. It was placed, shell down, in the spare wheel of his 4×4 and spirited away as rifle fire rang out. The tortoise now lives in the garden of a Bangui guesthouse, where it eats salad leaves and grass.
Another strange story. About an hour-and-a-half southwest of Bangui, in the village of Berengo, is “Emperor” Bokassa’s old palace. Jean-Bédel Bokassa ruled CAR for 13 years, from a coup in 1966 to his deposal in 1979. For eleven of those years, he was content with being called president, but for the final two years, he crowned himself emperor, after his hero Napoleon, in a ceremony that cost $20m and nearly bankrupted the country. He renamed his new domain the Central African Empire.
The palace at Berengo was Bokassa’s base. He is said to have slept in a bedroom surrounded- by diamonds and gold, and to have eaten the bodies of his political enemies, who were cooked in the kitchens here (this last claim is heavily disputed, but has passed into lore). The decrepit complex now comprises eight acres of land, a four-metre-high statue of Bokassa, a vast complex of military barracks, and Bokassa’s old residence and pool. When we visited, it was also home to hundreds of young military recruits who had lived there since April last year.
Despite being predominantly Christian, these teenagers came to Bokassa’s Palace to join the national army when Seleka seized power in the hope of earning a wage. But they were never given any food, weaponry, uniforms, or instructions – other than the occasional order from a Seleka general not to demobilise. And so they stayed: the remnant of a non-existent army, which served a country since transformed beyond their imagining.
The palace has been gutted for years. When we visited, the swimming pool was covered by a layer of green sludge on which empty bottles sat as if on thick ice, and a rusting frame of a children’s slide at its deep end. The boys were all starving. They wore flip-flops and cut-off jeans. They trapped rats, or fished for frogs in the pool – “big ones,” said one hopeful young man with his homemade rod. Although perhaps a third of the original 1,100 recruits had left the base by February, these others stayed despite their many privations, because they truly believed they were in the army – or, at least, an army. They carried wooden model AK-47s and rocket launchers to make their point.
Louis Zumbakumba, a rail-thin 25-year-old who wore a Thierry Henry France shirt and trainers with the toes poking through, told me that the CAR always needed new soldiers. “When some politician can use us, we can be used,” he said. “When someone needs a new rebellion, we will fight.”
Just as the madness was enveloping, so was the darkness. Each day brought fresh atrocities. But there were some flickers of light. In the Hôpital Communitaire in Bangui, run by the International Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, dozens of wounded lay under tarpaulins, on makeshift wards that made no division between Muslim and Christian. Many had been shot or hacked in the violence, and were now being patched up by polyglot doctors from around the world. Most of the victims had never taken up arms in the conflict.
The testimony of the patients was equal parts dismal and heartening. They spoke of terrible violence, but also of a country where names and individual stories had once mattered, and perhaps could again. Two old friends from the PK5 district – one Muslim, one Christian – lay next to each other in the hospital tents. Juvenal Mogabé, 38, had a long nose and a broad smile. Both of his arms were shattered when Seleka fighters threw grenades at the bus he was driving. He now sat in casts, unable to feed, wash or scratch himself. Bashar Ali – a light-skinned, handsome 32-year-old with a stutter – lived around the corner from Mogabé, and made his living from a fruit stall at the market. He was shot by the anti-balaka when he looked out of his house one morning. Now these two men cared for one another in the hospital.
“It’s strange,” said Mogabé. “We are like family. Neither of us are fighters. But we are here. It’s painful…”
Another young man whose leg had been fractured in several places by gunshots, Adam Mamat Houar, said, “Yes, I am a Muslim, but I’m a Central African.” He explained that not only had he married a Christian woman, but so had his Muslim father. Before he was shot by the anti-balaka, Adam traded gold in Bangui, and imported motorbikes from Cameroon. Neither he, nor his father, had ever lived anywhere other than the Central African Republic. And now, they were called foreigners. “What is the proof that I am not from this country?” he asked, with an appeal to reason utterly at odds with the lethal unreason now at large.
Just as the stories in the hospital sounded an echo of CAR’s more humane past, so the actions of the Church in the country held fast to truly Christian principles. All over the country, churchmen had provided sanctuary for frightened, displaced people, including Muslims.
In the town of Boali, where the Seleka committed many abuses, and where the anti-balaka took control in the New Year, hundreds of Muslims were given shelter at the church of St Peter’s. When we visited, its grounds were protected by a small armed guard of troops from Congo-Brazzaville. Father Boris Wiligalé, a young priest with a warm demeanour and a measured cadence to his speech, explained that if the troops were not there to protect his new Muslim flock, the local anti-balaka would attack the church, and “it would be a holocaust.” He looked strangely placid as he said those words, as if he had long ago made peace with this extraordinary situation.
Father Wiligalé held up an exercise book, filled with the handwritten names of 649 Muslims who had been given sanctuary. The names were divided into families – famille Djibrine Hamadou, for instance – and then subdivided into the members of those families: Ibrahim Djibrine, Absata Djibrine, and so on. There may have been murderers among them. Wiligalé explained that it was not just Seleka who committed atrocities in Boali, but other members of the Muslim community. Christian children, he said, had been killed. And still, St Peter’s offered blanket protection, and asked no questions of past misdeeds. On Fridays, the Muslims said prayers on the grass outside the church.
It was hard not to be moved. In Rwanda in 1994, the clergy had proved not only weak but – in some cases – complicit in the genocide. Twenty years later, in a country infected by sectarianism, there were good people who refused to succumb to the virus. To Father Wiligalé and many like him, Muslims were not only Muslims. They were members of families, fellow human beings, complicated sinners. They were names.
The heroism of these churchmen, however, was like a baby’s sigh in a hurricane. The violence continued; the cleansing gathered pace. On 7 February, there was the biggest convoy out of Bangui yet: around 500 trucks, motorbikes and small vehicles, guarded by Chadian troops, loaded high with tens of thousands of Muslims and their belongings. They were jeered out of the capital by their Christian countrymen. A young Muslim man slipped from a packed truck in the Gobongo district of Bangui. He was caught, murdered, dismembered, and set on fire. According to one witness, the mob was waiting for the man as he fell. His feet never touched the ground.