CAR diaries: Living under fear in Bangui

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UN soldiers in Central African Republic

“WHAT is your final destination, sir?” an attendant asked, after scanning my ticket.

“Bangui,” I said, making sure she heard me clearly.

But still she gave me the where-on-earth-is-that expression on her face, and her next question confirmed her ignorance.

“Where is that?” she asked.

“Central African Republic,” I replied.

Then she had to consult her workmate to find the destination code for Bangui.

“B.G.F.,” she confirmed momentarily after searching on her computer.

“Doesn’t anyone ever fly there?” I asked in jest.

The two ladies laughed. At least they got my sense of humour.

But flying to Bangui was no laughing matter, at least not now.

I spent the days after my departure for Bangui was confirmed by the United Nations mission in CAR, better known by the French acronym MINUSCA, poring over news reports about the country, and it was all forbidding.

Not that I was surprised. I started hearing about Bangui and the war in the CAR back when I just left high school over two decades ago on BBC Focus on Africa. The country has never stopped making negative headlines ever since.

Bangui is a city shaped by war, and the country is still trying to reel itself from its checkered history.

Soldier keeps vigil in Central African Republic

From a failed monarchy (yes, you remember Emperor Bokasa) and a series of coup d’états and rebellions, the CAR is now plagued by rebel groups that carry out attacks with impunity, raping women and killing innocent civilians.

I’m not talking about two or three armed groups, but 14 of them that lay claim to large territories within the country.

In 2017, the Human Rights Watch issued a report that documented the killing of hundreds of civilians and destruction of thousands of homes by anti-balaka fighters and other rebel groups. It also issued a report, again in 2017, documenting hundreds of cases of rape and sexual slavery committed by the rebels.

And so, it seemed almost inconceivable that on Christmas Day, I was saying goodbye to my wife, Gladys, and about to jump on a flight to Addis Ababa. Later, I would get on a connecting flight to Nairobi, Kenya (yes, half-way back home, can you believe it?), before jumping on another flight that would take me to the capital city of the Central African Republic.

After nearly three hours of flying, the pilot of the Kenya Airways plane came on the intercom:

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in an assuring voice (as all pilots do), “we have made contact with Bangui, it’s a lovely day.”

Obviously he was referring to the weather.

He then added: “We wish you a pleasant and trouble-free stay.”

Now, that! I thought as I looked outside the window of the descending plane.

Below lay the Ubangi River – serene.

But the stillness of the Ubangi is deceptive. Somewhere, the river turns angry, breaking into rapids.

Actually, the name Ubangi is derived from a word in the local word meaning rapids.

Central African Republic

And now the country was hours away from holding presidential and national assembly elections. I wondered whether or not it was going to run into one of its political rapids again.

Just days before I would arrive here, six rebel groups had galvanised into one, apparently led by the country’s former president François Bozize. Their mission: to stop the elections, which they claimed would not be free and fair due to insecurity in the country.

Bozize, himself, had been barred from standing because of his bloody past. He is wanted by the international court for war crimes.

The rebel groups, which had earlier announced a ceasefire, were now not interested in silencing their guns, and were threatening to march to the capital; and they would easily have done so if not for the UN forces.

But the rebels were determined to spread fear and chaos across the country and turn voters away. On Christmas Day, they killed three Burundian peacekeepers.

I didn’t know what to expect when we finally landed.

Our plane touched down at the Bangui M’Poko International Airport at exactly 08:30 hours, and everything became apparent. This is a country run by the United Nations in proxy.

Almost all the planes – and there were many of them – sitting on the tarmac had the letters “U.N.” on them, and some belonged to the Red Cross and doctors without borders, better known as MSF.

The UN estimates that half of the population in the country are dependent on humanitarian assistance and up to a fifth have been displaced.

CAR falls to the bottom on many world indices and although it has a functioning government, it is essentially a failed state.

The country is the second poorest in the world, and in 2014 was named as the most dangerous place for a child to grow in.

We drove down a potholed road with dozens of motorbikes buzzing and sweeping around us in a chaotic manner.

I asked a reporter from Senegal – seated next to me on the UN vehicle – what he made of the situation in CAR.

He couldn’t speak English, and so he keyed something on his phone translator and held the screen in my face to read for myself: “They all want power, but there is nothing here.”

I couldn’t disagree with him. There is nothing in this country.

Bangui itself is a drab city with buildings that look straight out of a history novel with no uniformity, conformity or pattern of any kind in the architectural design or layout. There are only a few tall buildings and no glittering malls.

Poverty is visible everywhere.

But no, there is something in this country, and one has to look beyond this ugly façade.

CAR is rich in natural resources – gold, diamonds and timber. Its poverty is really a paradox.

We stayed at the Jean Michel Residences, located in what I was told is one of the best parts of the city, a few hundred metres from the presidential villa, embassies and government ministries. But there was nothing remarkable about the neighbourhood, although I did find the Bangui Cathedrale Notre-Dame, a large red-brick building – quite eye-catching.

The Jean Michel Residences itself, despite the exquisite-sounding name, offered no luxury at all, and was highly over-priced at about US$110 per night (well, almost everything is overpriced in Bangui).

Later that evening, we gathered for a security briefing.

“Anything can happen here,” Alioune Dieng told a group of international journalists flown in from the region.

Mr Dieng is head of operations for the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, and his role is to protect UN civilian staff.

He told us all UN staff and those serving under its mission in Bangui were under curfew from 22:00 hours to 05:00 hours.

Mr Dieng also assured us that in the worst case scenario, the UN had an evacuation plan for its staff, and other supporting staff under its mission such as journalists.

I prayed it would not come to that.

Late in the evening, we all gathered at the residence of the MINUSCA chief, Mankeur Ndiaye, for a small reception. The Bangalore on a hillside is highly guarded by Rwandan soldiers.

Mr Ndiaye told us despite the threats and intimidation from rebels, the elections must go ahead, warning that the consequences of postponing the polls were direr.

In short, there was never going to be an opportune time to hold elections in CAR.

“We never have 100 percent security because it’s not a post-conflict country. Of course we had a peace agreement in February 2019. We are trying to implement this peace agreement, but it’s not easy,” he said.

Of course, nothing is easy in a country that has known little peace in over half a century, not least a democratic process such as an election.

“Regarding the elections, we did everything to secure the process. We developed an integrated plan with the government and we are trying to implement it in the country, but we have some areas where the armed groups are attacking MINUSCA peacekeepers and national security forces,” said Mr Ndiaye.

And yes, the elections did go ahead.

Early morning on December 27 – Election Day – we drove around the city, always in the shadow of Rwandan soldiers riding in a pick-up behind us.

Electorates line up to cast their vote in Central African Republic

A few thousand of Bangui’s residents had defied the rebel threats, and turned up to cast their votes, although in many places outside the capital, the rebels succeeded in their mission to disrupt the polls.

Denise Brown, who is deputy special representative of the UN Secretary General to the CAR was not utterly upbeat about what might happen in the aftermath of the elections.

“So far so good, we expect problems during the course of the day, absolutely, but we are very determined and the population is determined,” she said.

“This is a new chapter for the country; it won’t be easy, it’s not the end, it’s just the very beginning,” she said.

We returned to the Jean Michel Residences, not very sure of how the next chapter of this troubled country would read.

Then about 21:00 hours, we heard a series of explosions like heavy machine gun, and flashes in the distant night sky.

Was this the moment we all feared?

I called one of the Zambian soldiers based in Bangui.

“Don’t worry; it’s just the Russians firing fireworks,” he told me, laughing.

Who does that in a city like Bangui?

By Jack Zimba/Zambia Daily Mail

Kalemba January 25, 2021

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