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In March this year, 15 South African soldiers were killed defending a foreign capital against a rebel advance. We were outraged. We asked questions. We debated. And then we moved on. But the Central African Republic and its problems didn’t end the day our troops were withdrawn. In a three-part series Kristen van Schie examines what has happened in the eight months since the Battle of Bangui...
“They came in here,” said the translator. He pointed to where one of the only two tarred roads in the Central African Republic (CAR) forked.
It was teeming with traffic trying to pass through a patrolled checkpoint, pedestrians, motorbikes squeezing through gaps.
Eight months ago, it was the scene of a fire fight.
A coalition of rebel forces, Séléka, was making its final push towards Bangui to overthrow then-president François Bozizé. It wasn’t the country’s first coup. And that was the problem. Bozizé had failed to abide by past peace agreements with the rebels, they said.
Camouflage is part of the uniform of the population. Camouflage and soccer shirts and the branded T-shirts of cellphone companies.
There were the Central African Armed Forces (Faca), in camouflage and red berets.
There was the Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in Central African Republic (Micopax), a peace operation made up of troops from various countries in the region, in camouflage and green armbands.
There were the presidential guard in camouflage and green berets and the military police in camouflage and blue berets.
And there were the French, rumbling around the airport in camouflage and tanks.
But as Séléka advanced in March, they all stood back.
All except a group of 200 South African paratroopers.
He pointed. “They died there, and there, and there.”
Fifteen of them.
Bangui the Cute
Bangui la Coquette. That’s what the capital city used to be called: Bangui the Cute. That reputation was somewhat tarnished in the wake of the coup.
When Elodie Befio, a government secretary, heard of Séléka’s advance, she fled. Her home was right in their path.
When she returned, the house was empty. The looters took nine mattresses, a deep freezer, a computer, handbags and all the clothes and shoes.
That was eight months ago. It’s still empty.
Like many civil servants, Befio hasn’t been paid for months. And
looting was just the beginning.
A Human Rights Watch report released last month detailed numerous abuses by the rebel group.
*On March 27, Séléka fighters killed 17 people at a neighbourhood market.
*On April 12, a Séléka rocket-propelled grenade injured 13 children.
*On April 13, Séléka forces drove their vehicle into a funeral procession. People turned on them. They turned back and 18 civilians were dead.
*On April 15, a group of young men were rounded up by Séléka. Five were executed.
The list goes on.
Senior judge Yves Kokoyo M’bombo keeps two CAR flags on his desk, and two distinct stacks of files.
On one side of his desk, a thick file on the ten years of bad governance by ousted Bozizé and his ministers.
Files on extortion, murder, false imprisonment, prisoner abuse, nepotism. His wife was in parliament. His son was defence minister. Two other sons were key figures in the military police. Officials not from his family were from his tribe. It was a poor combination.
Bozizé vanished after the coup, popping up briefly in Cameroon before the Sunday Times tracked him down to a “shabby hotel lounge in Paris wearing a cheap suit”. He said he was on a tourist visa, and added: “I am a president in exile - I was democratically elected!”
M’bombo is hoping to travel there next month.
“With the pressure from the French authorities, we can prosecute him,” he said.
On the other side of M’bombo’s desk is a ledger of pink files - cases against Séléka fighters, he said.
So extensive were the crimes during what M’bombo called “the change”, the government convened a national commission to investigate all the allegations. M’bombo estimated the caseload at 3 000.
For his part, he was trying to bring a little justice to Bangui streets. His own car was stolen during the looting. The courthouse was emptied of computers and printers. His brother-in-law was murdered three weeks ago.
“Bangui is safer now than in March, but there are still some crimes being committed by rebels. And it’s very difficult to identify who the individual is who committed the crime.”
In March, transitional president Michel Djotodia dissolved the Séléka coalition. The coup was successful: There was no need for “rebels” any more.
They now fall somewhere alongside government forces. A process of disarming them has been going - the proliferation of weapons was blamed for the spike in crimes that included something Bangui has never experienced before, hijackings - and police say it has been a success so far.
But even when a former rebel is convicted, he’s often out of prison in weeks, even days.
“His friends go to the prison with weapons and make threats,” explained M’bombo.
The guns are still out there.
“Without disarming, I don’t think we can speak of peace, but it’s not easy,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Ismaël Koagou, the national defence ministry’s chief of staff.
“CAR represents almost 623 000 square kilometres. It’s big and we have to go through it slowly and surely. The main problem was the capital. Now the capital is stabilising, we can think about moving out to the provinces.”
It’s the provinces causing problems at the moment. Here, former Séléka rebels said they were providing “security” for towns and villages.
But outbreaks of violence have left scores dead and about 395 000 displaced.
The attacks have the air of religious violence, with Muslims and Christians pitted against each other. Some say former Bozizé supporters are to blame.
Koagou called it a reaction to “what some foolish members of Séléka have done”.
“There were many crimes committed - looting, killing, raping,” said Koagou. “In revenge, other groups of the Christian community organised themselves into guerrilla units to attack Séléka. It is the people who lost power - these people from Bozizé’s region, they are the ones causing all the riots and insecurity.”
But even with the Micopax troops, even with the French, even with the police and the army, Koagou says the country still needs more troops to be provided by the AU.
“We really don’t have enough to manage all the different situations going on here.”
Back in his office at the court, M’bombo pulled out a picture of a young woman. She was slumped over in a bed, shot in the head, allegedly by a former Séléka fighter. The bedsheets and the pillow were covered in her blood. Her family was waiting outside.
“Freedom is a kind of law - nobody can restrain it,” said M’bombo.
“And if it is restrained, the population will react.”
* On Tuesday, The Star visits one of the provinces wracked by violence, and the population left homeless because of it.