The Central African Republic (CAR) has been in the throes of a humanitarian crisis for more than a decade. Army mutinies, coups and attempted coups, rebellions, gangs that kidnap for ransom and, more recently, elements of Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army have made life for civilians, especially in the north, extremely challenging, unpredictable, and very dangerous.
As IRIN’s new documentary film, Under the Gun, demonstrates, many Central Africans have little say over where they live even. Countless villages in the north lie abandoned, crumbling with disuse, their residents ensconced nearby in makeshift bush camps, too scared to return.
Details of perpetrators vary from village to village and depend on the year of what are euphemistically referred to as “events”. But for the most part, the story is the same: one day in 2003, or 2006, or 2007, or 2009, men with guns – government soldiers, Chadian soldiers, mutinous soldiers, rebels – fighting other men with guns, turned up at dawn, shooting, sometimes executing, often setting fire to every thatched roof.
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In areas where criminal gangs known as “Zaraguinas” are rife, fear of kidnapping and extortion prompted the exodus. There are now at least 100,000 Central Africans living in the bush, with a similar number living as refugees, mostly in Chad.
With CAR ranked 178th out of the 179 countries listed in the UN’s Human Development Index, just ahead of Sierra Leone, everyday conditions are grim even at the best of times. There are only 330 doctors for a population of more than four million. Life expectancy at birth is 43.7 years. Of every 1,000 births, 193 children die before the age of five.
Before their village was attacked in 2003 by Chadian troops backing rebels who went on to take control of the country, residents of Bedamara 4, near the northwestern town of Paoua, were relatively fortunate. A working pump placed them among the 25 percent of rural Central Africans with access to potable water. There was a clinic a short walk away. Oxen and plentiful arable land made for good crops of cassava, which could be sold at nearby market towns.
But the “event” changed everything and emptied the village in minutes. Clarissa Deti’s husband was shot by the soldiers. Five of her children died when her hut was set on fire, which also destroyed all her meagre possessions. The oxen were stolen. Health workers fled the clinic, leaving looters to steal its supplies.
Clarissa spent the following years in a makeshift hut next to a small cassava plot, drawing water from a foetid pond. Her cousin, Augustine, lost her unborn baby during the bush years, and blames the miscarriage on the dirty water. Her mother developed a growth on her head nobody has been able to diagnose and has felt weak and dizzy for years. Rebels roam the countryside – the government has no presence here – and brook no dissent from civilians.
Now, like many northern villages, Bedamara 4 is being rebuilt and echoes with the sound of cement being slapped on adobe bricks, nails hammered into beams, thatch being cut.
But while thousands of Central Africans have come back from the bush because progress in peace talks has made it safe to do so, motives for the returns taking place near Paoua are more sinister.
“They are being forced to return,” explained the head of a clinic in Paoua, who treats many patients from such villages. “The rebels decided people should return. Those who refuse will be punished; have their possessions taken away,” he said, echoing the returnees, who did not wish to be named for fear of reprisals.
“The rebels say we have to go back to our homes, or they will hit us and confiscate our goods. That’s why the men are rebuilding their houses,” said one villager.
According to several accounts, local rebel leaders were motivated by financial gain: the more people return to their villages, the more economic activity will resume, thereby generating more “taxes” levied on people heading to and from market.
A local rebel leader denied there was an official policy to force people out of the bush back to their villages, but suggested if such an order had been given, it would have been by a “drunken” fighter acting off his own bat.
Asked if he felt safe to be back in the village, one man simply said: “There is no security. Only God is watching over us. There is no security.”