Dispatches from C.A.R. Episode 1: 'Welcome to Pretty Bangui'
July 2014, Central African Republic - While violence and displacement of people remain the daily routine, our colleague in Bangui, Donaig Le Du, shares her impressions from the field. Read her diaries and try to get a sense of what it's like to live and work in C.A.R. during these dramatic days. Here's the first episode of a series describing her first encounter with the capital, Bangui.
I still cannot believe that a little over a week ago, I was sitting outside, in a nice Parisian restaurant, drinking a lovely glass of wine while watching the sun go down.
Just now, I am sitting on the ground in front of my little studio. It is 5pm, I know I have one hour of daylight left. Then the street will go silent, no traffic to be heard in the city centre until 6 tomorrow morning.
My very first encounter with Bangui came as a shock. Of course, like anyone with the slightest interest in the Central African Republic, I had read about the camp for Internally Displaced Persons that is sitting on the brink of the airport. But when the plane flew over it while landing – so low I could see the people sitting in front of their tents – I couldn't do anything but hold back my breath and wonder what this assignment was going to be like.
In the past years, as a journalist and reporter, I have travelled extensively in Africa. I have been to war-torn countries, I have seen more than my share of starving children and desperate refugees. But now I am here longer term, for six months initially, and it does make a huge difference.
Getting out of the airport, there is a sign that says Bienvenue à Bangui la Coquette, which could be translated as "Welcome to Pretty Bangui". An old sign, with the paint peeling off, and just under it a checkpoint held by French peacekeeping soldiers.
Families Are Stuck Because They Couldn't or Didn't Want to Leave the City
Well, the prettiness of Bangui is long gone, obviously. With a 100 percent humidity and low maintenance, all the buildings look worn out – with the brown-red colour of the mud and the rusted roofs. But Bangui is also very much lively, with kids in uniforms in the streets, going to the few schools that remain open. Schools with windows that have no glass and probably very few teachers. Pretty much an ordinary poor central African town – not in any way close to the idea one could have of a capital.
The second shock was my very first food distribution, in the Muslim enclave called PK5. A few thousand people have been trapped there, some of them since early December, after widespread conflict and killings of civilians by armed groups.
You have to drive there in an armoured car. Once you leave the city centre, no more taxis, no traffic to speak of. Alongside the road some houses are just normal, the others are simply no longer there. These were the houses owned by Muslim residents. Everything is gone. Now even the bricks are being cleaned before going for sale.
The road is now called Boulevard de la Mort (Death Boulevard) by the people of Bangui. Once you pass the PK5 roundabout (which stands for "5 kilometres from the city centre") you jump into another world. Muslim families are stuck there because they couldn't or didn't want to leave the city. Now, if they try to go out, they may not survive for more than a few hundred metres.
A Vast Majority of Women and Children
The invisible border that surrounds the enclave is guarded in some parts by soldiers – French and of course the UN mission MINUSCA. Inside the district are also people hiding weapons, somewhere in the back streets. There are attacks launched from the enclave onto the neighbouring streets, although apparently the level of violence has been decreasing lately.
But the vast majority of the people there are women, elderly people and lots of little children. I stood there, watching them getting their monthly supply of food, and suddenly it became obvious. Those kids are the reason why it will be a while before I can sit in a nice Paris restaurant and have a lovely glass of wine. And honestly, I feel I am so lucky to be here.