June 2014 – The streets of Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, are dominated by cars from the UN mission MISCA, from the Sangaris (the French military operation in CAR), from humanitarian aid organizations and from the UNHCR. They are dominantly white with large antennas that show their constant connection to their own exclusive security network. The list of organizations is long, and their number is constantly growing. CAR has become one of the most important (financial) options for them to flourish. Their cars filling the streets, their logos on the houses. Their highly qualified, often international employees fill the bars and the houses in the protected parts of Bangui. The other strangers and occupiers are the military men, on the street in tankers and in trucks or pick-ups that surveil the streets, but who have not been able to stop the violence that is still going on in PK5 and Miskine and so many other parts of CAR. On the contrary; the stories about their complicity in the violence are rampant and may have a kernel of truth. The divisions of the conflict are reproduced in the MISCA troops. The banners with the call for désarmément hide a reality of defeat. The Seleka (‘Muslim’) rebels refuse to disarm as they are afraid of counter attacks by the (‘Christian’) anti-Balaka’s.
Tourist trip in a war zone
We chose to stay in Zongo, a small town at the other side of the river Oubangui opposite Bangui. Bangui seemed so scary from the outside; an image reinforced by the sight of smoke above the town, the (imagined) noise of bullets, and by the stories of the many refugees, traders, and others in Zongo who lived through unimaginable atrocities and ugly violence. We thought it not wise to stay in Bangui where we could become victim of unexpected situations. We could, however, not avoid to go to Bangui and visit old friends and get an impression of the town under these circumstances. A curiosity that was fed by a strange feeling of fear and anxiety. Our first visit to Bangui was like a tourist trip in a warzone, and the subjectivity of our feelings is probably best illustrated by my fear for young men who were screaming at a corner with a chaotic mosaic of yellow cars. My first reaction was to get out of that place as it could be angry youth. Later we passed the same place again and then I recognized the yellow cars as taxis and the men as the taxi drivers, shouting the names of the places where they could take possible passengers. Indeed it is war in Bangui and people lived through terrible things, but life also continues, especially in those parts of town where MISCA tries to protect, along the main axes and the central neighbourhoods. But more than the MISCA effect it is the wish of people to have and regain a normal life.
The rules of the international community
This is a warzone, where rules are difficult to predict. Or is it an occupied zone, where the rules of the international community dominate? Rules that are part of the many stories that go around in town, of which we only heard a few. It is clear that the troops that come from different countries are not seen as neutral forces. Where the stories about complications and collaborations between the warring parties and the MISCA or Sangari forces are rampant. Where churches and hospitals have turned into Internally Displaced Persons camps. Where we meet our friends who all have their own terrible stories, but who survived and continue.
President Deby’s place in history
A week later; I am back in the Netherlands and invited to join a discussion at the EU offices in Brussels on the situation in Chad as related to the situation in the region (Central Africa). This is another reality where situations of conflict and war in Africa are discussed by EU officials and Western ‘experts’ (among whom I find myself), but without the presence of Chadians. And where the discussions about solutions appear bizarre. The most telling idea is to support the President of Chad, Deby, in his ambitions to have a beautiful record in history for the development of his country. This is stated by one of the participants without shame and without hesitation, not considering Deby’s devastating role in CAR, his implication in the Habré regime, where at least 40,000 people were killed. So whose stability are we talking about here? Whose peace are we trying to realize? This might be a cliché, but is this not purely the interests of the West? Africa is as always the stage of the wars of the West, nowadays phrased as the war against terrorism…
Should researchers engage in policy circles?
This turn in the discussion at the EU meeting installs a doubt in me about my position as a researcher here. Do I really want to engage in these policy circles? Their measures and decisions do contribute to the situation in Central Africa where conflicts and oppressions are harsh and inscribe duress in the bodies and minds of people, hampering the realization of dignity and identity; both vital to have the capability to raise one’s voice!