Sunday, October 14, 2007

[wvns] Inside France's secret war

Inside France's secret war
7 October 2007

http://news.independent.co.uk/world/africa/article3030349.ece


For 40 years, the French government has been fighting a secret war in
Africa, hidden not only from its people, but from the world. It has
led the French to slaughter democrats, install dictator after dictator
– and to fund and fuel the most vicious genocide since the Nazis.
Today, this war is so violent that thousands are fleeing across the
border from the Central African Republic into Darfur – seeking
sanctuary in the world's most notorious killing fields
By Johann Hari in Birao, Central African Republic
Published: 05 October 2007

I first heard whispers of this war in March, when newspapers reported
in passing that the French military was bombing the remote city of
Birao, in the far north-east of the CAR. Why were French soldiers
fighting there, thousands of miles from home? Why had they been
intervening in Central Africa this way for so many decades? I could
find no answers here – so I decided to travel there, into the belly of
France's forgotten war.

On the battlefield - Birao

I am standing now on its latest battlefield, looking out over
abandoned mud streets streaked with ash. The city of Birao is empty
and echoing, for the first time in 200 years. All around are miles of
burned and abandoned homes, with the odd starved child scampering
through the wreckage. What were all these buildings? On one faded
green sign it says Ministry of Justice, on a structure reduced to a
charcoal husk. In the market square, the people who have returned are
selling a few scarce supplies – rice and manioc, the local yeasty
staple food – and talking quietly. At the edges of the town, there are
African soldiers armed and trained by the French, lolling behind
sandbags, with machine guns jutting nervously at passers-by. They are
singing weary nationalist anthems and dreaming of home.

To get here, you have to travel for eight hours on a weekly UN flight
that carries eight passengers at most, and then ride on the back of a
rusting flat-top truck for an hour along ravaged and broken roads. It
is hard to know when you have arrived, because you are greeted only by
emptiness and silence. What has happened here? Sitting amid the mud
and dust and sorrow, I find Mahmoud, one of the 10 per cent of Birao's
residents who have returned to the rubble.

He is a thin-faced 45-year-old farmer, and explains, in a low, slow
voice, how his home town came to this. "I woke up for morning prayers
on 4 March and there was gunfire everywhere. We were very frightened
so we stayed in the house and hoped it would stop. But then in the
early afternoon my brother's children came running to our house,
screaming and crying. They told us the Forcés Armées Centrafricanes
[Faca – the army trained and equipped by the French, on behalf of
their friendly neighbourhood strongman, President François Bozize] had
gone into their house. They wouldn't calm down and explain. So I ran
there, and I saw my brother on the floor outside, dead. His wife
explained they had forced their way in and rounded him up, along with
three men who lived nearby. They took them out on to the street and
shot them one by one in the head."

Mahmoud's friend, Idris, lived nearby, and feared he, too, would be
shot. He says now: "We could see the villages burning and the children
were screaming and really scared, so we ran two kilometres out into
the jungle. From there we could see our whole city on fire. We fled
along the river and stayed out there. We ate fish, but there weren't
many. Some days we couldn't catch anything and we starved. The
children were so terrified. Still, when they hear a loud noise, they
think there are guns coming and they start shaking." Idris looks off
into the distance and continues: "On the fourth day, we saw the French
planes come. They each had six rockets that they fired. The explosions
were loud. We don't know what they were targeting, or why. Then the
French soldiers arrived." A military truck filled with French soldiers
rumbles by not long after, its tanned troops wearing designer
sunglasses and a "why am I here?" anxiety.

As Mahmoud and Idris talk it gets dark, and a suffocating blackness
and silence falls on the city. There is no electricity and no
moonlight. They explain in this blackness that the French-backed
troops began firing and the French military began bombing in March for
one reason: the desperate locals had begun to rise up against
President Bozize, because he had done nothing for them. People here
were tired of the fact that "there are no schools, no hospitals, and
no roads". "We are completely isolated," they explain. "When it rains,
we are cut off from the world because the roads turn to mud. We have
nothing. All the rebels were asking was for government help." As I
stumble around Birao, I hear this every time: the rebels were simply
begging for government help for the hungry, abandoned people. Even the
bemused French soldiers and the Bozize lackeys sent to the area admit
this privately. Yet the French response was with bombs against the
rebels' pick-up points. Why? What is there here that they want?

I look out towards the jungle and realise many of Birao's residents
are still hiding out there, risking the wild beasts. In the similarly
burned-out areas in the north-west, I drive out into the jungle with
Unicef and find these clusters of starving families scattered
everywhere. In one cleared patch, I find a group of four men with
their wives and mothers, clearing an area of ground with their bare
hands where they will try to plant peanuts. They are living in
handmade huts and set traps to catch mice to eat. Ariette Nulguhom is
cradling her eight-month-old grandson with his distended little belly
and praying he will survive another night. She tells me: "He's been
sick for a long time. We tried to get him to a nurse but there aren't
any. We think it is malaria but there is no medicine here. We don't
know what will happen... We are all weak and feverish. We're exhausted
because we work all day, every day. I have not eaten for days now."
When they left behind their houses, they left behind access to clean
water, electricity, and medicine. When the Faca burned those homes,
they burned away the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries for these families,
too.

This is a forgotten corner of a forgotten country. Birao lies and dies
in the far north-east of the Central African Republic. CAR itself has
a population of just 3.8 million, spread across a territory bigger
than Britain's, landlocked at the exact geographical heart of Africa.
It is the least-reported country on earth. Even the fact that 212,000
people have been driven out of their homes in this war doesn't
register on the global radar. In Birao, I realise I am too close to
the immediate horror to find the deeper explanations for this war. I
only begin to uncover the origins of this story when I stumble across
a very rare find in the CAR – an old man.

A country of children - Paoua

In the CAR, you have beaten the odds if you live to be 42. There are
times when this seems like a country of children, swarming around with
guns and hardened laughs, without an adult in sight. So when I see
Zolo Bartholemew limping past the wreckage of another burned-out town
– this time in the distant north-west, outside the city of Paoua – he
seems like a mirage. He has no teeth and a creased face, and when I
ask, he does not know his age. But he remembers. He remembers the
tail-end of the first time the French were here – and why.

"I watched my parents forced to work in the fields when I was a
child," he says in Sango, the local language. "When they got tired,
they were whipped and beaten and made to go faster. It was constantly
like this." The French flag was first hoisted in the heart of Africa
on 3 October 1880, seizing the right bank of the Congo for the cause
of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – for the white man. The territory was
swiftly divided up between French corporations, who were given the
right effectively to enslave the people, like Zolo's parents, and
force them to harvest its rubber. This rubber was processed into car
tyres for sale in Paris and London and New York. A French missionary
called Father Daigre described what he saw: " It is common to meet
long files of prisoners, naked and in a pitiful state, being dragged
along by a rope round their necks. They are famished, sick, and fall
down like flies. The really ill and the little children are left in
the villages to die of starvation. The people least affected often
killed the dying, for food."

Zolo nods when I mention this. "When the whites were here, we suffered
even more," he says. "They forced us to work. We were slaves."

One horrified French administrator wrote in the 1920s that the locals
reacted to being enslaved by the corporations by becoming "a
troglodyte, subsisting wretchedly on roots until he starves to death,
rather than accept these terrible burdens". Areas that had "only a few
months ago been rich, populous and firmly established in large
villages" became, he wrote, "wasteland, sown with dilapidated villages
and deserted plantations".

But in the 1950s, men like Zolo rose and refused to be enslaved. "We
followed Boganda," he says. Barthélemy Boganda was born in a Central
African village near here in 1910, and, as a child, he saw his mother
beaten to death by the guards in charge of gathering rubber for a
French corporation. He rose steadily through the Catholic priesthood,
married a French woman, and, quite suddenly, became the leader of the
CAR's pro-democracy movement. He would begin his speeches to the
French by introducing himself as the son of a polygamous cannibal, and
then lecture them on the values of the French Revolution with a
fluency that left them stunned and shamed. He crafted a vision of a
democratic Africa beyond tribe, beyond race and beyond colonialism. He
was passionate about the need for a plurality of political parties, a
free press, and human rights. He rhapsodised about his vision of a
United States of Africa, linking together the countries of Central
Africa into a USA Mk II.

"And they killed him," Zolo says, shaking his head and kicking at the
earth beneath his feet. On 29 March 1959, not long after the French
era of direct rule had ended, President Boganda's plane was blasted
out of the air. The French press reported that there had been
"suspicious materials " found in the remains of the fuselage – but on
the orders of the French government, the local investigation was
abandoned. The French installed the dictator David Dacko in his place.
He swiftly shut down Boganda's democratic reforms, brought back many
French corporations, and reintroduced their old system of forced
labour, rebranding it "village work". French rule over the CAR – the
whippings Zolo remembers – did not end with "independence". It simply
mutated, into a new and slippery form, and it is at the root of the
current war.

But the clues to this lie far to the west, in the capital city. "
Nothing happens in this country without somebody pulling a lever in
Paris," a taxi driver tells me as I leave to travel to Bangui at the
bottom of the country, driving through clouds of red-dust and past
swarms of street-children. I have an appointment with an underground
figure in the opposition to keep.

A tortured president - Bangui

Bangui looks like a city that rose with a heave from the jungle a
century ago, and has been sighing back into it ever since. Every
building appears to be rusting away, and great eruptions of vegetation
are shoving the homes and shops aside, reaching for the sky. On corner
after corner there are huge, hideous caricature-statues of black
people, showing them as thick-lipped and kinky-haired, giving the city
the ambience of a Ku Klux Klan garage sale.

Every few hours, the power supply dies, and the city stammers to a
halt. People dawdle in the streets, playing cards and wiping away
their sweat with the back of their wrists. It is during one of these
blackouts that I arrive at the office of a leader of the opposition
with a delegation from the British campaigning group Waging Peace. His
office is above a parade of shops, and it is a simple room filled with
African carvings and pictures of past and faded glories. He walks
towards us in a green suit, and – although he does not say it – we all
know he is taking a huge risk by meeting us secretly like this. Last
year, 40 political figures who criticised the government of President
Bozize were tossed into jail and tortured. " They tried to kill my
son. They are trying to assassinate me," he says, with a
matter-of-fact shrug. He gives the long, horrible details. I cannot
repeat them here because they would identify him – and become a death
sentence.

"The country is in a dire situation," he says. "We have been described
by the magazine Foreign Policy as one of the worst failed states in
the world, after Iraq and Afghanistan." He says the CAR is now " a
total and ferocious dictatorship" under the absolute command of
Bozize. The roots of the wars in the north-east and north-west are, he
says, simple. "Local people in these regions are rebelling against the
government, because the government provides them with nothing. There
are no services. There aren't even roads. So the rebels rise up to get
attention – and the government retaliates by rampaging through the
area, killing civillians and burning homes."

So who is this Francois Bozize, and why are the French supporting him
with batallions and bombs? I telephone the vast presidential palace to
meet the man who stares out from behind a smartly-trimmed moustache in
the pictures hanging on every wall, and the President's press officer
eventually gets back to me. "Call me back, I am running out of credit
on my mobile phone," he snaps. Then he promises a meeting with the
President, but finds mysterious "complications" that lead him to
cancel every time. There are rumours across Bangui that Bozize is
becoming ever-more paranoid and locked down, employing food tasters to
check for poison before every meal and refusing to meet strangers. So
I look instead to the few scraps of independent journalism that
survive here for clues as to who this French love-child really is.

Le Citoyen is distributed on rough photocopied paper every day and
sold on street corners for a few pennies – but it is one of the
bastions of Central Africa's remaining freedoms. Its editor Maka
Obossokotte has a neat grey beard, square cheekbones, and balls of
steel. He has been jailed for criticising the President and his
cronies more than once, but he insists I quote him on-the-record and
by name. "In jail, you were given rotten fish to eat. I got gout. The
toilets..." he shakes his head. "It is hell." He says he knows now
that "it is very likely somebody from the presidential clan will kill
me... Every morning when I wake up, I think there are three beds I
could end up in tonight. Back here at home, the hospital, or the
morgue." But he says: "I will not be afraid. It is when you are afraid
that you lose."

Sitting in a delicious cloud of smoke, puffing away on high-tar
cigarettes, Maka talks me through the President's biography. He was
born in nearby Gabon, the son of a police officer from the CAR. He
wasn't smart at school, but he managed to get a coveted job as
bodyguard to Jean-Bedel Bokassa, one of the vicious dictators
flattered and fawned over by the French. Bokassa was famously mad,
declaring himself "Emperor of the CAR", eating the leader of the
opposition, and opening fire on a group of children who were
protesting for help to buy their school uniforms. Bozize carried
Bokassa's cane and his bag, and, Maka explains: "It was through
watching him that Bozize got his taste for power." The "Emperor"
promoted him to the rank of general.

After a while, Bokassa's foaming madness made him an unreliable
servant of the French, so they backed a coup against him. Bozize left
to study at the Ecole Spécial Militaire de Saint-Cyr in France, and
returned only to stage a farcical coup attempt of his own. In 1982, he
seized control of one of the national radio stations and announced
that he was now President. Everybody laughed; Bozize fled. A few years
later he was deported back to Bangui to be punished. "They tortured
him," Maka says. "They pissed in his mouth, they broke his ribs, they
really mistreated him for three years."

Eventually, they let him go back to France for medical treatment – and
the French government swiftly began to build him up as an alternative
president, in case their current pick became too disobedient and got
ideas of his own. From being a poor man, Bozize suddenly had the money
to run a huge presidential campaign. He ran, and he lost. So in
October 2002, he paid for a vast private mercenary army (you might
wonder – with whose money?) to invade the CAR from neighbouring Chad,
depose the sitting president and install himself as the supreme ruler.
Since then, he has "won" a disputed election he arranged for himself
and bathed in French approbation.

"France sees the CAR as a colony," Maka says. "The presidents are
selected by France, not elected by the people. The presidents do not
serve the interests of this country; they serve the interests of
France." He lists the French corporations who use the CAR as a base to
grab Central African resources. This French behaviour is, he reasons,
at the root of the wars currently ripping apart the north of the
country. Whoever becomes president knows his power flows down from
Paris, not up from the people – so he has no incentive to build
support by developing the country. Rebellions become inevitable, and
the president crushes them with the house-burnings and French bombs I
learned about in Birao.

"The country will only be able to develop when France stops putting in
place these dictators and the people choose," Maka adds, stubbing out
his cigarette into an overflowing ashtray. "The CAR will only progress
when the president is scared of his people, not the French."

Into rebel country - Bossangoa

I am driving now through the skin-sizzling heat of Bossangoa, the
home-town of Bozize – and the last outpost of his power before you
stumble into bandit-and-rebel territory. The Marie Celeste villages
stretch for miles once more. Silence. Walls eaten by fire. Dead towns.
In the houses there are smashed pots, abandoned as their residents
fled Bozize's marauding murderers. I find a stray shoe sitting alone
in one. In another village, the bell that calls children to school is
still hanging from a tree, forgotten. On the blackboard is the final
lesson, still there: a map of the CAR in chalk.

But then, after an hour of driving beyond Bossangoa into the jungle,
there are signs of life. In yet another burned village, there are 20
young men, all sweat and Kalashnikovs. We pull up, and realise we are
in an unexpected rebel camp. The boys' leader strolls toward us – an
elder, at the age of 24 – and shakes our hands. He explains they are
part of the rebel Army for the Restoration of the Republic and
Democracy (French acronym APRD), who have taken this area. His
"troops" are dressed oddly. One is swearing ski glasses and a ski hat,
in a place as far from a ski slope as any on earth. Another is wearing
nothing but bright red swimming trunks, and half a dozen strings of
bullets around his neck. He is wearing a single woman's flip-flop,
silver and glittering in the sun.

They explain they are not allowed to make statements – only their
leader can do that – but they are eager to have their photographs
taken. As soon as I agree, they contort themselves into wild poses.
They stick bullets in their mouths, flex their muscles and screw their
faces into a fake rage, like they are recreating a Rambo poster. The
baby-faced soldier in the corner, they tell me casually, is 13. They
look like teenagers on any street corner anywhere in the world,
playing at being rebels. Except these are real rebels, with real guns.
A 13-year-old with a gun is a comic sight – until he points it towards
you and smiles strangely.

Why, I ask, did you join the rebellion? "Bozize killed my father, my
mother and my brother," their leader steps forward to say, in a low
voice. He peels up his vest and shows an angry scar where he says he
was bayoneted. "They thought I was dead, so they left me." I ask what
the rebels want. "We want peace, we want schools, we want roads," the
leader says. Most of them nod. Do you want power? "That's up to God.
We want roads and schools."

With that, we drive away, and they cheerfully wave their guns in our
direction. I follow the trail of burned homes up to Paoua, a town at
the top of the north-west – and I am sitting now on a bench with the
man who ordered so many to be torched. A lieutenant of the Garde
Présidentiel (GP) is chewing gum in the sun, behind barbed wire and
sleeping security guards. The GP is the jagged spike of the country's
military accountable only to President Bozize – his own private
militia. When you see them approach on the streets, with their wild
eyes and ready guns, pulses surge and spines stiffen. In the
market-square in Paoua, a GP "officer" put a gun to the head of a
Médecins sans Frontières doctor and told him: " We will do what they
did in Rwanda." And I am making small talk with one of its bosses.

He is wearing long shining purple robes and a white fez, and he tells
us haltingly that he will be interviewed, yes, but we cannot use his
name. He is young – 33 – with hunched shoulders. His bodyguard is a
muscled ripple of anxiety, and he watches every move we make, as if
ready to pounce. So, lieutenant, why do you think people join the
rebels and fight against you? He makes eye contact only with his
bodyguard. "I don't know." Chew, chew. Why do you think people are so
scared of the GP here? " There have been a few undisciplined elements,
but we have dealt with them." Chew, chew, chew. So it is only
undisciplined soldiers who burn all these thousands upon thousands of
homes? You don't order them to? "If they burn homes, we deal with
them." How have you dealt with them? "We use discipline." He stops
leaning and sits up. Really? How many people have you disciplined?
When? His bodyguard doesn't like this question; he glares at me. "I
had an officer who went to the market when he was not supposed to. I
disciplined him." That's it? "We have disciplined."

That's not what people in the villages say, I comment. They are
terrified. " Show me the villages. I will show you how we have done
good." After we drive away from his compound, we meet up with two
pale, disturbed workers from the Italian charity Coopi. They explain
that as the lieutenant was assuring us his forces are disciplined, a
GP officer drove up on a motorbike and waved a gun in their faces.

At every one of these scenes, the question keeps coming back: why? Why
are the French providing military support and training for these
militia? The French government says it is in the CAR because it signed
a military agreement back in the 1970s to protect the country from
external aggression. The rebellions in the north are, they say,
supported by Sudan – so this counts. Mes amis, we are protecting a
democratically elected President from a tyrannical and genocidal
neighbour.

But I couldn't find anyone in the CAR – not a single person, not even
the most pro-French – who thought Sudan had anything to do with the
rebels. So I arrange to meet up in Bangui with Louise Roland-Gosselin,
an Anglo-French director of the group Waging Peace, who has been
studying the Central African Republic. "The policies here in the CAR
are part of a much bigger approach by France towards Africa," she
says. "We call this system 'Franceafrique', and it was set up by
Charles de Gaulle to replace the former colonial system. There is
clear continuity from the imperial system to the present day."

The motives for this war are, Roland-Gosselin says, drenched in
dollars and euros and uranium. "The overarching goal is to take
African resources and funnel them towards French corporations," she
says. "The CAR itself is a base from which the French can access
resources all over Africa. That is why it is so important. They use it
to keep the oil flowing to French companies in Chad, the resources
flowing from Congo, and so on. And of course, the country itself has
valuable resources. CAR has a lot of uranium, which the French badly
need because they are so dependent on nuclear power. At the moment
they get their uranium from Niger, but the CAR is their back-up plan."
So this is, in part, a war for nuclear power? " Yes, but also a lot of
this money has been funnelled, through corruption, straight back into
the French political process. Say somebody needs a road built here in
the CAR. The French government will insist on a French company – and
the French company back home donates a lot to the 'right' French
political party."

This neo-imperial war reached its psychotic apogee in 1994, when the
French government used the CAR as a base to fund and fuel the Rwandan
genocide, the most bloody since the death of Adolf Hitler. Vincent
Mounie is a leading figure in Sur Vie, a French organisation
monitoring its government's actions in Africa. He explains: "The
French were totally complicit in the genocide. There were French
troops there before, during and after the genocide, backing the most
extreme Hutu forces as they murdered the Tutsis. You know the identity
cards that divided the Rwandan population into Hutus and Tutsis in
preparation for the slaughter? They were printed in Paris."

The French military base in Bangui had to be abandoned in 1996 after
it was burned down by enraged locals, tired of the French ramming
tyrants down their national gullet. Today the old base is overgrown,
and the French military has shifted to new camps in Birao. But I stare
at it now. The French planes that backed the Rwandan holocaust left
from here.

President François Mitterrand began his career supporting one
genocidal force, and he ended it supporting another. As a young man he
rose through the ranks of the Hitler-hugging Vichy regime, only
quitting and joining the Resistance when it became obvious the
democrats would win. He then became nominally a Socialist and,
finally, President – when at last genocide entered his life again. The
French government had long seen the Hutu nationalists in Rwanda as
Their Men, the people most friendly to French demands for military and
corporate access. So when, starting in 1989, the Tutsi refugees who
had been driven out decades before started to demand their right to
return to their homes, the French were furious. Mitterrand saw this
Tutsi rights movement as a creation of the CIA, designed to displace a
pro-French regime and replace it with a buddy of Uncle Sam. His own
aides told him there was no evidence of a link to the CIA – but he
refused to listen. He announced that the Tutsis were a "Khmer Noir" ,
an evil anti-French force, and began to rapidly build up the Hutu
Power forces to fight back.

In just four years, starting in 1990, the French buffed up the Hutu
nationalist military forces in Rwanda from 10,000 to more than 40,000.
The moderate forces within Rwanda began desperately trying to broker a
power-sharing agreement between the two sides, "And the French
government deliberately destroyed any attempt at a peace deal," Mounie
says. Then the hacking up of Tutsi men, women and children began.
Mitterrand extended bigger loans to the Hutus, which they used to buy
more weapons and ammunition. He publicly mocked anyone who talked
about a Hutu-led genocide.

Then, when the international outrage became so great even Mitterrand
could not ignore it, the French announced they would send in a
military force to stop the killing. "It was France's last lie, and the
most cruel," Mounie adds. "Even at this point, Mitterrand's real aim
was to recapture Kigali and restore the Hutus to power." In Birao
today, many of the soldiers patrolling the city are veterans of this
"rescue operation". I am sipping sweet tea in one of the local
bigwig's ramshackle houses when a group of local soldiers on patrol
arrive. They are working-class men from the Paris and Lyons banlieues,
and in the course of the small talk, they admit that they were in
Rwanda – and they are still traumatised by what they were ordered to
do by Mitterrand and his men. " Children would bring us the severed
heads of their parents and scream for help," one says, "but our orders
were not to help them."

A year after the holocaust ended, Mitterrand told an aide: "Nobody in
France cares about the genocide." These disturbed soldiers, sitting in
the waning sunlight, show the old cynic was wrong, at least, about that.

Mother, do not beat us - Bangui

In the red-dusted heart of Bangui, there is a rusting, collapsing
metaphor for this war – and where it is going. On one side of the road
is the vast stadium the French government built for Bokassa in the
1970s, so he could crown himself Emperor of Central Africa and Lord of
All He Surveyed. It is falling down now, a dangerous wreck. Opposite,
there is a gleaming new sports stadium with plush seating and marble
floors. It was built by the Chinese. France is only one slice of this
new great game, this global scramble for Africa's resources. Every
swaggering world power – the US, Britain, China – is grabbing Africa's
remaining riches now, shunting aside democracy and human rights to get
to them. But even the Chinese dictators remember to toss some of the
loose change from the riches they have pillaged to Bangui. The French
have long since given up even on that. They come only with bullets and
bombs.

As I prepare to leave the CAR, I am told by senior French and African
sources that Paris could be getting ready to ditch President Bozize.
Like a string of Central African dictators before him, he has been
tugging too hard on the French leash, imagining he is the independent
ruler of an independent country. He has decided to nationalise some of
the energy companies operating here, including the French
mega-corporations Total and ELF. " If he wants the French to crush his
rebellions and keep him in power, he has to do what they say," my
source says. Bozize is trying to deal with this pre-emptively, by
offering the rebel leaders a place in his cabinet. As I drive past his
presidential palace for the last time, I wonder if the paranoia that
kept me from meeting him was justified all along.

But as my plane finally propels me away from this place, one CAR voice
– angry, crazed – seems to follow me. In the jungles around Paoua, I
was taken to the entrance to a remote burned-out village to meet
Laurent Djim-Woei, the spokesman for the rebels in the north-west. He
is a man talked about in awe by his followers – and his enemies.

A group of young men greeted us. They were carrying spears alongside
their ski hats and scars. Silently, they beckoned us to follow them
through more charcoal villages and dense foliage and beyond.
Eventually we reached a clearing. Laurent was dressed in stained
combat gear. He had a big smile that was marred by the absence of
almost all his teeth. There were three cellphones hanging from his
neck. He led an inspection of his rag-tag forces for our benefit,
getting them to stand to attention and yelling hoarse orders at them
in Sango. Then Laurent told us to sit down and embarked on a rambling,
barely comprehensible lecture.

There were only a few of us in a silent jungle, but he looked beyond
us and boomed, like he was addressing a stadium full of supporters.
The CAR needs " a guard dog" to "bark about justice" and not "the kind
of dog that leads you, which we have had in the past", he said. It is
the first of a string of odd metaphors. I kept trying to draw him back
to specifics: what does he want? He would only use abstract nouns –
justice, peace – but then occasionally he voiced his grievances
succinctly, before they were doused in metaphor and burned into
incomprehensibility again: " Bozize is burning our villages. A country
shouldn't burn its own country's villages. It is like a mother and a
child, a mother does not burn her child, it would be madness." His
eyes danced nervously around the jungle as we spoke, as if he was
waiting for a raid.

"France is the mother of Central Africa, and we are the child," he
said, oddly picking up the old racist metaphor and making it his own.
" The French must now change sides and support us, not Bozize. The
French are our parents, we want them to be good parents." This is a
sentiment that kept cropping up in the rubble of France's
interventions – an appeal to the French to suddenly become a
benevolent mother, acting on the side of good, despite all the
evidence. France and the CAR are, it strikes me at last, locked in a
sick embrace. The French crave the riches offered by this lush, hungry
patch of Africa, and the people of Central Africa pine for a deus ex
machina to enter stage right and resolve their internal disputes with
raw force.

Looking into the far distance, Laurent cries: "We say to France:
'Mother, we are your child, you must love us like a mother should. Do
not beat us.'" In the jungle, his voice echoes for miles, until it
dies, unheard.

*********************************************************************

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