Photos and video by Robert King
We ran across dirt roads, pausing every so often to seek shelter behind mud-brick walls and giant tree trunks as the sounds of heavy machine guns echoed all around. We couldn’t tell where the bullets were coming from, or whether the main roads were safe. Behind us in the creeping dark, two critically injured men lay bleeding in the back of our pickup truck. We’d had to abandon it, and them, as the firing drew closer.
We’d been following a French military convoy after hearing initial reports that there was sporadic firing in the Bangui neighborhood of Gobongo. Eventually we stopped following, and while pausing briefly on the side of the main road, we saw a FOMAC convoy coming up behind us, and let them pass. “It’s bad FOMAC,” our fixer told us. FOMAC is a multinational African peacekeeping force currently stationed in CAR, but some of its ranks have been infiltrated by Chadian fighters who helped overthrow the CAR president last March as members of the ex-rebel group Séléka.
The convoy stopped short ahead of us, then turned and began firing into residential neighborhoods with heavy machine guns. Civilians scattered, running for cover.
I was told that earlier in the day, anti-balaka forces—the mostly Christian militias fighting against the mostly Muslim ex-rebels of Séléka—had thrown a grenade at a convoy of Chadian fighters, but I saw no anti-balaka in Gobongo. We pulled a u-turn and quickly headed down a side road. All around us we heard the heavy thud of big guns and the pops of small arms.
Residents of the neighborhood directed us toward two wounded men who they said had no way of getting medical attention; they pleaded with us to take the injured to the hospital. Both victims were young, probably teenagers. One had a stomach wound, the other was hit in the leg. We loaded them into the back of our pickup truck.
The residents of the neighborhood told us they deal with this every night, as Chadian FOMAC forces shoot at them indiscriminately.
Gunfire still echoed in every direction. The dirt roads grew increasingly narrow, the gunfire increasingly closer and more frequent. Eventually we had no choice but to get out of the truck and seek cover. We were told the roads were not safe, that Chadian FOMAC forces were everywhere.
It was getting dark, and it was well past the 6 PM curfew. A group of locals gathered around us. They showed us where to go, where to duck, where to seek cover. The gunfire slowed. About 30 people gathered in a dirt square between a few small houses. This way wasn’t safe, they said. That way wasn’t safe. We heard French helicopters in the distance. We needed to get out.
Still, we had no choice but to wait for about an hour, until the gunfire died down and all we heard were RPGs firing every 10 minutes or so. A group of locals then volunteered to lead us to a nearby Catholic church compound, already home to 15,000 people who’d been driven from their homes. We would go on foot to make sure the roads were safe, then we would call for the truck. Six of us set off in the dark, guided by the occasional light from a cell phone.
We skulked through the dark, tripping over divots and tree branches, pausing at every open crossing as I cursed my choice of a khaki shirt, which seemed to glow white in the moonlight.
When we reached the church, we saw thousands of people cowering inside, behind the locked gates. The priest in charge received us kindly, as did the civilians there seeking shelter. The lucky ones had mats to sit on. There was already one wounded man and one dead man there when we arrived. We called the driver to let him know the road was safe, and he brought the two wounded young men to the gates.
Shortly after they arrived, both men died as a result of their wounds.
There was more gunfire outside the church gates. Whenever the rounds sounded like they were getting close, people picked up and huddled farther away from the gates at the back of the compound.
Almost no children cried, but adults did—including the families of the wounded men. I couldn’t make out what they were saying as they sobbed, though I heard the phrase “Chadian FOMAC” repeated often then and throughout the night.
We’d been experiencing for three hours what people in Bangui have experienced for more than nine months under Séléka rule, and it was absolutely harrowing. However, as we were running and hiding, some of the civilians we were with laughed, and told me not to stress out.
At one point as I cowered behind a wall, a boy who couldn’t have been older than 10 looked at me, shook his head, and laughed. It was the same thing someone would do to the stranger next to him in an especially long line while last-minute Christmas shopping. This was simply what people did in Gobongo. Welcome to the neighborhood.
The French military eventually picked us up from the church and brought us to safety. I’m told by my fixer, but cannot confirm, that seven more people were killed in front of the church at about 4am. Today, in reprisal attacks, anti-balaka forces attacked Chadian FOMAC and Muslim neighborhoods, killing at least 12 people. The cycle of revenge killings continues, and shows no signs of stopping.
Fifteen minutes before we first stumbled into the initial fire, we had left a press conference given by US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. She said the transitional government would help set up a free election in 2015. She stressed the need for accountability for the atrocities committed.
I asked her if it wasn’t sending mixed messages, to stress the need for accountability while letting President Djotodia, the man who led the Séléka last March as they stormed Bangui and overthrew the sitting president, to continue to hold office.
“What is very important, I think, is that he and the other transitional leaders take steps to show the people that every crime committed here is one that this government takes seriously,” Power told me. “As I mentioned, we are very clear, the international community is very clear, that elections need to occur by February 2015 at the latest, and we are also very clear that the terms of those accords mean that none of the transitional figures will be in power on the backside of those accords.
Unfortunately, that answer is not one that will be acceptable to the people of Bangui, like those who saved us last night. Every day Djotodia remains president of the country is a day they see no progress towards peace.
Shortly after Ambassador Power finished her press conference, an SUV flanked by Chadian FOMAC careened onto the airport tarmac. The convoy came to a stop, and out of the SUV stepped the CAR First Lady and the rest of Djotodia’s family.
A possible sign of the uneasiness at the highest levels of power in the country, they were boarding a flight to Benin.