A Reporter’s Perilous Trip To Document War In The Central African Republic


One evening in the fall of 2013, I was at home on Canada’s Atlantic coast with my wife and infant daughter when my phone rang. It was my old friend Lewis, an investigator who documented massacres in the Central African Republic for Human Rights Watch. Lewis was from upper-class Boston and lived in Rwanda, where we’d met. As a freelance reporter, I’d spent many late nights at his house in Kigali, drinking whisky, discussing Rwanda’s secret torture program and dissidents’ disappearances. He was calling now to talk about how we might drive into the conflict that was underway in the Central African Republic. It was perhaps even deadlier than the Syrian war, which at the time dominated newspaper headlines. But Central Africa, home to several long-running conflicts, rarely made the front page.

The war’s obscurity was galling, we thought—not only for the great tumult of the conflict, or for its many unrecorded killings, but for its historical importance. This marked a reversal of colonial history in Central Africa. The rebels who had taken over the country were mostly Muslim, and their victory marked the first Muslim rule here since powerful Islamic kingdoms were defeated by French armies in the late nineteenth century. Almost a hundred years after the French brutally established their African colonies, Muslims still remembered their ancestors’ humiliation, and sought to recover glory. There was now talk of a religious war, of Christians rising up to fight their new Muslim rulers, of old grievances resurfacing, of an implicit and long-unchallenged Christian dominance at stake.

Information about the violence was scarce, but we received word that the new Muslim government planned to block roads leading in and out of the capital. Soldiers destroyed radio station antennas and attacked local journalists. People feared speaking out, even when their families were assaulted. An entire village was destroyed; an incomplete report emerged weeks later. As violence thrashed across the country, its front line concealed, Central Africans hardly knew what was happening even a few kilometers from their homes.

The obscurity of the war made it hard to justify a reporting trip, which would require leaving my family behind. I also found it difficult to persuade editors to commission a story. “Which central African republic?” they asked. “It’s as if this country doesn’t exist for the average reader,” my wife said, when we spoke about the idea of my going. I’d have to finance the journey myself and hope that any payments I later received—from one of those editors—would cover my costs. And yet I kept finding myself at my desk, attempting to trace a route through the war’s deadliest sites, to let people know what was happening.

Satellites would help, Lewis suggested. Human Rights Watch had received satellite photos of an attack. He emailed them to me. We stared at two sets of images: one from a few weeks before and the other just days old. The photographs showed villages—clusters of houses. The houses were neat squares; in the older images the squares’ thatch roofs shone, reflecting the sun. In the recent photos, those same squares were dark. The thatch roofs had been burned off, and we looked into the houses’ bleak interiors. We plotted each photograph’s coordinates as points to investigate.

We would need to obtain visas at a French embassy—the Central African Republic’s former colonial master was still responsible for much of the country’s foreign affairs. We had partied a few months before with the French consul in Kigali; Lewis figured it would be easiest to process my visa through him. I agreed, hung up, and spread travel gear on my home’s orange carpet. I decided to fill a backpack with as much as I could carry—for hot and cool weather and a diversity of terrain, plus medication for malaria, for disinfecting wounds, and for ordinary stomach ailments, any of which could become critical if we were far from a clinic. I packed pills to purify water. I added rubber slippers, a pair of spectacles, and antihistamines for my dust allergies. That would be all. Traveling light made it easier for me to get into places.

Bangui, the capital, was quiet. The radio mostly played Congolese rumba, lacking news reports about the conflict. I had learned journalism a decade before, just south of the Central African Republic. My first job out of college was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as a stringer—a freelance journalist paid ten US cents per published word—for the Associated Press. Neither the Congo nor the Central African Republic made the news much, even when power shifted. From the outside, it could seem like an oblivion. Lewis and I had now come to document the past and present of this new violence, gathering testimony of people’s courage.

At the bar in our guesthouse, the Relais des Chasses, we met up with a local journalist named Thierry. He was a short, bald man. He wore a long-sleeve shirt, blue and with bright blue buttons, untucked over his jeans. His leather shoes were wrinkled, as if recently drenched. We ordered beer; the bottles glinted green on our table, under lights. Thierry told us there was a town called Gaga, west of Bangui, where soldiers had slaughtered over a hundred people.

“Has it been reported already?” I said. “How come we never heard of it?”

He said journalists didn’t dare broadcast the news. The government denied that its soldiers committed crimes; journalists let the massacres pass unreported. Thierry spoke without expression, without raising his voice. “This is how the government controls the narrative,” he said. “When no one speaks about the massacres, how will anyone know?”

If we believed the brief radio bulletins that flashed between long spells of rumba, we might think this country was largely at peace but for the odd crime. We would believe that no villages had been burned. And that the soldiers protected the people. This void of information was filled by a general paranoia about who might attack, when, from where, and how. Rumors spread about imminent attacks, or attacks that had just happened, all difficult to verify.

Meanwhile, war was being fought between the government and rebels. The president, Michel Djotodia, was a political theorist and polyglot. He shaped a movement known as the Seleka (“the alliance”) before it had seized power, a few months before. The mostly Muslim Seleka conquered the capital. Its soldiers committed atrocities as they tried to hold on to the provinces. When the Seleka’s forces were accused of war crimes, Djotodia officially abolished the Seleka—which meant that, henceforth, international reports could not mention the group. A group could not be responsible for crimes if it no longer existed.

The UN recognized Djotodia as the country’s legitimate authority and negotiated with him because he controlled the country’s most powerful military force. The UN, France, and the African Union had sent their soldiers—called international peacekeepers—to protect the president and his allies. The French flag flew atop Bangui’s airport, a symbol that the country’s former colonial power was here to “restore order.” Ordinary people, Thierry said, had gathered homemade weapons and formed a rebellion known as the anti-balaka (or “the anti-bullets”). At first glance, the government was vastly more powerful. But if the rebels—mostly Christian, as was roughly 80 percent of the country—could somehow kill Muslim officials and overcome the country’s Muslim minority, they had a chance to win.

“What do you think we should do?” I asked.

“Dunno, man,” Lewis replied, shaking his head. “Go in?” He looked at me, awaiting an answer, his breath heavy.

I asked Thierry if he would be willing to take us to Gaga, the site of the alleged massacre. Lewis added he would hire him as a research assistant.

Thierry said he had wanted to report on the massacre, but lacked the funds for a car and fuel. It was why he agreed to meet with us. We discussed his terms of payment, and he gave Lewis and me each an mporo, a collegial handshake followed by a click of the fingers—a good sign. His stern expression gave way to a smile. “I have been waiting for a chance to reach Gaga,” he said.

Our next task was to find transport. One of Lewis’s colleagues had recommended a driver named Suleiman, who asked us to meet him near Bangui’s central roundabout, at a pastry shop. We found him seated outside, his legs crossed as he ate the cream off a cupcake and licked his white-stained fingers. “Ho!” he greeted us. He stood, and we looked up: he towered over us.

“We talk?” Lewis said, and Suleiman nodded. We ordered black coffee and croissants, unfolded a map of the country, and traced our fingers along the road to Gaga. “That’s okay,” Suleiman said, “but where from there?”

He pointed out many roads that had been blocked, and others that were too dangerous. He indicated off-map routes. “You’ll have to trust me,” he said. It was true: in many places

we would have no cellphone network, and our compasses would be useless, because the Central African Republic lay over a “magnetic anomaly”—a variation in magnetic fields caused by changes in the underlying rock. (This anomaly extended over nearly 70 percent of the Central African Republic, centered at Bangui, and was the largest in Africa.)

Suleiman had a pickup truck—clean, spotless, white. We agreed to leave the next day. Lewis and I had done as well as we could have hoped: we had a destination and a crew. In the evening, Thierry took a bus home, while Suleiman drove Lewis and me to a small church that operated a guesthouse for humanitarian and religious travelers. Two church sisters received us. Two kittens rested in the church’s courtyard.

The next morning, our brand-new team, still unfamiliar with one another, drove out to investigate Thierry’s report of a massacre. We left behind Bangui’s comforting isolation, its ignorance, elegant hotels, and tranquil neighborhoods. Eventually, we stopped seeing people. The emptiness felt like a sign of danger. But we didn’t know why, and there was no one to ask. Suleiman sped up in case road bandits planned an ambush.

We passed a torture center named Guantanamo, after the US military prison in Cuba. Thierry said it was notorious, and Lewis described it as a hell where prisoners were held in deep pits that contained scorpion nests. From the highway we saw its cement buildings surrounded by palm trees. Thierry held his voice recorder in his lap, expecting at any moment to come upon news. There was smoke in the air. “Rebels,” Suleiman said.

“So close to Bangui?” I asked.

“They’re violent.”

I said, “But the government burns the villages.”

“No, it’s the dry season. Thatch roofs catch fire spontaneously.” Suleiman’s voice quivered.

Lewis glanced at me from the front seat. So we had discovered that our driver was a government supporter. I quickly tried to pacify Suleiman, saying, “The government is doing a difficult job.”

I reached behind my head and grabbed a box of LU Petit Écolier milk chocolate cookies, which we’d bought at a supermarket in Bangui. I passed it around. Then I turned the radio’s dial, switching from Suleiman’s music to the news on the Ndeke Luka radio station, one of the country’s most reliable, funded by the United Nations. A newsreader spoke about “Opération Hibou”—Operation Owl—a government effort to round up rebels and hold them in an unmarked building behind the Air France office. “Soldiers are torturing rebels in there,” Thierry said.

“Rebellion itself is illegal,” Suleiman said. “They signed up to be killed.”

A roadblock appeared and soldiers waved us to a stop. They demanded our ordre de mission: a one-page relic of the colonial French bureaucracy that listed our names, our purpose for traveling, and our vehicle’s license plate number, all stamped and signed by the country’s police chief. Lewis had arranged it for us in Bangui. Human Rights Watch’s heft, and its ties to the US government, had helped us obtain this permission to travel through the war.

Roadblocks, one by one, registered our passage toward Gaga. We collected a pink receipt for each checkpoint payment. “What’s happening at Gaga?” Lewis asked a soldier collecting our money at the first stop. “Where’s that?” the man replied. At the next checkpoint, the soldier said, “Never heard of it.”

Trees crowded our vehicle and thudded against our roof and windows, the branches bending and swinging into us. The tiring percussion lasted about half an hour. Suddenly the foliage opened up and we emerged out on a hilltop. This was Gaga. We had reached the front line. Smoke rose from the jungle in columns. Mortar bombs made resonant explosions. Suleiman parked at a whitewashed building, the government base. A rumble startled us: three soldiers drove motorcycles down the hill. A soldier pointed us to a giant mango tree. The base’s commander ordered his men to draw us chairs.

I declined the seat and asked the commander’s permission to follow soldiers down the hill. Lewis wanted to interview the commander about the battle. So I would have to go alone. The commander seemed not to care; he took off his camouflage cap, rubbed his forehead, and waved me down. I collected my notebook and some cash from our vehicle. “It’s safer here, with the government,” Suleiman said. But I felt I would learn little unless I strayed. Suleiman took up position at the truck, in case we needed to leave in a hurry.

The hill was yellow, with cracks running across it. I followed the valleys made by rainwater flowing down, hopping from ridge to little ridge until I got over to its other side. I reached Gaga’s outskirts, and circled past its houses. A pit was filled with white fluid and reeked of chemicals. I peered inside. This was how health authorities disinfected mass graves.

From behind a house I heard a noise, which I followed, through an alley, to find myself in a procession of people. They were fleeing Gaga through an opening in the jungle wall, into its darkness. Gunfire sounded in bursts. I asked a man in the procession what was happening. He said Gaga’s residents expected another massacre. Parents gently nudged children ahead, their babies tied tight to their backs, the babies’ cheeks pressed flat against the spines. They had taken apart their homes; on their heads, they carried cooking pots and rolled-up tin roofs. The jungle terrain was harsh, but safer than the roads. A cobbler sewed frantically, working thick cord and rubber—he was this battle’s hero. People urged him to hurry up so they could flee.

Then I smelled smoke. Bombs resonated like thunder. The noise made me look up to see the sun hanging in the blue sky, like a jewel. Our procession reached a stream. A teenager up to his ankles in the water stopped me. “I saw you in Gaga,” he said. “Talking to people.”

“I’m reporting on the massacre,” I said.

“My name is Moussumba, Jean Noël.” He said the name solemnly, formally. “I’ll take you inside where we can talk about it.”

Light filtered in through the jungle canopy, casting a pattern of shadows over our bodies. The bombs sounded increasingly terrifying; gunfire came as a succession of hisses, a rattle moving to and fro across our range of hearing. We passed men carrying guns sitting on the forest floor and tying bandages over fresh wounds. Their white gauze was covered in dust and dried blood. They were rebel fighters, the anti-balaka. I heard voices from the trees; when I tried to peer within, people yelled at me. “Don’t look!” Jean Noël shouted. “Don’t look at where the people are hiding!”

We ran through alleyways hacked out through the jungle. Gaga’s residents had built a new, hidden city here. It had no signposts. The paths did not bear names. The people of Gaga no longer found security in openness, or in community. So Gaga had been turned inside out, and families now sought isolation, the refuge of anonymity. No wonder this massacre had been so hard to track down. Its survivors had retreated within.

Jean Noël’s family appeared in a clearing. His father insisted on serving me tea. With the shooting as background noise, he showed me his half-built home, a dome-shaped structure made of branches and large leaves: “Bakwa,” he said, “from a flowering tree.” His possessions were hidden among the branches: a toothbrush, a Bible, three batteries bound by a rubber band and connected to a naked bulb. Jean Noël’s father and brother told me, as we sipped from melamine cups, that the massacre had made Gaga “sinistré”—a disaster zone. Soldiers had killed a hundred young men to warn the rebels not to resist. They had gone house to house, and shot those who had fled. “They left our streets littered with cadavers,” the father said. “They slit our throats like animals.” He swore they would take back Gaga, that the rebels would win.

I thanked the family and departed. Then I headed back toward Gaga, now a ghost town, its streets deserted. Many of the houses were locked; their doors were painted bright yellow, blue, and red. Rockets sounded behind me, one after the other, four in all. Smoke now rose from the forest closer to Gaga. I ran, like an animal exposed, back to my group.

The commander looked irritated. He was interrogating a large man. I nudged Lewis. “Who is that?”

“Gaga’s prefect,” he said. “Name is Simplice.”

The commander ordered Simpice to take out a notebook, then dictated a message: “I wish my citizens joy. Our soldiers are about to win this battle. Everyone should stay indoors until I order that they should leave. Anyone caught outside will be arrested as a rebel sympathizer.”

A boy soldier appeared, strutting and looking sideways, as if soliciting applause from his unit. Holding a whip in his left hand, he offered me a handshake with his right. “Tony Montana,” he said, in an affected Italian-meets-Cuban accent. I nodded. Tony frowned. “You don’t know that movie?” His voice hadn’t dropped. He was maybe thirteen years old. “I want to be méchant,” he said. “Cruel, like Al Pacino in Scarface.”

In moments, a pickup truck burst over the hilltop. Armed boys on its back wore sunglasses and necklaces of bullets. Their faces and arms were scarred. Government reinforcements had arrived.

Lewis wrote up a brief about the massacre, mentioning the mass grave with disinfectant that I had found, and sent it to his office in New York. Human Rights Watch would relay his information, in an official complaint, to the Central African government and, in a separate report, to the governments of the United States and France—which was still seen as “responsible” for the chaos here—and the secretary-general of the United Nations. Together the world would threaten to withdraw financial aid and international peacekeepers from the Central African Republic if the violence did not stop. I began writing a magazine piece. Thierry showed Lewis and me pictures of his fiancée. He was saving up to pay for his wedding, he said. His salary from our journey would help.

We felt the satisfaction of our journey’s first success. But later, I found Suleiman on the phone, pacing and gesticulating. He was speaking about the rebels. I dashed for Lewis. We signaled for Suleiman to hang up.

Suleiman strode up to me and stood against my chest. “What?”

“Who was that?”

“A friend.”

“Talking about anti-balaka? You know we can’t do that.”

“I can’t support my government?” he said. “Or protect my people?” He smirked. “Will you run in and save my wife and children when those anti-balaka reach Bangui?”

He was right. And yet I realized then that we couldn’t keep him around. He made us a rebel target by snitching on them. Lewis paid him the rest of his salary, and a couple of days’ extra.

In his place, Lewis and I would likely have done as he had. He had little choice. Nor did we. Suleiman knew safety was our priority. We watched him get into his pickup and drive off.

Adifferent day, a different driver: Yusuf was a Muslim guy in his mid-forties. We’d picked him up, along with a four-by-four, at a car dealership in Bangui. “Do him a favor and please give him some job,” the man at the dealership had said. Lewis described our mission. To everything, Yusuf had nodded.

Our destination was a secretive rebel base known as Point Kilometre 100, or PK100. It was situated about a hundred kilometers north of Bangui’s main Roundabout of the Republic, from which all the country’s distances are measured. Somewhere along National Highway 4, we came upon a giant mango tree. In front of it, a group of anti-balaka blocked us. More fighters emerged behind. Yusuf could not move in either direction, so he stopped. After a few seconds he cut our engine. A tall, broad-shouldered man in military camouflage yelled. I pushed my door open a crack. About three hundred guns pointed at me.

The tall man, the commander, ordered his men to encircle us. “You lied!” he said. “You tricked us!”

Rattled, I yelled back, “Who do you think we are?” Lewis held up our ordre de mission.

The commander said, “You’re giving the government our military secrets.”

Had Suleiman’s spying been discovered? I wondered. That day, unbeknownst to us, the government was attacking PK100. The rebels believed the government had sent us as scouts, under the guise of a humanitarian mission, to collect military intelligence. “The government is following you, and the soldiers have already left Bangui,” the commander said. “You stay on this road so when they get here they’ll shoot you first.”

Thierry, Lewis, and I looked at one another. I glanced down at my cellphone, sliding it out of my pants pocket. We were out of range. There was no sign of the nearest village. So I pulled out my notebook and wrote down what I saw.

Thierry gestured to the mango tree. It was noon, and the sun was oppressive. We needed shade. “You can’t leave,” the commander told us, “until the government attacks us.”

“Are you going after the Muslims?” I asked.

The commander unfolded our ordre de mission, carefully, so as not to tear it along its many creases. He read through our permissions, and inspected each of its red, orange, and black government stamps.

“Can we move?” I said.

He looked up.

“To the mango tree,” I said. “We can talk in the shade.”

He hesitated, and then pointed us to a log that had been placed as a seat beneath the tree. Lewis, Thierry, and I started walking over. But Yusuf nudged me, and stayed by the car. The commander and fighters watched him. Yusuf was at special risk, here, as a Muslim. The commander sat before us in a plastic chair. “So who are you?” he asked.

A rebel to my left held his rifle at his hip, pointing it at me. When he saw that I had noticed, he smiled. The fighters behind me drew up closer. I heard their feet shuffle behind my back. “Tell him to lower his rifle,” I said.

The commander looked over at the fighter.

“I can’t talk while a gun is aimed at me,” I said.

The commander gestured, and the rebel stared at me as he dropped his rifle to his feet. I felt I had claimed a second small victory.

Now Lewis started to work the commander. “Our team is helping your cause,” he said. He pulled out a Human Rights Watch brochure. “Look at this report about a church burning,” he said. “And this other report about massacres by soldiers. We have documented the government’s crimes.”

Thierry looked concerned. The commander nodded at Lewis. I asked, “So we’re just waiting for the battle to start?”

The commander turned to his fighters and ordered them to deploy as a perimeter at some distance around us. The log’s bark felt rough on my buttocks. I began to shake my leg. Lewis stood and spoke politely. “We have completed our reporting here, and will take our leave.”

The commander smirked. His walkie-talkie crackled. He spoke into it, and Thierry translated for us. “The soldiers are en route.” The drumbeat continued. We ran out of time. “Where will we hide from the soldiers?” I asked Thierry. “In the trees?”

“We have very much enjoyed our conversation,” Lewis said, “and it’s time for us to leave.” The commander grumbled, his words unintelligible. Thierry stood and pressed Lewis down by his shoulders. Lewis resisted.

I yelled, “Lewis, sit the fuck down!” He went mute.

The commander’s face twitched. “You won’t leave this place, because now I have proof of your lies,” the commander said. He clutched our ordre de mission: our four-by-four’s license plate did not match the one listed. We had fired Suleiman, but our paperwork still had his plate number. “So whose vehicle are you driving?” he asked. “Who sent you here?”

A ringing started in my head. “Shitshitshit.”

“Your driver’s name is not mentioned,” he added.

“You’re going to have us killed because of paperwork?” I started to laugh.

“Why do you show me a government ordre de mission,” the commander said, “if you are independent of the government?”

It was an illogical argument, and I became frightened. “We made a serious mistake,” I said. “With your permission, we will return to Bangui and correct our papers.”

In a surreal turn, the commander agreed. “Respect our laws,” he said, “and correct your paperwork.”

We were almost free. Then I asked, with my article in mind, “Are you going after the Muslims?”

“This government can’t rule if there are no Muslims left to support them,” he said. “We can’t win in any other way.” But Muslims constituted nearly 15 percent of the country’s population, more than half a million people. All at once, I saw the commander’s vision come alive. “Muslim, Muslim,” his fighters chanted, and turned to face Yusuf.

One of them had recognized Yusuf from the dealership. They circled our four-by-four. Yusuf stared at the highway. The commander grew incensed: “You brought a Muslim here? So you are working for the government. What’s his name?”

I called out. “Yusuf!” He turned. “Come and sit here.” I patted the empty place next to

me on the log. He refused to make eye contact. The anti-balaka fighters jeered and photographed him on their phones. “Muslim, Muslim!” Yusuf stepped toward me. The rebels entered our four-by-four.

I had to stop them now. “Tell your men to step away,” I told the commander. A fighter held up a cellphone I had kept in our glove compartment. I shouted, “Put it back!” Another fighter wagged his finger at me. Yusuf knelt on the ground and held my finger. He prostrated and sat up and mumbled his prayers. Then he looked up at me and said, “Je suis prêt”—I am ready. “If they want to take me, they can.”

“Don’t say that,” I said, squeezing his finger. “No one’s going to die.”

My words lacked conviction. The fighters shuffled close in behind me. I heard a murmur: “Tuons-les”—Kill them. I felt they were about to shoot. My back made a large target for the anti-balaka. My spine felt the bullet about to come.

I looked up at the mango tree’s green canopy. Everything here suddenly felt sacred. And I had the calm sense that this was where I could die. My body would be thrown into a ditch by the side of this road. Who knew how long it would be before, perhaps, a French peacekeeping patrol found us.

I needed to assert myself a last time. I stood up from the log. I had little to lose. The commander was surprised and, sensing my purpose, stood to face me. “Commandant,” I said. “If anything happens to me, or anyone here with me, it will be very bad for you.” I repeated: “Ça sera très grave pour vous.”

His eyes shifted, then stared straight into mine. I stared back. “Lower your guns,” he told his men. He waved his hands downward. “Guns down!” But his fighters did not obey and still pointed their rifles at us. They didn’t trust us.

The commander said, “You can go, but your driver Yusuf stays here.” He needed to appease his men’s restlessness after working them up.

Lewis jumped to his feet. “We’re all leaving together, or no one leaves,” he said. I flashed him a thumbs-up. I felt that we were on the cusp of getting out. “There are human rights laws governing this war,” Lewis told the commander. “Threatening a civilian is a violation.”

“We take everything that’s in your vehicle,” the commander finally offered. His fighters agitated, looking for some victory. I pointed to our four-by-four. The commander gave a signal and his fighters squeezed, many at a time, through our doorways, grabbing our mosquito nets, mattresses, flashlights, slippers, medicines, chocolates, and biscuits. Each compartment in the four-by-four was picked clean. The anti-balaka, impoverished even in their headquarters, showed their desperation.

The commander turned his walkie-talkie’s dial: a report came in. And he began to yell. Someone had spotted the soldiers’ convoy. We bundled ourselves into the four-by-four and Yusuf fired up the engine.

The forest closed in on us. We drove through its dark passage. I felt I was emerging through a perilous canal, through a terrible journey, into the world. The stark abandonment faded, and I regained a sense that I was somebody, with a family and parents, that I came from somewhere and had a story to tell. The trees shielded me from danger. The highway led us out.

This piece is adapted from Anjan Sundaram’s new book, Breakup: A Marriage in Wartime.