France’s 40 year ongoing genocide of Central Africa

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Inside France’s secret war

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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

Friday, 5 October 2007 , by Johann Hari in Birao, Central African Republic

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?

In 2003, François Bozize, a general, seized power in the Central African Republic and is still president. In March 2003, the escort of the then-new president was hailed by residents of a suburb of Bangui, above. {NYtimes}
In 2003, François Bozize, a general, seized power in the Central African Republic and is still president. In March 2003, the escort of the then-new president was hailed by residents of a suburb of Bangui, above. {NYtimes}

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.

Barthélemy Boganda (4 April 1910 – 29 March 1959), 1st Prime Minister of the Central African Republic autonomous territory
Barthélemy Boganda (4 April 1910 – 29 March 1959), 1st Prime Minister of the Central African Republic autonomous territory

“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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