Caught in the Crossfire

Three shooting stars lit up the sky — one right after the other. In Bambari, a small town of 40,000 in the Central African Republic (CAR), the lack of electricity made the sky seem darker and the stars more impressive than any I’d ever seen.

Poster of men sitting - text about peace
A sign outside a Bangui radio station encourages peace. Photo credit: Mat Jacob/Internews

I was grateful to have made it to Bambari. Since at least 2013, when sectarian violence erupted between Christian and Muslim militias in CAR, it’s not a place that many Westerners — even aid workers — get to. Bambari is the stronghold of the Muslim militia, the ex-Seleka. Country-wide, more than 900,000 people have been displaced in sectarian violence. War crimes, and crimes against humanity, have been investigated and found.

I was in Bambari in August. Since then, major violence has erupted again in the capital Bangui, further disrupting an already fragile process of reconciliation and political transition. But that night, my mind was not on violence. I was in Bambari for the formal opening ceremony of a radio station that symbolized stability and community. A previous radio station in the town had once been burned to the ground during inter-communal violence. Now, Radio Lego ti la Ouaka (“Voice of Ouaka”) stands as a result of combined efforts of local Muslims and Christians. The new station is a point of pride, and hope, in the city.

Two programs taped to the wall
The program schedule at Radio Lego ti la Ouaka . Photo credit: Mat Jacob/Internews

Internews’ country director in CAR, Mathias, and our Bambari-based project director, Theophane, and I were all at the compound of the UN Populations Fund (UNFPA) to have a meeting with the local radio management committee. During this meeting, I found out that I was expected to make a speech, handing over the key to the building to the mayor and giving out several shortwave radios (I thought about how amazingly complicated it had been to even get the radios shipped here) the next day at the ceremony. Everything about operating in CAR is complex, but today — people were excited. The local people we met with were thrilled to meet me and their pride over the radio station was unmistakable.

An Internews sign is tacked to a tree
A tree marks the entrance to Radio Lego ti la Ouaka. Photo credit: Mat Jacob/Internews

But the ceremony would not take place that next day as planned. As the meeting was wrapping up, we heard over the UN radios that something was happening in town and everyone needed to stay put until things calmed down. We heard that a Muslim taxi driver was killed and Muslim youth were starting to get violent. Then we heard that four Christians were killed in retaliation. It seemed to come out of nowhere. On our travels through town the day before, there hadn’t been any sign of problems. It was amazing to experience how quickly the mood can shift from excitement to anxiety. All of this violence was happening just a few miles down the road. We couldn’t see anything, we couldn’t hear anything — was it even really happening?

The local officials went home. Our small team was in lock-down. Our belongings were across town at the Red Cross, where we’d spent last night, and it was out of the question to go there. UNFPA didn’t have room for us. We called and found a potential space at Triangle, a French NGO nearby.

It was starting to get dark, and for the first time I started to feel really rattled when a UNFPA staff member said, “You guys need to leave NOW. Bambari is not safe at night!”

In a city with almost no electricity, darkness at 6 pm feels like midnight. As we started down the road, we saw a fallen tree blocking the road. We managed to get around it and very quickly encountered another. Trees in the road are often intentional traps. When cars hit them and have to stop, thieves swarm the vehicle and very bad things can happen. Fortunately, this did not happen but we had to figure out where to go, since going to Triangle was not an option.

We decided to head to the Catholic mission, a ten-minute drive that seemed to take a lifetime. The mission had space for us, and kind people, including a few aid workers who were holed up there too. We ate all our meals together and they were great company. But accommodations were basic — at one point I thought we might be better off sleeping on the ground, but Theophane said sleeping there wasn’t an option: there are snakes and scorpions. Great.

We also heard that more than 30 people were killed last July, at this site. It was basically serving as a refugee camp when a group of rebels came, shot up the place, and even tried to set it on fire.

Ruins of a bombed radio station
Weeds have grown over the charred remains of Bambari’s previous radio station, targeted by violence in 2014. Photo credit: Mat Jacob/Internews

We started to get more information on the very real violence nearby. We learned that when the retaliatory killing began, the local Red Cross arrived to pick up the injured in their ambulance. The crowd attacked the ambulance, removing and killing the injured and stabbing the local head of the Red Cross, the same man who had welcomed us the morning before. Fortunately, his wounds were not life threatening, but they were serious enough to warrant evacuation. We thought we might be able to get on the same plane.

Over the next couple of days, this option fell apart. We couldn’t move. Rumors started to spread that Christian militias were massing and planning to descend on Bambari. If this happened, we would be in the middle of a war. We realized we needed a plan to get out.

A man works on a laptop computer
At Radio Lego ti la Ouaka, editing a message of peace to air in Bambari. Photo credit: Mat Jacob/Internews

At the same time, we were trying to get community leaders to speak on the radio to try to ease tensions. As we’ve seen with other Internews projects around the world, the radio can be an important tool in peace-building, and in tamping down dangerous rumors.

The President of the radio management committee, who is a Muslim woman, agreed to speak on the radio and deliver a message of peace to both sides of the ongoing conflict. In one tense trip, Theophane picked up the President and took her to the radio station, and we were also able to get to the Red Cross, retrieve our belongings (and quickly shower — the best shower of my life!). We learned that the Red Cross had already evacuated.

Now, our only departure option was to pay for Aviation Sans Frontiers to come get us. Our colleague in Bangui spoke with the pilot who said he did not want to come. Finally, he agreed on two conditions. First, we had to be at the airport before he left Bangui. Second, the UN soldiers (MINUSCA) had to secure the runway and we had to be ready to go as soon as the plane landed. We agreed.

But to get to the airstrip, we had to traverse through the Muslim side of town, cross the one bridge over the river and go all the way through the Christian quarter. We heard that there were roadblocks up all over the city. How were we going to get through the Christian militia (Anti-Balaka) roadblocks? The priest at the Catholic mission agreed to help us. We could take the Catholic mission vehicle and say that we were his guests. We made all the arrangements and planned to leave the mission at 8am on Sunday. None of us really slept that night.

The next morning was pretty tense. We knew we had a serious situation ahead of us. Most of the rebels on both sides are young and under the influence of drugs and alcohol. One common practice is putting a handful of Tramadol pills, a cheap painkiller, into their morning Nescafe. There is no reasoning with them.

But we absolutely couldn’t wait any longer. So we all packed into the car. In the front passenger seat were two Central Africans that had been with us the entire time — a radio technician and the president of the association of community radio stations in the Central African Republic. Theophane and Mathias made me sit in the middle in back as I was obviously not central African and could be a target. I said a quick prayer, took a deep breath and off we went.

Within two minutes we hit the first roadblock. We got through that and one more, on the Muslim side. But we knew once we crossed the bridge into the Christian area it would be tougher. The Anti-Balaka were angry and looking for revenge. Plus, there were no UN troops on the other side of the bridge. We hoped that being in the mission vehicle, as guests of the priest, would be enough.

It was the longest ride of my life. After the bridge, we went through about 20 roadblocks. Everywhere we looked, people were armed.

Kids, as young as ten years old, wielded machetes, guns and other homemade weapons. Their eyes were glazed as they stared at us passing by. It was horrifying.

As we were getting close to the airport, we saw a large gathering at one roadblock. My colleague Mathias is from Burundi, with very light features. As we approached the roadblock, we heard a kid yell, “A Chadian!” and he pointed at Mathias. (There are lots of young Muslims in Bambari who have come from Chad and they have often been targeted as the perceived cause of conflict).

Within a split second, some of the crowd gathered at the roadblock started coming at our vehicle. They were about to open the door, intent on dragging Mathias out of the car. But the driver and our friends in the front seat yelled, “No, he’s a Christian! He is with us. He is with the priest.” Mercifully, they stopped.

We finally got to the airstrip, which also doubles as the UN guard base camp, held by a contingent of Congolese soldiers. We brought our luggage to the runway, to wait for the plane, which was due in the next hour.

The plane didn’t come.

Mathias, who speaks Swahili, made friends with the Congolese Lieutenant. Language, and the case of beer that Mathias secured, ensured that the Congolese took very good care of us, sharing their food and offering us cots to sleep on.

As night fell, we could hear activity over the soldier’s radios. It was getting hot in Bambari again. Apparently the French NGO Triangle’s compound was getting attacked and people were trying to gain entry. As far as we heard, the UN troops in the area were able to repel the people attacking the compound and no one from Triangle was hurt. But the city remained tense.

Finally the morning came. We ate breakfast and received confirmation that the plane had left Bangui. An hour later, we could hear the plane in the air. The 8-seat Aviation Sans Frontiers plane was a beautiful sight. Once on board, we sat back and watched the IDP camps pass by, and after a few minutes saw nothing but lush green forest under us.

Aerial view of Bangui
Bangui from above. Photo credit: Mat Jacob/Internews

I was lucky. And I am grateful. Life in Bambari is deeply challenging and dangerous, and I am thankful that I was able to go and show our support for our partners there. They live with enormous uncertainty and, in the midst of it, they maintain a radio station that communicates messages of peace. I understand now, even better than before, what a feat of courage that is.

Mat Jacob is Africa Program Operations Manager for Internews.

Banner photo: The airplane that carried me to Bambari, a difficult place to visit. Photo credit: Mat Jacob/Internews

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)