Story

Dividing Lines

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A sign at the entrance to the camp in Bria warns against bringing in weapons. Image by Jack Losh. Central African Republic, 2018.

A sign at the entrance to the camp in Bria warns against bringing in weapons. Image by Jack Losh. Central African Republic, 2018.

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The prefab container is cool inside, its shelves packed with overpriced cans of Heineken, bags of tagliatelle, bottles of shampoo. A Kenyan cashier serves the customers – a Moroccan, a Rwandan and a Frenchman – just some of the nationalities living at this United Nations base, deployed deep in a rebel-held area of the Central African Republic (CAR). Taped to the door of this air-conditioned minimart is a poster, advertising a hotline to call if peacekeepers are suspected of raping or abusing civilians. NON! the poster reads. EXPLOITATION ET ABUS SEXUELS = CRIMES.

Full of expensive Western products, this small convenience store is only a hundred odd metres from a displaced persons camp that today houses some 55,000 people. For them, though, kept out by high walls and coils of concertina wire, the shop may as well be in Europe.

Nearby, a unit of peacekeepers drawn from Gabon’s armed forces is preparing for patrol. Each man straps on a blue helmet and flak jacket then climbs onto the back of a 4 x 4. The vehicle trundles over the red earth, through the outer perimeter and into the displacement camp known as ‘PK3’. Thousands of families have sought shelter here from a vicious, multi-sided civil war that rages in surrounding villages and communities across this former French colony. Since 2013, CAR has been ravaged by clashes between mainly-Christian militia – known as the ‘Anti-Balaka’ – and Muslim rebels of the now-disbanded ‘Seleka’ alliance.

In Bria, the UN peacekeepers have a mandate to protect civilians from violence that regularly erupts between rival militias. These include the well-armed and well-structured FPRC rebel group – which currently holds the area and formerly belonged to the Seleka coalition – and various pockets of Anti-Balaka militants, who present another layer of insurgency within this unstable and partitioned town. Government forces are nowhere to be seen, mainly confined to the capital, Bangui, some 300 miles away.

Even in PK3 – a supposed sanctuary from the turmoil – self-defence militias have sprung up to combat rival armed groups, but are now persecuting the very people they claim to protect. Insiders accuse UN forces of failing to keep the peace.

The Gabonese Blue Helmets push deeper into the camp's warren of small huts and filthy tarpaulins. Sitting up front, clutching an assault rifle, is a soldier who gives his name as Saint-Esprit. His eyes are sunken with tiredness, his helmet caked in grime. ‘All are attacking all,’ he says. ‘The Seleka fight each other. The Anti-Balaka fight each other. The Seleka fight the Anti-Balaka. It is madness. It is chaos.’

The peacekeepers drive out from the camp and down a long, potholed track past scores of ruined homes. Every small, red-brick building in this abandoned neighbourhood is damaged – each thatched roof stolen, torched or removed for safekeeping by the fugitive owners. The bodies that lay in the streets following brutal attacks last summer have been removed, though a tense atmosphere remains. The road continues over a stream in which families wash their clothes, past a ramshackle hospital and into the town centre – a dusty strip of low-rise shops where soldiers from the region’s dominant rebel faction mill around.

This is a town torn apart. Rival groups hold different zones, forging flimsy alliances and perpetuating dangerous divisions. Reprisals are an everyday reality for the besieged population. Groups of armed men in one zone stop ambulances carrying patients from areas held by their enemy, preventing unwell or injured civilians from receiving urgent treatment at the town’s sole, overstretched hospital. A family with a sick child wishing to reach doctors ‘can put their lives in immediate danger,’ says Anne-Marie Boyeldieu, CAR’s head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières. ‘Moving around the town amounts to crossing front-lines and exposing patients to attack.’

Bria is not the only place blighted by such rifts. All of CAR is divided like this – steeped in disorder and located in the remote and turbulent heart of the continent. This fragmented country is to Africa what the ‘-stans’ are to Asia: stark, peripheral, occasionally bloody. An outpost of empires.

Numerous coups and rebellions have wracked the country since it gained independence from France in 1960; the latest crisis erupted in 2013. Since 2003, an ageing and corrupted general called François Bozizé had been ruling the country after taking power by force. This kleptocrat from the Christian majority governed CAR by consolidating power among his cronies while sidelining the country’s Muslim minority, buying off the leaders of numerous rebellions that bloomed in his rotten realm, which, by the end of his decade of misrule, ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world. But, eventually, he overplayed his hand. In March 2013, he was ousted by the ‘Seleka’ coalition of rebels, which drew in Muslims from CAR’s marginalised north-east and mercenaries from neighbouring Chad and Sudan.

Anti-Balaka militias – raised from mainly Christian and animist communities – carried out revenge attacks against Muslim communities, with thousands killed in the mayhem. An international peacekeeping deployment, followed by elections in 2016, brought a lull to the fighting, but suffered from a slew of sexual abuse allegations as peacekeepers crossed the line from protector to perpetrator. Violence escalated later that year and spread throughout the country as the Seleka coalition began fragmenting into competing factions, terrorising civilian communities with impunity. In 2017, armed groups killed and raped hundreds of civilians as they competed for territory and resources. 

This year, the war entered a new phase as fighting erupted in previously peaceful areas, forcing tens of thousands from their homes in a conflict that has already uprooted more than a million people – the highest level of displacement that CAR has experienced since the start of the conflict, what locals dub La Crise.

Among the displaced is Garibaldi Bassakounon – the exiled mayor of a district now controlled by rebels, once home to around 14,000 people. This middle-aged man in his forties is now living alongside his constituents in a camp for internally-displaced people (IDPs). They are going hungry, he says, and they live in fear. ‘My people have been homeless and suffering these last four years,’ Bassakounon tells me, surrounded by tents and makeshift huts. ‘There is not enough food for all the families. When food is handed out, we’re told it’s to last for one month. But it runs out before that and it’s hard to get any more. So we go to the forest and chop wood, which we then try and sell for food.’

One of the few items of clothing that Bassakounon has left is a colourful T-shirt, which he printed for his political campaign. It’s emblazoned with his name and numerous photographs of his face – a sad and incongruous remnant of his lost power. There is alcohol on his breath.

‘We are scared of being attacked here,’ he says. ‘We want to move back to our village and live as before.’

But displacement camps offer more safety than surrounding villages, which are highly vulnerable to attack and often burned to the ground by marauding militants. Serious human rights violations beset much of CAR, with civilians bearing the brunt of clashes. Armed groups control key towns and outgun a cash-strapped contingency of peacekeepers. New battlefronts keep bubbling up across the country.

Earlier this year, I was in Bangui – one of the only places where CAR’s government holds sway, bolstered by UN troops and gun-mounted 4 x 4s that drive around constantly in an attempt to preserve a tentative peace. I had rented a room in the placid confines of a nunnery next to the attractive, colonial-era Cathédrale Notre-Dame. It wasn’t much of a vantage point from which to document the chaos that was engulfing this country at the centre of the continent, so I secured a seat on a UN flight that, a few days later, departed for the country’s restive, rebel-held east.

The town was small, but its horrors loomed large. Last year violence emptied neighbourhoods of tens of thousands of inhabitants. Fresh fighting erupted days before my arrival in February, uprooting thousands more from surrounding villages. In a region rich in diamond deposits, Bria was now encircled by battlegrounds in every direction – an axis of atrocities in which rival militias razed villages to the ground, forcing thousands of newly-displaced families into the volatile PK3 camp on Bria’s outskirts.

Above dirt trails and arid scrubland, the UN plane dipped and hundreds of destroyed homes came into view. Once we had landed on a rough airstrip, I hitched a lift with aid workers into town. We entered a desolate scene. No one was left here. Red-hued ruins melded into parched earth. Roots snaked from the ground towards deep wells and scattered bricks. Bloodletting had emptied the land. The bush was returning.

The outskirts were vacant but central Bria remained populated, mainly by Muslims who lived under the aegis of a rebel outfit called the ‘Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic’ – known by its French acronym, the FPRC. Elsewhere in the country the scene was reversed, with Christians in control and Muslims pushed out into displacement camps. The FPRC, formerly a part of the Seleka, is now one of the most powerful armed groups in CAR. Human-rights groups accuse its soldiers of committing war crimes. The group controls a statelet stretching a few hundred miles from the far-eastern border with Sudan to the centre of the country. Bria is one of its strongholds.

I got out at a compound run by OCHA, the UN’s aid-coordination agency. A couple of young, unarmed guards opened the gate and showed me to a small, dirty room, devoid of any furnishings, where I dumped my gear. Last year’s outbreak of violence had forced aid groups to make a hasty deployment. OCHA took over this derelict building on the town’s eastern edge, let to them by an opportunistic local businessman, more concerned with pocketing rent than installing such basics as running water, much to the frustration of the humanitarian workers who ended up stationed here.

‘Living here is very difficult,’ one of the UN employees told me. ‘We live in a constant state of crisis. There are endless problems with the generator. We are very poorly equipped – we’ve been asking for basic goods for over a year.’ Nor is the end in sight. ‘All the villages around here are destroyed, all the livestock are killed, the fields not being tended, so we will be here for a long time.’ Even the compound’s security was substandard; the guards were young and unarmed, apparently with no real way of deterring intruders. They were just there for show.

This posting was bleak, but nothing compared with the deprivations that the displaced endure in the nearby camp, and in ninety others like it across the country. Not only was PK3 overcrowded, squalid and exposed to the elements (flooding during monsoon rains, fires in the dry season), it was also a crime-plagued ghetto, in which the lines between displaced civilian, disenfranchised young male and abusive militant could become blurred. Criminal gangs were destabilising the camp by abducting fellow IDPs, by demanding protection money and by stealing humanitarians’ vehicles. They launched intermittent raids on the FPRC and clashed with each other in shoot-outs, roaming the rubbish-strewn alleys with Kalashnikovs and shotguns slung over their shoulders.

‘This is a kind of hell but we have nowhere else to go,’ said Emmanuelle, a mother of three who I met in the camp’s small market. 

She came to the camp last year when militants destroyed her home. Around her were wide, shallow bowls of blackened bushmeat and cassava mash, a local staple known as gozo. ‘Our community was destroyed. Now we have to put up with these thugs. They are not my protectors. They do not represent me.’

Aid workers and UN personnel who I spoke with kept mentioning the same two names: Ramazani and Bokassa. These were the mob leaders of the rival Anti-Balaka factions within Bria. They had turned the camp into a powder keg, terrorising their fellow camp dwellers and causing a headache for Brigadier General Yamin Adil of the Pakistani Army, who commanded the area’s UN peacekeeping mission, known by its French acronym: MINUSCA. ‘[The Anti-Balaka] say they are self-defence but really they are looters,’ he told me one afternoon inside the base. ‘We must make the population here believe that it is MINUSCA, not the Anti-Balaka, that is protecting them. They keep creating problems. And it is difficult to find these vagabonds among thirty, thirty-five thousand people.’

Adil was confronted by hostile armed groups and a legacy of abuse scandals that have marred MINUSCA’s credibility. As recently as October 2018, the mission revealed it was investigating yet more allegations that its peacekeepers had sexually abused underage locals whom they had been tasked with protecting. Adil’s deployment in Bria coincided with an outbreak of violence that shook the mission’s morale. One morning last December, at around 8.30 a.m., Ramazani’s Anti-Balaka gunmen attacked a UN checkpoint, armed with AK47s and homemade muskets, with lucky charms dangling from their necks. For an hour and a half they engaged in a fierce firefight with the Blue Helmets, killing one Mauritanian UN policeman, wounding three others and bringing the number of slain peacekeepers last year in CAR up to fourteen.

‘People are not feeling secure, we have to restore their confidence,’ said Adil. ‘At night, the Anti-Balaka are doing the kidnapping. We want to send a message that MINUSCA works not only during the day, but also at night.’

*

The Anti-Balaka and the Seleka differ in ways that go beyond religious affiliation. The Seleka, for instance, was founded on the idea of an alliance. The word itself, Seleka, means ‘coalition’ in Sango, one of CAR’s national languages. Although this umbrella group of Muslim rebels ultimately proved to be an unruly mob that disintregated, the combination of shared grievances and the promise of seizing power initially acted as a kind of unifying force.

The ‘Anti-Balaka’ label might imply a sense of cohesive opposition to the Seleka, but the multitude of militias that operate under this banner have no over-arching means of organisation. They are disparate, dispersed and do-it-yourself. Allegiances are fluid; infighting, frequent. There are two theories behind the name. Anti-Balaka is either a fusion of the French words, ‘anti balle-AK’ – i.e. ‘anti AK-47 bullets’ – stemming from members’ belief that the use of amulets, occult ceremonies and large doses of the cheap opioid painkiller, Tramadol, make them impervious to rounds fired by assault rifles. Or the name may be derived from the Gbaya language, in which balakameans machete, hence the name ‘Anti-Balaka’, or ‘Anti-Machete’, conveying a sense of power over one of the most readily-available and frequently used weapons of this war.

CAR has a long tradition of localised, self-defence militias. Before the French arrived, the population generally lived in isolated communities without centralised state authority, so the ability to call men to arms quickly was useful when threatened with attack. And even with the emergence of institutionalised leadership under French rule, state security forces proved predatory. Localised militia groups, therefore, could help prevent the state from gaining a monopoly on violence.

Today’s Anti-Balaka phenomenon shares some similarities with a little-known, colonial-era uprising called the ‘Kongo-Wara Rebellion’, in which the indigenous population revolted against the French in the late 1920s for forcing them to build railways and tap rubber. Anthropologist Louisa Lombard explains how the success of the rebels’ charismatic leader – a man known as Karnu – lay in using a loosely-defined, malleable message that could be adapted to various audiences. This allowed him to unify thousands of fighters from a diffuse and fragmented population. ‘It is especially in this respect,’ writes Lombard, ‘that Karnu and the Kongo-Wara are similar to the Anti-Balaka’, whose forces swell depending on ‘what resonates with their needs and interests.’

I spotted a group of around ten young men hanging outside a makeshift bar, who were clearly connected to the group. Some wore vests, others leather jackets. Most offered cold, brooding stares.

‘Il y a Anti-Balaka,’ said the driver – a gruff local chap in his forties called Maurice – turning down the car radio.

‘D’accord,’ I replied. ‘Je descends.’

‘Non,’ he shook his head vigorously. ‘C’est pas bonne idée.’

But I was keen to seize an opportunity that could lift the veil on this feared and notorious militia. I convinced Maurice to unlock the door and approached the men, adopting a relaxed smile and a chipper tone. 

One of the men returned my wave; no one else did. A lean, muscular guy sitting on a crate up front cocked his head, barked a fast stream of Sango at me and pointed to the camera hanging round my neck, lifting up his hand and beckoning. His entourage fanned out around him and I felt the eyes of onlookers nearby drilling into me, this naïve munju – white foreigner – who was getting rapidly out of his depth.

Maurice honked his horn. I sheepishly backed off and got into the vehicle. After all, this was a war zone in which aid workers and journalists could easily get caught up in the violence. Just a few weeks later, a UNICEF employee and five other education workers were killed in an attack in a remote region near the Chadian border where they planning to train local teachers. In July, an ambush north of the capital claimed the lives of three Russian journalists investigating the presence of a private military company with links to the Kremlin – an organisation of mercenaries thought to have been deployed to the region as Russia fosters growing ties with the government in Bangui.

Maurice said it all when I was back in the car: ‘C’était très stupide.’

I had better luck speaking with the FPRC, the main rebel group in the region. One of the few areas they had not conquered here was the displaced persons camp, which was guarded by UN peacekeepers yet infiltrated by Anti-Balaka militants. I learned that one of the top dogs – the self-proclaimed ‘General’ Ibrahim Alawad – lived near the centre of Bria, amid a jumble of homes just north of the main street. A mutual contact gave me his number, and when I called him he agreed to meet me the next day.

The following morning was hot. Maurice had dropped me off in Bria’s backstreets where I spotted a couple of young men – apparently FPRC rebels given the neighbourhood – brushing their teeth in a yard. I mustered up a mixture of beginner Arabic and French – ‘Salamu alaykum. S’il vous plaît – où est la maison d'Alawad?’ – to see if the commander’s home was close. The pair responded warmly and pointed further down the street. There, I knocked on a large metal gate to the compound.

Wearing civilian clothes – sandals, dark chinos, a garish pink-and-green short-sleeve shirt – Alawad stepped out and, offering a toothy smile, shook my hand and ushered me in. A few men in traditional Islamic robes were chatting inside the courtyard. Alawad lead me into an adjoining, bare-walled room and sat down on a brightly-patterned sofa. We chatted for a while, covering issues as diverse as demobilising – ‘Meet our demands, then we’ll disarm’ – and, somewhat bizarrely, the leader of Sinn Fein, the Irish republican party, whose dissident past clearly resonated with this Central African rebel commander – ‘People respect Gerry Adams because he eventually made peace.’

Alawad’s resistance to laying down arms was absolute. Trust between armed groups was low and volatility was high. Across the country, the civil war continues to be inflamed by ever-shifting, convoluted allegiances between armed groups that adopt a bewildering array of acronyms – the FPRC, the RPRC, the MPC and the UPC, to name just a few. When I asked Alawad about the Anti-Balaka in the camp, he was scathing.

‘We have machine-guns and rocket launchers,’ he said. ‘Anti-Balaka, they have nothing. They are underdogs, they’re a small group of bandits who are cheating their own people. The problem is they have no leader. They have no agenda. They don’t know what they need. Many cannot even write their own name.’ The tirade went on for some time, veering from vows of destruction (‘If we fight with them, we are going to kill them all’) to hollow pledges of diplomacy (‘You call the Anti-Balaka. Let’s sit down, make peace and build the country together’). Ceasefires and disarmament deals do offer some rewards in CAR, ranging from vocational training for rank-and-file soldiers, to senior government positions for their commanders. But the country’s warring parties generally regard peace as a zero-sum game; rapprochement was clearly not on the cards.

There was a knock at the main gate. Clad in desert camouflage, a rebel soldier in his twenties entered the compound. ‘Excuse me,’ said Alawad. ‘I have to deal with this.’

The soldier propped his Kalashnikov rifle against the wall and sat down with Alawad in the courtyard outside, the pair speaking together in hushed tones. A few minutes later the young rebel picked up his weapon and left. During the interview, Alawad had sidestepped much talk of his group’s militant activities. But the sudden appearance of this young soldier was a stark reminder that, down the dirt trails winding out of town and into a vast savannah, a brutal bush war was raging.

Alawad was a sharp and silver-tongued frontman, but his rambling digressions and enticing charisma masked a dark reality. The strongmen who rule rival turfs in CAR proclaim that they are there to serve and protect, but they instead reinforce sectarian divisions, capitalise on chaos and always look out for their next income stream. Anarchy and violence form the pillars of their power base. While Alawad and other Seleka leaders come from Muslim communities, and often describe the war along religious lines, they are not driven by an Islamist agenda, nor do they seek to build an Islamic state founded on Sharia law. Their use of violence is a tool – one that has long been used in CAR to haggle for powerful, profitable positions in government and to secure pay-offs from Western officials attempting to disband armed groups.

Nonetheless, there are concerns in diplomatic circles about the ‘Afghanistan scenario’: that if instability persists in CAR, the country could become a haven for jihadists fleeing counter-terror operations in the Sahel. Western consultants are helping CAR’s government try and prevent this by drawing up a national strategy to stem radicalisation and violent extremism in the country. This a positive step that grassroots, community-led efforts at reconciliation will complement well. But with violence ongoing, and large areas of the country too remote and dangerous for mediators to reach, the risk remains that, in time, radicalised elements could emerge.

*

One senior UN security official in Bangui told me their colleagues regarded CAR as ‘the weak belly’ of the region for extremism. In Bria, Brigadier General Adil was trying to secure the weak belly of the town: the PK3 displacement camp. One hot afternoon earlier this year in February, I caught the commander as he boarded a white, armoured jeep. ‘Jump in,’ he said. ‘You can ask me questions on the drive.’

After the death of the Mauritanian peacekeeper, Adil was touring the sprawling UN military base with his multinational retinue to boost morale and inspect the defences. The vehicle headed to the outer limits, where Adil clambered up a mound of earth. Here, on the parapets, assault rifles hanging from their necks, a couple of bored Pakistani soldiers looked out through barbed wire at the PK3 camp. On the other side, local women and children were collecting firewood. Beneath the sentry post, a North African soldier rolled out a prayer mat, took off his mud-caked boots and bent to the east.

A few days before my arrival, despite the slim prospects of actually securing arrests in this unwieldy region, a court in Bangui had issued warrants against Ramazani, one of Bria’s Anti-Balaka leaders, and his associate, Hervé – full name Hervé Wassima – accusing them of kidnap and torture. Peacekeepers wanted to remove them from the camp given their ability to rally locals to their cause. The lack of accountability in CAR troubled Adil, who described impunity as the enemy of peace in the country. ‘In London, people carry weapons but they also know that if they are caught, there are consequences,’ he said. ‘But here in these lawless areas, it’s a lot easier to get away with crimes’ – a nod to CAR’s corrupt justice system and the pervasive fear of revenge attacks that keep many witnesses from coming forward.

Adil was planning an offensive on the Anti-Balaka, but the operation carried serious risks. ‘When you have a clearly-defined target, it is easier. But when it is like this,’ he said, gesturing towards the thousands of shelters in the camp, ‘there is more apprehension about collateral damage. It is a lot harder when people are hidden in houses. Unintended deaths can be so damaging to our mission.’

The risks of using counter-insurgency tactics in such a crowded and combustible neighbourhood would not dissuade him, though. ‘I do believe it is possible to get rid of all the Anti-Balaka in the camp, otherwise I would not have accepted this job. War is a clash of wills. The one who has the stronger will wins.’ But he conceded that the stakes were high. ‘Every time I send someone out on an operation, I fear for his life. As a commander, I feel a great responsibility.’

Other insiders painted a bleaker picture of civilian protection in CAR. One mid-ranking UN official with knowledge of the issue told me that the UN was failing to protect witnesses from revenge attacks, and that solid cases against criminals were not being built, allowing them to return to their communities shortly after being arrested, which left them more defiant than ever.

‘The government isn’t there protecting civilians, and we are failing to provide this security,’ said the source. ‘Witness protection is an enormous concern in CAR. In Bangui it's bad enough but in the rest of the country it's non-existent. No one speaks out against Ramazani because everyone is shit scared. Witness statements are not being taken in the right way and if we don’t have a solid case, the criminals can appear back a few weeks later having been released.’

There were worries, too, that an insufficient number of peacekeepers drawn from poorly-trained armies was failing to stem civil insecurity in CAR. ‘We don’t have enough good troops. You need a certain number of troops to dominate an area and we simply don’t have that many,’ the source added. ‘When it comes to protecting civilians, our capacities are really limited.’ I put the accusations to a UN spokesman in Bangui, but he declined to comment.

*

A week later, on 16 February, Adil launched his assault on PK3’s Anti-Balaka gangs. The first target was Hervé, who was arrested by UN police and transferred to Bangui. The following month, close to the IDP camp, armed peacekeepers raided and dismantled two workshops that Anti-Balaka militants had used for making weapons. A couple days later, on 16 March, backed by drone surveillance amid exchanges of gunfire, UN forces pushed into the camp at dawn and detained Ramazani, real name Jean-Francis Diandi. Ramazani was subsequently flown by UN helicopter to Bangui, handed over to the national authorities and detained.

While the US State Dept hailed this series of operations as ‘strong, decisive action to end the threat of armed groups’, Ramazani’s arrest sparked protests in PK3 and prompted militias to erect barricades, forcing aid groups to suspend their activities. By mid-morning on the day of Ramazani’s arrest, militants had whipped up scores of displaced people to go to the camp’s edge and pelt UN forces with stones as shots rang out.

This unrest eventually simmered down and Adil has since been working on plans to make Bria a ‘weapons-free zone’. The UN managed to do this temporarily in the nearby city of Bambari. For a while, that rebel-held town enjoyed some calm before clashes broke out again in May. The following month, the local vicar was eating dinner when rebel militants burst in and shot him dead. The weapons may get locked up, but they never really go away.

Following the detentions of Hervé and Ramazani, Adil monitored Bria’s camp with foot patrols and drones. Drones proved an invaluable tool in the confined urban areas, but now face an uncertain future. The skilled French troops who operated and maintained the devices left Bria in April. ‘We’ve just found this way of working really well and now we’re losing it,’ my UN source told me. Drone operation has now been passed on to civilian workers, who UN personnel fear cannot achieve the same results.

*

Despite the arrests of Hervé and Ramazani, the fate of Bria’s displaced seems just as uncertain as it was before. Anti-Balaka groups are still active in the area, even without these figureheads present, and clashes continue. UN officials say a militant known as Chabardo has risen up to replace the now-detained Ramazani, and has forged an expedient alliance with the FPRC rebel group – their sworn enemy, supposedly.

A rival group of Anti-Balaka militants led by a man known as Bokassa – real name Thierry Francois Pelenga – also continues to run amok. The UN says law-enforcement operations have mostly pushed these militants outside the PK3 camp, though the group continues to control areas south of Bria. Residents have told human-rights researchers that Bokassa’s men target civilians for suspected witchcraft and for ‘treason’ (i.e. conducting business with Muslims). In June, these militants allegedly killed four women in a village near Bria, accusing them of selling food to Muslim foreigners. ‘We gave them shovels to dig their own graves,’ one former fighter, who left the group in July, told Human Rights Watch. ‘When they finished we hit each of them in the head with a shovel, one by one, and they fell into the holes. We then buried them alive.’ The fighter’s own dismay at having committed this atrocity prompted him and several others to desert. ‘After we killed those people, some of us questioned why we had joined the Anti-Balaka and we decided to run away,’ he said. ‘If Bokassa’s men ever caught me they would kill me straight away.’

Hopes of some respite were raised at the end of August when Russia and Sudan hosted mediation talks in Khartoum with CAR’s competing militias. These groups went on to sign a preliminary agreement – the latest in a series of seven peace deals made in CAR over the last few years, none of which have had a lasting impact. Observers who harboured low expectations for this latest shot at stability were proved right a week later when FPRC militants in Bria executed at least nine civilians, including seven women, having chased them into fields near the displaced persons camp. One 40-year-old survivor described how he and his relatives had been split up in the turmoil. ‘From my hiding place, I watched how they were both stabbed in the chest and killed,’ he said. ‘Before they killed them, the Seleka yelled, “You are the mothers of the Anti-Balaka!” They were both left for dead as the Seleka went on to kill more people.’

One of the dead was reportedly Sem Koumounda, an 18-year-old with physical and mental disabilities, who would often wait by a river for his relatives to return from the fields. ‘We found [Sem] dead in his usual place by the river, shot twice in the side,’ said a relative. ‘A member of the Seleka later told us that another fighter had shot Sem for no reason.’

Several victims were found with signs of torture, their hands tied and execution-style gunshot wounds to the head. Families told investigators that some of their relatives are still missing. Lewis Mudge, a senior Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch, branded the murders as ‘brazen war crimes [committed] by fighters who feel free to kill at will.’

One morning, towards the end of my visit in Bria, the town’s aid workers were readying themselves for the arrival of a UN bigwig. In OCHA’s compound, the men awoke soon after dawn and drew water from a well for a bucket shower. Washed and dressed, they headed out in a 4 x 4, driving across the red earth of Bria’s airstrip to park among a fleet of humanitarian vehicles, churning up clouds of dust. 

A UN airplane soon came into view. It landed then taxied towards the gathering. With much pomp, a tightly-drilled unit of Sri Lankan soldiers marched towards the aircraft, from which around thirty officials, public-relations staff, journalists and photographers exited behind the star of the junket – Najat Rochdi, the country’s UN humanitarian coordinator. A few military officers took out their phones to take a quick snap.

Wearing aviator sunglasses, Adil walked over to Rochdi before spotting me in the crowd. ‘Jack – why don’t you photograph us?’ the commander asked, removing his cap and grinning next to the VIP. I obliged.

The party then piled into jeeps and raced into town to tour ruined neighbourhoods and meet with humanitarian workers. The excursion ended later that same day. Rochdi and her troupe returned to the aircraft and took off. 

Behind the walls of a UN barracks adjoining the runway, a lone soldier sat in his sentry post. The airstrip looked as dusty and deserted as derelict circus grounds. Beyond it lay a divided community, still far from peace.