At his fortified villa in the devastated, contested diamond-mining town of Bria, rebel commander Ibrahim Alawad is puffing cigarettes between sips of thick black coffee, eager to talk revolution and religion, and tell me about his education at Cambridge University, a world away from this land torn apart by civil war.
The Central African Republic (CAR) lies in a bad neighbourhood. To the north are the insurgency-prone desert states of Chad and Sudan. Nasty conflicts also blight other bordering countries – Cameroon, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since independence in 1960, a string of despots have misruled this sparsely populated former French colony, a landlocked territory three times bigger than the UK.
Despite its plentiful diamonds, CAR’s state coffers have been stripped to leave an economy smaller than the Isle of Wight’s. Five years ago, this backwater came to the world’s attention when it descended into a brutal civil war. An alliance of several Muslim-led groups calling themselves the Séléka staged a violent coup, ousting CAR’s ageing, corrupt leader François Bozizé. In response, Christian communities formed rival militias known as the Anti-Balaka, which carried out ethnic cleansing of Muslim communities, effectively partitioning CAR. The death toll ran into the thousands.
A ceasefire and international military intervention helped bring a lull and relatively peaceful elections followed in early 2016, with a new president sworn in, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, a former mathematics lecturer from the country’s Christian majority. Some even dared to hope of a fresh start.
But today CAR is again in a state of anarchy. Violence spread throughout the country as the Séléka coalition split into factions, terrorising civilian communities with impunity. More than half the population of 4.5 million depend on aid. But unrest is paralysing efforts to reach the most vulnerable.
There are now over 550,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in CAR. This is one of the world’s most neglected emergencies – the humanitarian response faces a £300 million black hole in funding. And now Moscow is raising the stakes by dispatching arms and soldiers to the country. The United Nations has said the conflict shows the early warning signs of genocide.
‘There was real room for optimism in 2016 but the honeymoon is over,’ says Lewis Mudge, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, who has worked extensively in CAR. ‘State security forces are resorting to extortion. Armed groups are attacking [peacekeepers] with greater and greater confidence.’ Successive peace deals ‘are literally not worth the paper they’re printed on’, he adds. ‘Things are certainly not good in CAR.’
The appalling human cost of this spiralling conflict was encapsulated by Rose, an amiable teenager I met there. She grew up among seven siblings in a family of farmers, growing cassava, peanuts and chillies in their village.
‘Back home, we had enough food to eat,’ she tells me at a desolate and overcrowded camp for IDPs. ‘My friends were always around to play with.’ One day, though, when she was 11, Rose heard the clamour of motorbikes and gunshot as militants from the Séléka group stormed the village, torching her home and other houses around it. One of her brothers was hacked to death. Two soldiers cornered Rose, pinned her to the ground and raped her.
Now 16, Rose and her family live on a baking-hot plain, their camp protected from militants by a contingency of peacekeepers. I meet her in its ‘child-friendly space’ run by Unicef, where youngsters uprooted by fighting can attempt to reconnect with their lost childhood through learning and play, drawing and dance. For Rose (not her real name), her ordeal is not over. ‘My friends ostracise me because I was raped,’ she says. ‘These activities are helping me get over the attack and rebuild my strength.’
My encounter with Rose led me to travel deeper into CAR’s badlands to meet those implicated in these crimes. The devastated town of Bria seemed a reasonable destination, and Ibrahim Alawad, a fair target. Alawad is a trained lawyer and senior figure in one of CAR’s most powerful rebel groups, and is recognised as among the more articulate militants – one aid worker described him as that ‘slick, Western-educated guy running the show up there’. A meeting could offer some insight into these violent groups and the possibility of a peaceful settlement succeeding over a more forceful intervention in this forgotten war.
Alawad’s compound in Bria lies two hours’ flight from the capital, Bangui. He greets me enthusiastically: ‘It is a pleasure to meet you but I am sorely disappointed,’ he says, grinning. ‘An Englishman comes to my house and he does not bring me fish and chips, my favourite meal.’
A gangly, chain-smoking man in his 50s, Alawad is among those responsible for the misery endured by Rose and hundreds of thousands of Christians like her. Likewise, many Muslim civilians have suffered at the hands of Christian vigilantes. On the outskirts of Bria, 38,000 IDPs shelter outside the high walls of the UN peacekeeper base. The Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic (FPRC), in which Alawad claims the rank of general, is one of the former factions of the Séléka, accused by human-rights groups of using child soldiers and carrying out horrific attacks on civilians.
‘We do not fight simply because we are Muslims and they are Christians,’ says Alawad, a paunch protruding from his shirt and a pistol tucked into his trousers. ‘Ever seen a fly with just one wing? No. It would not fly. So why would we try to be a country with just one wing, either just Christian or Muslim?’
He launches into a well-rehearsed lecture. ‘The problem with Africa is not a problem of religion or dictatorship,’ he puffs. ‘All the problems coming out of Africa today are from our colonial master.’ While simplistic, his argument contains some truth. The French used slavery to exploit the mineral riches of their colony at the end of the 19th century.
Paris remained involved in CAR’s affairs long after independence, backing autocrats who persecuted the Muslim minority. Such oppression helped foment numerous uprisings, including the one in 2013 that brought Alawad to his position of power here, surrounded by the country’s biggest diamond mines – which are a major source of FPRC funding, along with racketeering and fees levied at road blocks.
But Alawad has a soft spot for the Brits, particularly the current prime minister. ‘Theresa May is a good example of a European leader; not one African leader disrespects Theresa May,’ he proclaims. ‘Everyone here likes the British. Their system is well organised. They built good foundations in Kenya – good roads, universities, hospitals. On behalf of FPRC, I invite Theresa May to come to the Central African Republic to solve this problem.’
I have to break it to him – a visit is unlikely. But Alawad ploughs on regardless. ‘I don’t want power or riches – I just want a good place on this earth.’ Nor does his rebel group oppose the authorities in CAR, he insists, disingenuously. ‘If the government comes to the table, there will be no problem. But they say we’re not Central Africans. They say we’re foreigners. Hear this – not one man can say he is a true Central African. Every country is made from other nations.’
Such concerns over nationality are typical in CAR: many Christians eye Muslims here as suspicious foreigners. Alawad claims he was born into a well-off family of merchants in the far north-east. Yet others say he is likely to be Sudanese, as are many mercenaries fighting in this civil war. Alawad says that the proceeds of the family gold and diamond business allowed him to pursue postgraduate studies at Cambridge University and a master’s in Moscow – the latter being the alma mater of several CAR rebel leaders, especially those with connections to Sudan.
When asked for more details about these early years, he says, ‘I am not here to talk about myself. I will only talk about the revolution.’ (Cambridge University confirmed that its student registry held a number of individuals called Ibrahim Alawad from the period in question before refusing to answer any further ‘academic verification requests’.)
This conflict is often – and wrongly – characterised as a religious war. It’s certainly no Islamist insurrection. Fighting here is about control over mineral resources and cattle routes as well as gaining access to lucrative government jobs. ‘If Boko Haram come here, FPRC will fight them,’ says Alawad, referring to the Isil-aligned extremist group based in north-eastern Nigeria. ‘This is a war of business, not a war of religion.’
Now, even as Alawad’s fellow gunmen enforce their brutal rule across their fiefdom, this commander and married father of three claims to be on a mission to save the country. ‘We just want to stand on our own feet and to get our daily bread,’ he says. ‘We need a good justice system, a good education system.’ He leans back. ‘My brother, can you believe this is a country without even electricity? Tell me, how can it be like this when we have so many diamonds?’
It’s a fair question, if cynically posed. Ranked by the UN as the least developed country on earth, CAR has one of the world’s smallest electricity grids and barely any paved roads. But profits from CAR’s gem trade don’t make it into the public purse. Instead they fund armed groups such as Alawad’s, bolstering their arsenals with illicit diamond sales. According to Lewis Mudge, apparently humanitarian concerns such as Alawad’s are ‘a total pretext’.
‘The FPRC is not there to protect any community. The FPRC is there to advance the interests of the FPRC,’ Mudge says. ‘They’re an armed group that have committed and continue to commit war crimes and massive human-rights violations. Frankly, Alawad should be worried about being tied to these types of abuses.’
For now, the UN seeks to pacify CAR’s armed rebels with disarmament programmes, offering militants schooling and paid work in return for their weapons. But FPRC rebels snub such offers, keen to keep the upper hand. ‘Deliver peace,’ says Alawad, ‘and then we shall disarm. Come tomorrow and give us this and we will give you all our guns.’
There are signs, however, that the rebels may soon be cornered. Moscow’s donation of weapons and military instructors – most likely mercenaries – to bolster CAR’s depleted armed forces is an attempt to make a foothold in the region. On top of this, the UN wants to make Bria a weapons-free zone.
‘We will not accept an arms-free zone here,’ Alawad insists, flicking his hand upwards dismissively. ‘We took this town through fighting. Any place the revolution takes [the UN], wants to make an arms-free zone. We cannot accept that.’ Alawad is not the only man jostling for control. On Bria’s west side is a UN commander from Pakistan; on its east, the regional governor. Despite their very different backgrounds, the pair have forged an alliance.
Yamin Adil is a moustachioed brigadier general in the Pakistan Army and commands the area’s peacekeeping force. In his large and well-furnished office, housed in an olive-green, air-conditioned tent within the peacekeeping compound, he tells me that morale among his forces dipped in recent months following several attacks; last year 14 uniformed UN personnel were killed in CAR. For Brig-Gen Adil, widespread impunity is a huge challenge: ‘There is no legal system, and the logistics to take criminals to Bangui are so lengthy. We arrest someone, then we ask ourselves, why is he roaming around here again just one month later?’
Yet he is optimistic. ‘The intention is to make Bria weapons-free in the not very distant future,’ he tells me. ‘Each time we move out in force and create sufficient deterrence, my troops regain confidence. It is all psychological.’
A few miles away, on the east side of town, is Thierry Binguinendji, the regional governor and a son of Bria. This thickset, middle-aged man wears a colourful, wide-collared shirt that wouldn’t look out of place on a 1970s wedding singer.
As the sole representative of a weak and distant government, he faces assassination in this rebel-held region. While the UN has deployed a detachment of Zambian peacekeepers at his house, Binguinendji travels around the town without security. In his bare office, I ask him how he copes.
‘When I was given the job, some of the former Séléka refused to have me here,’ he replies. ‘But after negotiations, they allowed me to begin my work. My strength is that I’m a native of Bria. This allows me to move between areas where different armed groups operate. I try to work with those who accept my presence.’
The governor is under no illusion about his lack of power. ‘I lack a justice system, I lack security forces,’ he says. ‘There are no state departments here. The FPRC controls everything but they don’t have enough resources to manage things. The government has an imaginary presence here. I need real means to resolve this and rule properly.’
Until then, he’s calling on higher powers to preserve him: ‘I am protected by God,’ he says.
There are tentative signs that the outside world is taking note of the plight of the Central African Republic. While I was in Bria, Najat Rochdi, the country’s UN humanitarian coordinator, flew into the town to discuss the situation with Brig Gen Adil.
Three months later, in May, at the UN’s palatial headquarters in Geneva, far from Bria’s destruction and squalor, Rochdi arrived with a message: provide more help to CAR, or face the consequences of inaction. Without the necessary resources, she told the gathered delegates, ‘thousands of children will continue to die in their first five years of life and another generation of Central Africans will be sacrificed’.
Until then, young people like Rose, the teenage girl in the displacement camp, continue to face an uncertain future. But she is not giving in yet.
‘My favourite subject at school is French,’ she told me before I left. ‘I want to learn the language so I can write my story, so other people in the world can understand what has happened here. After that, I want to become a teacher so I can give knowledge to others.’
She paused and looked at the ground. ‘But the main thing is peace,’ she said, meeting my eyes again with a determined look. ‘Peace is all I want for my country.’