A motorcycle taxi with four passengers in the CAR capital, Bangui. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Hell is an understatement: a report from the bloody, crumbling Central African Republic

When looking for solutions to the horrors in the Central African Republic, one is tempted to say that any ideas that don’t start or end with genocide qualify as good ones.

Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), has never been known for the reliability of its public utilities. Most trash is picked through by scavengers, and the remaining mango pits, scraps of plastic, and rusty bottlecaps pile up on dirt roads or get blown into fetid open sewers. But since December, along a desolate stretch of the Avenue de France, the Red Cross has operated an on-demand, white-gloved sanitation service that, within an hour of being called, will show up to collect human bodies, whether chopped up or left intact.

The Avenue de France marks a divide between two neighborhoods, and the human remains belong to those who have, for one reason or another, strayed too far in the wrong direction. The road itself is devoid of foot traffic – a no-man’s-land where both sides can deposit their victims, so they don’t have to bury them or let them rot within smelling distance in the African sun. North of the line is the Fifth Arrondissement, a neighborhood inhabited almost exclusively by Christians now that its Muslim residents have either been killed or forced into exile. The Muslims who haven’t fled the country live primarily in the Third Arrondissement, just south of the Avenue de France. There, being a Christian is a condition nearly as fatal as being a Muslim is to the north, south, east, or west.

About 15 per cent of Central Africans are Muslims, and for much of the country’s 54-year history, they lived in relative harmony with the Christian majority. But in the last year, CAR has collapsedfirst in a spasm of political violence and now in a grisly carnival of factional and religious slaughter that has left it one of the very worst places on Earth. It is a country the size of Texas, with as many people as Boston, and an economy less than a tenth the size of Chattanooga’s. Reliable data doesn’t exist for the number dead, but from December until March, street lynchings became so common that they ceased to be news. The danger is unequaled anywhere in present-day Africa except, perhaps, Nigeria on a bad day. Bangui competes with Damascus for the title of world’s grimmest capital city.

After a visit last month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the BBC that “desperate is an understatement.” And Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, made a special stop in Bangui in early April, as part of her effort to deploy blue-helmet peacekeepers as quickly as possible (which, given the lightning reflexes of the United Nations, means no earlier than September). Power’s interest in CAR dates to the beginning of the crisis, and one presumes it has to do with her wish to avoid adding a self-indicting chapter to a revised edition of her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell, about US inaction in the face of genocide.

Anyone who walks the streets of Bangui for a day knows why she might be alarmed. The last year of fighting has traumatised the population, and now nearly everyone is nursing a lethal grudge. It is a city of overlapping vendettas. Roadblocks are staffed by gun-toting, battle-hardened children, and even an interaction as simple as complaining about a broken cell phone can turn into a spray of indiscriminate machine-gun fire on a crowded city street. During my week there, I learned to stand silently, hands cupped behind my ears, to discern the direction of distant gunfire and figure out where to go, and where not to.

And if you go in search of trouble, Bangui will rapidly oblige. On 24 March, my photographer and I took a car to Boy Rabe, a neighborhood known as a stronghold of the Anti-Balaka, the Christian militia that is currently the most feared group in Bangui. It takes its name from its young fighters’ ritual initiations, which supposedly confer resistance to AK-47 rounds (in French, balles-AK, or “ah-kah”) and machetes (balaka in Sango, the national language of CAR). The Anti-Balaka arose from self-defense forces in the countryside and from Christian populations in Bangui, and now that they have the advantage over the Muslims, they are demanding payment and spoils from frightened civilians of all races and creeds.

To meet the Anti-Balaka on their own turf is to throw oneself at the mercy of well-armed adolescents, often drunk, with delusions of invulnerability. Our taxi driver slowed to a walking pace as we came close to Boy Rabe, saying roadblocks might be concealed ahead. We searched for signs that the Anti-Balaka might emerge from behind buildings to rob us, or worse. As we drove on, the road grew quiet, and the commotion of shared taxis and wobbly motorbikes gave way to pedestrians, and finally to the ominous emptiness of no one at all.

Then we hit a roadblock. The half-dozen children who surrounded us when we exited the car all wore threadbare, dirty clothes, and around their necks they strapped anti-sorcery charms, mostly amulets and leather pouches of herbs. Their weapons were dirty and battered, as if used in harsh conditions. The youngest was about ten, the oldest no more than 16. In their hands, I counted three AK-47s, two pistols, two swords, and a crooked, blunt scythe, before I realised I should stop counting and start figuring out a way to leave as soon as possible.

They must have scared our driver, because by the time we took stock of the situation, his vehicle had disappeared back down the road. To each other the children spoke Sango, but when I whipped out my notebook and started asking questions in halting French, they snapped to attention and at least for the moment looked receptive. “We’re journalists,” I said. “We want to know the story of the people of Boy Rabe and talk to the boss here.” The boys just blinked at us, until one said, “There’s no boss.” Those words relieved me slightly: As long as they were talking, they probably hadn’t decided to kill us. But while I spoke, the one with the scythe was scampering up the street with a look of excitement. The photographer, Michael Christopher Brown, shrewdly refrained from taking pictures and said, in his dopiest American English, “I’m American! I live in New York City!” – in hopes of showing that we were harmless, and not spies.

About 20 yards uphill, a grown-up emerged from behind a fence. He looked like he was in his thirties, and he wore a clean navy t-shirt over a beefy torso. He was clearly in charge: the boss the boys claimed not to have. As soon as he appeared, he screamed, and the kids reacted like a string of lit firecrackers, yelling and raising their weapons. The first words I could make out from the man were “Get out of here,” and Michael and I both raised our hands to show we carried nothing more dangerous than the tools of journalism. I blurted out some words about wanting an interview, and he yelled, “No interview,” then, “Get out of here,” again. He stormed close enough to shove Michael and take away his camera while shooing us down the road at full scream.

We didn’t dare run or look back, in case he or his soldiers would interpret a glance over the shoulder or a panicked sprint as a sign of aggression or guilt. By then anything might have provoked them. With each slow step I wondered whether Kalashnikov rounds might shred my back or legs. In my imagination, I felt a phantom finger pressing firmly on the base of my skull, where one of the kids might take me out with one lucky shot.

The dirt path to the main boulevard stretched out for another 200 yards but felt much longer, and when I noticed the total absence of traffic there – and therefore the total absence of witnessesit occurred to me that, if the man decided it was safest to kill us, no one would see what happened, and our corpses would appear that afternoon, the palest stack of limbs on Avenue de France.

 

The Central African Republic – a landlocked former French colony sandwiched forlornly between Chad to the north and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the south – last grabbed the world’s attention a quarter century ago. Back then, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the country’s self-appointed emperor, faced public trial for, among other crimes, keeping a freezer full of half-eaten human bodies, some of whose tenderest cuts he may or may not have served to French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing on a state visit. The country’s politics have, by the standards of the continent, been almost benign ever since. CAR never saw a tenth of its population hacked to death, like Rwanda’s; its rulers have plundered its natural and human resources rather modestly, at least compared with Robert Mugabe or Muammar Qaddafi; it never became a haven for Al Qaeda, like Mali or Somalia, or a petri dish for Ebola, like the Congo. In those years – we might now be tempted to call them glory days –CAR neither flourished nor collapsed.

Now, most Central Africans would happily trade their problems for a mere outbreak of plague, or some light cannibalism. The backstory of the current conflict begins in 2003, when François Bozizé, the army’s chief of staff, found a patron in Chad’s oil-rich president, Idriss Déby, and seized control of the country. For the next eight years, Déby kept Bozizé in power by sending elite Chadian troops in moments of crisis. But around 2011, Bozizé began flirting with South Africa as a new guarantor and inched away from Déby. Incensed, Déby encouraged a loose coalition of mostly Muslim rebels from north and east CAR to take over the country.

The coalition, called the Séléka, needed more men, so it enlisted Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries to join its fighters on a death march to Bangui. They rolled through villages like a crime wave and arrived in the capital last spring, promptly taking over the government. When the Séléka fighters started their march to Bangui, they were a loose political movement, united only in their origin in neighboring Muslim countries and disaffected regions of the north and east. But by the time the Séléka came to power, many Christians noticed that they were being targeted while Muslims were being spared. This didn’t sit well. Most of the 100,000 or so Muslims who lived in Bangui before the Séléka takeover had nothing to do with the new government, but the Christian majority came to hate them, too.

Those Christians slowly mobilised militias of their own in the countryside over the course of 2013. By the end of the year, they were in Bangui and had performed almost exactly the same trick as the Séléka. Unlike the Séléka, though, they never seized the government. They just destabilised the country, and by January, the Séléka’s nominal leader, Michel Djotodia, had to flee to Benin.

The current caretaker president, a Christian ex-lawyer named Catherine Samba-Panza, is ineffectual at best, and the countryside towns are fast polarising, with Muslims being expelled by the thousands. In Bangui, the expulsion of Muslims is nearly complete. Most neighborhoods, such as Boy Rabe, belong entirely to the Anti-Balaka, and the small number of Muslims who remain are surrounded and hungry, preparing for the day when every one of them will be put to the sword.

 

The task of saving them falls, for now, to a 6,000-man contingent of African Union (AU) peacekeepers who zoom around town in armored personnel carriers or Toyota Land Cruisers with heavy machine guns mounted on the back. A single round is the size of a small carrot and can rip a boy in half. Until the end of March, the most hated group of peacekeepers were Chadian, since the Christians assumed, not entirely unfairly, that the trigger-happy Chadians wanted to protect only Séléka members. This made their presence too inflammatory to do any good, so they withdrew, leaving two closely cooperating contingents, Burundian and Rwandan, as the Muslims’ main protectors and the scourges of the Anti-Balaka.

The day after my near-fateful episode at the Anti-Balaka roadblock, I invited two Rwandan officers for lunch at Le Relais des Chasses, a French-owned restaurant that specialises in exotic wild game. Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Karangwa, the commander of the 750 Rwandans, and his operations officer, Major Augustin Migabo, both ordered that elusive African beast, the common cow, and got steaks with fries. For them, these steaks were a treat – the Rwandan mess is on a repeated playlist of rice and chicken, with a sardine now and then for variety – and today the two men were celebrating. They had just escorted a civilian convoy of Muslim truck drivers from Cameroon through neighborhoods thick with the Anti-Balaka, and they had killed at least four in the process.

Both men served in Darfur and agreed it was a model of simplicity compared with the mayhem they’ve encountered in CAR since their arrival in January. Karangwa is outgoing, the kind of guy who greets you with a smile and a handshake even while he’s being shot at. Migabo is more laconic, solemn, and contemplative. Their histories suggest that they are probably Tutsi while their men, along with the rest of the Rwandan military, are likely majority Hutu. But in any case, the Tutsi / Hutu issue never came up: As a matter of policy, the country’s government claims blindness when it comes to ethnicity, and it remains taboo to ask. In the five nights I spent sleeping at their base, which resembled a US military camp, except without air-conditioning, the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” were never mentioned in my presence, and if the two men harbor any resentments toward their countrymen for wrongs done during the genocide or since, they hide them perfectly.

Rwanda’s 1994 apocalypse (800,000 slaughtered in 100 days) still dwarfs the problems in CAR today, and it is not a coincidence that the country with the most knowledge of genocide is also among the most aggressive in preventing another. As Karangwa told me, “We are talking to the local population and sensitising them to [the idea of] not avenging.” He spoke proudly about how the post-genocide tribunals in Rwanda could help Central Africans deal with the killers in their midst.

But the Rwandans acknowledge that some parts of the conflict feel so familiar, so raw, that they are compelled to kill. “The weapons used in Rwanda were mainly traditional ones” – machetes – “as is the case here,” Karangwa said, as a sort-of explanation for his soldiers’ zero-tolerance policy toward public dismemberment in CAR. Karangwa is not naturally given to violence, but he told me, without a trace of apology, about a time his forces gunned down someone they knew to be a killer. A Muslim man in danger of being lynched in the street ran to a Rwandan position for protection. When the Rwandans refused to surrender him to the Anti-Balaka, a member of the group returned with the body of another Muslim, to demonstrate to the Rwandans that their sanctuary meant nothing – there was always another Muslim who couldn’t be protected. “He began cutting [the dead Muslim] up in front of us,” Karangwa remembers, with a slight shrug. “And so we shot him. If someone is carrying a gun or a body part in front of us, we must shoot him.”

 

If the conflict in CAR were as simple as shooting dead all the people running around with freshly hewn human limbs, the Rwandans might actually be able to keep things under control. But CAR’s history has encouraged all manner of grudges to fester, and the war has a whole separate front – between the Rwandans and the 2,000 French peacekeepers also in Bangui. The French call their mission Operation Sangaris, after Cymothoe sangaris – a species of Central African butterfly that lives only briefly – to symbolise the intended light touch and short duration of the French intervention. Another less-noted characteristic of C. sangaris is that its males spend an inordinate amount of time in internecine combat, and sure enough, the peacekeeper-to-peacekeeper relations are acrimonious.

Even in official language, the Rwandans take pleasure in tweaking the French. “We are engaging in aggressive peacekeeping,” says Brigadier General Joseph Nzabamwita, the Rwandan army’s spokesman in Kigali, “as opposed to the conventional peacekeeping practiced by other troop-contributing countries.”

The French arrived in what’s now CAR in the late nineteenth century, and their history suggests they wish they had never come at all. They initially tried enslaving the population and turning the country into a cotton producer. But that didn’t work. CAR ended up being the place where the French sent their dumbest colonial officers, and when French colonies gained independence in the early ’60s, Paris wasn’t sorry to see this one go.

Still, perhaps out of colonial nostalgia, the French have continued to interfere in Central African politics. CAR provided a station for French troops during the 1980s and 1990s, and prominent French politicians acquired stakes in gold and diamond interests. (French President Giscard d’Estaing did not visit Emperor Bokassa merely to hunt bongo and sample the imperial charcuterie.)

All of which explains why Paris treats the presence of anti-French elements in Bangui as a stick in the eye. The French are uncomfortable with the rise of Rwanda – a locally grown power whose regional significance has waxed just as theirs has waned. They are keenly aware that Bangui’s Muslims, whom the Rwandans protect, killed two Sangaris and now tag their neighborhoods with “NO TO FRANCE, THE DOGS OF EUROPE” graffiti. And the French have loudly condemned Rwanda’s alleged sponsorship of rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and assassination of political opponents. (Those opponents turn up dead with actuarially improbable frequency: At least one was shot dead in Bangui earlier this year, and Rwandan soldiers are rumored to have been responsible.)

Nor is the loathing one-sided. Rwanda withdrew its ambassador to France in the 2000s over allegations – later retracted – that forces loyal to the current president, Paul Kagame, killed Rwanda’s Hutu leader in 1994, sparking the genocide. And this April, in an interview with Jeune Afrique, Kagame mentioned French help in the “political preparation” for 1994’s genocide. He then rescinded the current French ambassador’s invitation to a twentieth-anniversary memorial for the victims.

In Bangui, the Rwandans say the Sangaris have modeled themselves on their butterfly mascot all too well and stand by while the Anti-Balaka commit atrocities against Muslims. The Rwandans appear on the scene, only to find the French watching and effectively sanctioning the bloodshed. “The Anti-Balaka are next to [the French] with their machetes and guns, and we can’t do anything,” says Migabo. “This is a big problem. The different contingents have different rules [of engagement]. The people know that, and they use it to their advantage.” Once, after the Rwandans killed a handful of Anti-Balaka, civilians approached the Rwandans about recovering the bodies. A French soldier recorded the whole scene on a camcorder from afar, and the Rwandans suggested that the French wanted to catch them on video – in a war-crime Gotcha! momentif they shot any civilians. The friction between the forces has reached such levels of dysfunction that the AU commander, a hard-charging Cameroonian general named Martin Tumenta Chomu, sometimes convenes senior AU officers in a hotel rather than their usual headquarters, with cell phones switched off, to avoid giving the French any chance to show up, interrupt them, meddle in their planning, or leak their plans to the Anti-Balaka, with whom the Rwandans say the French enjoy cordial relations. Tell the French what you’re going to do, the Rwandans say, and the Anti-Balaka will hear about it within an hour or two.

This gamesmanship between peacekeepers is galling when you see the outrageous levels of violence and hatred on the streets. The Fifth Arrondissement, where many of the Muslims lived before fleeing, is a wrecked museum of what life looked like before the Séléka and Anti-Balaka came into conflict. The Miskine mosque, once one of the city’s largest, is now flattened, and among the rubble are the weathered remains of religious texts in Arabic, at least one of which, on the day I visited, was smeared with a generous soft-serve of human turd.

Muslims who venture here or anywhere else outside the Third Arrondissement are foolhardy or desperate. One of the latter, a worker for an international organisation, recently returned to the country for financial reasons following three months as a refugee in Cameroon. We met at his office after he sent a car to collect me at a restaurant just two blocks away. He normally would have walked to the restaurant – but now he never goes anywhere but his office and the hotel where he lives. If anyone were to spot him on the street and recognise him from his earlier life, he would be shot, bludgeoned, or dragged through the street like a wild animal that had gored schoolchildren. In these public spaces, any Christian could walk freely, and the Anti-Balaka could strut with weapons brandished openly, as long as the Rwandans weren’t around.

Only in one place in Bangui would the Anti-Balaka be sure to encounter resistance. At the central mosque in the Third Arrondissement, I found a large courtyard of men, women, and children lying on mats, looking idle and abandoned. One man in glasses introduced himself as president of the Federation of Parents of Muslim Students and said the people around me were all displaced, and all desperate to leave Bangui as soon as possible. “[The Anti-Balaka] are shooting, trying to get here all the time,” he said. “They will try to come tonight.”

He adjusted his glasses bookishly and grew even more serious. “But our hearts are brave,” he said, “and we have machetes.”

 

One thing both Christians and Muslims in this conflict share is a sense of grievance that has curdled into bloodlust. While Muslims are right to be terrified of the Anti-Balaka, particularly when they’re swinging their scythes around, Bangui’s Christians have their own tales of dispossession and murder.

In December, tens of thousands of Christians relocated to a muddy area of Bangui’s M’Poko International Airport after being driven out of their homes in the Third Arrondissement. M’Poko is still a functioning airport, with Air France flights coming in from Paris, but about half of it is now covered by tents. Displaced Christians have filled in the spaces amid parked planes, pitching lean-tos in the shade of the wings and hanging laundry from propellers. The tent city extends all the way to the edge of the runway, where children play between landings. When it rains, the camp becomes a miserable Venice of ditchwater.

At M’Poko, the Christians live better than the Muslims around the central mosque: They can at least leave without certainty of death, and they have a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from medicine to DVDs to withered, fly-blown bits of bushmeat. But many of the residents seethe when I ask about the Muslims. One man said his Muslim neighbors – Central Africans who spoke Sango and lived near him peacefully – became crazy when the Séléka arrived, killing and looting indiscriminately. Father Benjamin Soya, the priest of a Catholic parish in the Third Arrondissement, came into the camp from his new home in the Fifth Arrondissement, to say mass by the airstrip. His church, St. Matthias’s, had been attacked (though not leveled), and he said he escaped only because he posed as a Muslim, greeting people on the street with “Salaam ‘aleikum” and letting them mistake his white cassock for an Arab-style tunic.

Making my way through the ditches and tents, I met a bitter young man with his chest bared and a tendency to gaze in the distance when he spoke. His name was Jean-Jacques. He had an Anti-Balaka identification card around his neck, and he told me that after he had lost his mother, father, and sister to the Séléka, he walked hundreds of miles from his home in the north to get to Bangui to fight for his family’s safety. He had a Bowie knife strapped to his waist and, hanging around his neck next to the ID card, an obligatory charm. “I rely on nothing but my god and my gris-gris,” he said, unsmiling, tapping the amulet with his middle finger.

The Rwandans claim that the Anti-Balaka use this camp as a staging ground for attacks, and the presence of a few men like Jean-Jacques certainly suggested that killers live among the civilians. While I talked to the camp’s residents, I detected the occasional suspicious glances of young men, thuggish in their sunglasses and soccer jerseys, with weapons worn outside their clothes. Most wanted to talk, and to denigrate the Muslims. Some insisted on posing for pictures with their knives unsheathed, indicating where on each other’s necks they would saw to remove a human head fastest. The ones who just hung back and stared were the most unnerving.

But the civilians assured me that these Anti-Balaka guards were their saviors, a force for good. “The Anti-Balaka don’t like to fight. They have hunting rifles and artisanal weapons, and they are fighting against professionals,” said a man named Marc Youane, referring to the supposed Chadian mercenaries among the Muslim population. “Without the Anti-Balaka, the Muslims would come through here in a second.”

None of the Christians in M’Poko or other neighborhoods seemed to realise how precariously the Muslims themselves live, in conditions far more straitened than their own. “They come here, and they kill us, with the protection of the Burundians,” said Andre Keke, a young man in a tracksuit. “They are not Central Africans. The majority are Chadians and have come here to massacre us.” As a crowd gathered, he said his Muslim neighbors from Mali and Senegal were welcome to stay (and, I supposed, not take the ruined mosque and shit-stained Korans personally). But the Chadians must go. The crowd roared with anger when he said, “Chadians,” and repeated the word. Some called them “colonisers,” businessmen whose power over the Christian majority had simply gotten out of hand, and who now needed to be ejected.

Keke claimed that the Chadians had killed 30 people in the last three days – “THIRTY DEAD!” he kept saying, “THIRTY DEAD!” – and the crowd murmured with discontent each time. I tried to ask whether they drew a distinction between local neighborhood-watch militias and the Anti-Balaka fighters who went in search of victims. They didn’t. Instead, when I brought up the Anti-Balaka, the crowd roared with approval, like a bar full of Bears fans at the mention of Mike Ditka.‬ Etienne Ngaka, the mayor of a part of Miskine, gushed that his area was secure, only through “the efforts of our [Anti-Balaka] sons.”‬

At that point, Keke had worked himself up to a yell. “The Anti-Balaka are the people,” he shouted. Everyone in Miskine was a member, “even the babies.”

 

When looking for solutions to the horrors here, one is tempted to say that any ideas that don’t start or end with genocide qualify as good ones. International peacekeepers could freeze the conflict into a stare-down, which would be precarious but bloodless. Another plan would be for the remaining Muslims to flee to other countries or to Muslim-majority areas of CAR. Among the partisans of this option are many of the Muslims themselves, whose principal demand when I visited was for safe passage to the Chadian and Cameroonian borders.

Augustin Migabo, the impassive, moon-faced Rwandan officer, said he didn’t like this solution, because in the long run, it wasn’t one. When I told him that the Muslims just wanted to leave, he sucked his tongue and shook his head. “If these people go, the war will be over,” he said. That sounded like a positive development, at least in the short term, and I told him so. But it ran counter to the model of reconciliation the Rwandans themselves had pursued, or claimed to, in the 20 years since their civil war. He suggested that AU peacekeepers attempt a strategy neither the Anti-Balaka nor the Muslims want: They should protect those last Muslims from all attacks and force the two warring groups to live together.

If the Muslims don’t stay put, Migabo said, there will be an even greater cataclysm down the line. “The Muslims in the north will come back,” he said, and they will start “a terror war.” Already there are elements of the Séléka near the Chadian border who are resisting disarmament and quite possibly preparing to return to Bangui. The worst-case scenario, he said, was a postponed doomsday, more like Rwanda in 1994 than the comparatively mild Bangui of today. Hundreds of thousands of dead versus tens of thousands.

Most experts seem to think the soundest, or at least the least-worst, option is the one that should have been pursued long ago: an international peacekeeping force that vigorously defends all vulnerable people, under a unified mandate. And on April 10, the U.N. Security Council approved a peacekeeping mission of 11,800 soldiers. Now CAR will just have to wait until September for delivery and try not to destroy itself in the interim.

But the new hatreds have already begun to harden and acquire permanence. No sane person would choose to be the first to move back into a neighborhood where recently everyone wanted to behead him. Nor would any sane person bet his neck on the endurance and effectiveness of the United Nations. The government of CAR has already begun taking steps to make its most powerful institutions Muslim-free. The armed forces, or FACA, dissolved when the Séléka arrived, and they are now being reconstituted without much care for the histories of its members – whether they are implicated in communal or political violence or whether they remain loyal to the Anti-Balaka. No one is sure if the FACA will represent the whole country or just the Christians.

I visited a FACA base where soldiers were reporting for duty, and it had the atmosphere of a college campus where school was back in session after summer break. Young men wore mismatched uniforms, some Castro-style combat green, some Desert Storm camo. One had an Orlando Magic jersey.

The commanders were optimistic and said all Central Africans without criminal pasts were welcome. But an officer, a 30-year veteran of the FACA, approached me and intimated that there might be problems. “It’s a delicate situation, but we have to identify the Anti-Balaka,” he said. He was a stringbean of a man, and when he leaned in to whisper, his clothes hung off him like a scarecrow’s, and I could see down his shirt. “I could tell you about these issues, but the Anti-Balaka would find me and beat me.”

Or worse. On February 4, minutes after the newly installed president, Catherine Samba-Panza, finished speaking at a military parade, members of the FACA broke ranks, found a young man, and accused him of being Séléka. Letting journalists photograph the scene, they kicked him in the head and stabbed him until he was dead, finally burning his corpse and dragging it through the city. French peacekeepers eventually ended the festivities by firing in the air.

 

Before leaving the country, I wanted to visit Samba-Panza in her home in eastern Bangui. Both sides dislike her – the Anti-Balaka call her the Séléka’s “whore”, and the Muslims consider her unwilling to help them – so it seemed possible that she was at least moderate enough to repel the worst elements from each camp. She certainly had a more promising past than her predecessors, who were natural-born authoritarians. Emperor Bokassa blew as much as 100 per cent of the country’s GDP on a coronation ceremony so obscenely lavish that Werner Herzog featured it in a documentary. Bozizé never hesitated to call in Chadian soldiers to squash uprisings before they metastasised. Samba-Panza, by contrast, was a lawyer before she was a politician, and for part of her career, she represented vulnerable clients, including women and children accused of witchcraft.

One might be cheered by the presence of a head of state with this background. But few presidents have ever mattered less to their countries’ well-being. She lives in a bubble of comfort and security, which she enjoys only because the Rwandan military guards her rather than the untrustworthy FACA. Their armed convoys escort her to her office in the morning and to mass at Bangui’s Notre Dame Cathedral for French services every Sunday. Even when I saw her return from an overseas trip at the airport, she had flown on a private jet marked “REPUBLIC OF GABON.”

She received me in her well-appointed home, luxurious by Central African standards, but modest compared with the excesses of those predecessors. It was decorated with African wooden statuary, and she sat under a tasteful oil painting of a floral still life. After a few days pounding the dirt roads of Bangui with the Rwandans, my trousers needed laundering, and when I entered, I wondered whether I’d leave a red, journalist-shaped mark on her sofa, perhaps the first time her furniture had touched Central African soil.

In this lair, she lamented the fatal rhythms of Central African history, how the uprising of poor and neglected populations in the north and east transmogrified so quickly into a fight between religions. “Up to that point, it was all political, and had nothing to do with religion,” she said. “Now, the non-Muslim population has reacted. It’s not because the people don’t like Muslims. It’s because the politicians used religion to arrive at their goals.”

I asked, a little impudently, if she could do anything about it. She spoke gauzily about coordinating humanitarian aid, building dialogue and reconciliation, and reviving the government that had been obliterated by war. And she said she had to keep the international community’s attention. “South Sudan, Syria,” she said, laughing. “We’re not the only ones with problems.”

At the air-conditioned heart of her country’s nightmare, she tried to maintain the cool dignity of a lawyer. It was easy to see why she might have emerged as a compromise candidate to steer the country for the next year. But she reminded me of an unlucky public defender whose client was going berserk – attacking bailiffs, flinging pencils at the judge, vowing in open court to offend again at the earliest opportunity – and who could no longer be defended or saved.

The Rwandan officer responsible for her security sat with us during the interview, silently. His country, whose example of post-genocide reconciliation Samba-Panza said she hadn’t studied closely, ended its war when Kagame’s Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front scored a decisive victory, then aggressively integrated Hutus into the institutions of government and civil society. But Rwanda wouldn’t have gotten to that point without one side’s winning the war. For CAR, where peacekeepers will, god willing, stop the situation from getting as bad as Rwanda’s, the prospect of a decisive victory for the Anti-Balaka or a revived, vengeful Séléka is an outcome well worth avoiding. Security from the outside is coming, slowly, but security without a measure of mercy and forgiveness from Central Africans themselves is simply a recipe for disaster postponed.

So Samba-Panza talked to me more about her plans for economic revitalisation. When the interview ended, we both heard a quiet crackle of gunfire from the direction of downtown. Neither of us mentioned it – it’s too common to remark upon – but I found myself stretching my goodbyes longer than strictly necessary, savoring another minute in this garden of peace, before heading back to a reality no country should have to face.

Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The New Republic. He traveled to CAR with support from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

MARTIN O’NEILL
Show Hide image

The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war