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

Mike Lombardo via @moreMiLo
Show Hide image

“I was almost brainwashed by him”: How male YouTubers get away with preying on young fans

A multitude of YouTube stars have been accused of taking advantage of young fans, but little is being done to tackle the problem.

In June, a 24-year-old YouTuber named Austin Jones was charged with two counts of producing images of child abuse. Court documents allege that the internet personality – who has more than half a million subscribers to his YouTube channel – solicited explicit videos from two of his young female fans. According to the criminal complaint, Jones asked one of the teenage girls – known only as Victim B – to dance for him, and said: “Bounce again and smile at the camera while you bounce. And while you bounce, say ‘I’m only 14’ 3 times throughout the video.” Jones has been released on bail and is awaiting trial. Jones’ attorney Gerardo Solon Gutierrez points out that the singer is “innocent until proven guilty”.

A few weeks later, a YouTuber known as Durte Dom was accused of filming a 15-year-old girl from behind while she danced at a party, without her consent. “He filmed my ass dancing,” the girl wrote anonymously on Twitter. Dom responded to the allegations via the social network, writing: “the party was 18+, the girl snuck in. don't fool yourself.” He says he will now “start having people sign release forms” before he films them.

These allegations are not isolated. In 2014, a Tumblr user called Olga accused the YouTuber Tom Milsom of coercing her into sexual activities when she was 15 and he was 21. Milsom did not comment publicly on the accusations and was never charged. Only a month earlier, a YouTube musician, Mike Lombardo, was jailed for five years on child pornography charges after soliciting explicit photographs and videos from 11 of his underage fans. 

These events set off a series of other allegations. Vlogger Alex Day admitted to having “manipulative relationships with women” after 14 women and teenage girls accused him of manipulation and abuse. One anonymous 15-year-old wrote on Tumblr that Day had sex with her knowing she was underage and “didn’t listen to me when I asked to stop”. Day denied any sexual relations with underage girls, and none of his alleged victims pressed charges. Another YouTuber, Ed Blann, admitted in a now-deleted Tumblr post that he “manipulated” an of-age fan into sex even after he was “repeatedly told to stop”. Like Day, Blann never faced any charges, but, also like Day, he apologised for his actions.  

 In September 2014, a 19-year-old woman accused the YouTube prankster Sam Pepper of raping her, and another woman filed a police report accusing him of rape. Pepper denied the accusations, was never arrested and charges were never filed. He did, however, apologise for YouTube pranks that included pinching women’s behinds while wearing a fake hand.

A Tumblr post set up to track emotional and sexual abuse in the YouTube community to date features allegations against 43 YouTubers.

***

Social media revolutionised the concept of celebrity – and celebrity-fan interactions. YouTubers are both incredibly adored and incredibly accessible. Products they design sell out overnight and their live events fill arenas. At the same time, fans are often just a few clicks away from engaging in private, one-on-one conversations with their heroes.

“I feel like I was kind of blinded to the whole situation, like I was almost brainwashed by him,” says Ashley LaPrade, a 16-year-old who claims that when she was 15, Austin Jones coerced her into creating sexualised videos on the messaging app Kik. She posted screenshots of their conversations on social media after the news of Jones’s arrest broke.

“It was kind of casual at first and he asked me to model his merchandise for him... so I did. I took a couple pictures and I’m a gymnast so I was trying to like impress him and I did like splits and stuff,” she says. She alleges that Jones asked her to film herself from behind while bending down or dancing. “I didn't want to upset him and make him not like me,” she says.

LaPrade explains that as a young 15-year-old fan she “looked up” to Jones and was initially excited by his interest in her. After she began to feel uncomfortable with his requests, they stopped talking, but she continued to listen to his music and go to his concerts. She says that she only realised the severity of his actions after his arrest.

Many young fans like Ashley are initially unable to comprehend that anything wrong – legally or morally – has happened to them. Neesey Pathan is a 20-year-old student and YouTuber who claims she was sexually harassed by Sam Pepper when she was 15. In 2014, she posted a YouTube video of her allegations, showing screenshots of alleged conversations with Pepper in which he asks her to “do a naked a dance” and show him her cleavage.

“As a young naïve 15-year old girl, I just wanted to keep talking to him because I was a huge fan,” Neesey tells me. “When he started to get inappropriate with me, at the time that made me feel uncomfortable but I didn’t understand how serious that was, because of how young I was.

“I wanted him to stop being inappropriate with me but I didn't want him to stop speaking to me.”

***

Since the concept of celebrity was invented, nefarious individuals have used their fame to manipulate and take sexual advantage of young fans. In the 1970s, Lori Mattix was a “baby groupie” to musicians – alleging in a Thrillist article that she lost her virginity to David Bowie aged just 14. When the guitarist Ted Nugent couldn’t legally marry 17-year-old Pele Massa, he became her guardian instead. Anna Garcia met Prince aged 15 and began a relationship with him aged 17. “I guess it’s kind of a dream to a young girl of 17,” she said in the Nineties. “You can be influenced very easily and stuff like that because he’s 12-13 years older than me.”

It now seems as though a slew of YouTubers have taken advantage of this imbalanced fan-creator relationship, and have deliberately exploited the naivety of their young fans. Ashley and Neesey both claim they were emotionally manipulated.

“I think I put him on this pedestal, which put him in a position to very easily manipulate me and get what he wanted,” says Neesey. “I was just so excited to get to speak to someone who I had looked up to for a long time.”

Ashley claims that when she wouldn’t film increasingly explicit videos for Jones, he treated her coldly. “He went on about how he was in a bad mood now and he didn’t want to talk any more,” she says. “If I did something wrong to him, like if I didn’t blow a kiss or something, then he would make me redo [the video].”

In 2015, Jones was first accused of asking his underage fans to film themselves twerking. In a video entitled “Setting The Record Straight”, he admitted to asking for the twerking videos and said he became suicidal after this news became public. “I’m a pretty insecure person... I began researching different suicide methods. I started planning my suicide. It’s something I was very, very serious about,” he says in the video. 

“A lot of times when we were talking he was talking about how he was going to therapy so I kind of felt bad for him and that’s why I didn't really say anything [to the authorities],” says Ashley.

The American National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines on its website that threatening suicide can be a form of emotional abuse. “If your partner regularly threatens suicide, particularly whenever you’re not doing something he or she wants you to do, or when you’re trying to leave the relationship... this is a form of emotional abuse.”

According to Neesey’s screenshots, Pepper flippantly mentioned he was “suicidal” when she refused to show him her breasts. In Olga’s blogpost about Tom Milsom, she alleges: “he’d like sob and cut himself in front of me he threatened weird suicidal shit a lot”.

“Obviously, if someone is saying to you that they're suicidal, you want to help them, because obviously they don't mean it but as a young person you think they do,” explains Neesey. “And you don't want to be held responsible for them hurting themselves and you maybe care about this person because you’ve been watching them for so long. So you’re manipulated into carrying on contact with them because if you don’t, what will happen...” 

***

To date, Lombardo is the only YouTuber who has ever been jailed for sexually abusing his fans. There are a multitude of reasons for this. Some victims are too afraid to press charges, fearing backlash from a YouTuber’s fandom. Many victims are unable to see the severity of their abuse until they are older. More still are manipulated into silence. Parents can’t comprehend YouTube stardom, and fail to understand what is happening in their children’s lives. Some victims simply don’t know which authorities to turn to.

“I'm kind of steaming about this whole issue,” says Michelle LaPrade, Ashley’s mother. “I can’t even look at a picture of the guy. It makes me want to punch him.”

At the time, Ashley never told her mother about Jones’s behaviour, but Michelle overheard conversations about it between her daughter and her friends. “I feel like a bad mother. I never even really investigated it. Because I know girls and their drama and you know, [they] overreact sometimes.”

After Jones’s arrest, Michelle wanted to report his interactions with Ashley to the authorities, but she found her local police department unhelpful. “I don't know who to turn to,” she says.

Many more victims are unaware that a crime has even occurred. “When I was 15 I didn't see how problematic it was,” says Neesey. “I knew it was a bit strange, and I did feel uncomfortable, but I didn't realise that he was actually sort of committing a crime in terms of asking a minor, as an adult, to do these things...

“It wouldn't even have crossed my mind to go to the police.”

While the UK has the large-scale Operation Yewtree into sexual abuse by celebrities, there is no equivalent for YouTube. Despite the multitude of allegations spanning half a decade, there is no single helpline or dedicated investigation into YouTube abuse. When questioned on this, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“We cannot allow social media platforms to be looked upon as a safe space for predators to target our children and share indecent images. It is vital that communication service providers have easily identifiable reporting systems for people to flag inappropriate or illegal content – and that they are clear about what is and isn’t allowed on their sites.”

A YouTube spokesperson said: “We have clear policies against harassment and we enforce these policies by removing both flagged content and comments that break our rules as well as terminating the accounts of repeat offenders.”

Sam Pepper is still on YouTube, where his channel has over two million subscribers. Alex Day returned to YouTube in December 2015, and now has over 80,000 subscribers. Austin Jones’s YouTube channel remains live, though he is not allowed to use social media before his trial.

***

“I feel like it is really hard to be taken seriously,” says Ashley. On social media, people are prone to victim-blaming Ashley and other alleged victims, saying that they should have stopped replying to the YouTubers harassing them. “Yeah, we did send stuff back but it was... we were being pressured into it and we didn't want to upset him or anything like that,” Ashley says. Her mother tells me she is glad Ashley “took the high ground” in not sending overtly sexual videos to Jones.

Unsure which authorities to speak to, many victims turn to social media to discuss their abuse. Accusations play out on Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube itself. Ashley tweeted screenshots of her interactions with Jones, while Neesey created two videos about her conversations with Pepper. Although this is an effective, and unprecedented, way for victims to get their voices heard, many online are distrustful of complaints that didn’t go through the authorities. Many more leave misogynistic and hateful comments.

“People will just be absolutely horrible to you and call you demeaning things... I got called a flirt, I got told it was all my fault because I continued speaking to him...” says Neesey, of the reaction to her videos. “I think that's a lot of the reason why people sometimes don’t come forward, because they don't want to go through all that stress again. They’ve already dealt with the situation; why would they want to deal with the stress of people being horrible to them about it?”

Some commenters criticise Neesey and other victims who have made YouTube videos and claim they were doing so for attention. “No one in their right mind would do it for attention because the attention you get is negative,” Neesey says. “I honestly don’t believe that someone would sit down and accuse someone of doing something if they didn’t mean it. So I really think it should be taken seriously.”

Whether it makes sense to those outside of the community or not, many victims' first recourse is social media, not the police or authorities. The accusations about Durte Dom – the YouTuber who allegedly filmed a 15-year-old dancing – were publicised by another YouTuber, Elijah Daniel, on his Twitter page.

Damon Fizzy is a YouTuber who called out Austin Jones after the initial accusations in 2015, and continues to do so on Twitter now. Although he agreed to speak with me, he was unable to find time to do so over a series of weeks.

For many YouTubers and their victims, social media is more important that the traditional media. Perhaps this makes sense – when the Mail Online covered the arrest of Lombardo, the YouTuber who solicited child abuse images from 11 underage fans, they added inverted commas around the word “star” in their headline. If the media and the authorities can’t take YouTube seriously, how seriously will they take accusations of YouTuber abuse?

***

In the past, YouTubers have often been good at self-policing. Hank and John Green are American brothers who run the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, which has over three million subscribers. They own a record label, DFTBA, and run the annual YouTube convention VidCon. Lombardo and Day were DFTBA artists, and were dropped from the label after the accusations emerged. The Green brothers also banned Pepper from VidCon.

After the storm of accusations in 2014, an enormous number of popular YouTubers made videos in response. Hank Green explained consent to his audience, while the comedy YouTuber TomSka created a guide to YouTube gatherings. The popular YouTube duo Jack and Dean even made a music video about consent. The community came together to exile those who weren’t being punished in other ways. The subscriber numbers on the accused’s channels dropped dramatically.

Yet within a few months, many disgraced YouTubers can return to the platform to harness a new generation of fans, many of whom might not be aware of the accusations.

“YouTube still allows them to create content and make money off it, and that to me is just communicating that the behaviour is just not that bad. It’s sort of equivalent to a slap on the wrist and it doesn't convey the extremity of the situation of what they’ve done,” says Neesey. “I think they should be completely ostracised from the community, and have their status stripped from them, and I think YouTube should support that. Because they’re criminals.”

On Twitter, YouTuber Damon Fizzy claims he received backlash from Jones’s fans when trying to speak out years ago. “It’s crazy the backlash I received versus now. I was literally treated worse than the person who uses his underage fans for sexual gain,” he wrote.

And it’s true that YouTubers’ leagues of adoring fans can make it difficult to speak out about abuse. It is hard for many adults to understand how consuming being a young fan can be, particularly when manipulation is involved. When I ask both Ashley and Neesey what they would say to young female fans who start talking to YouTubers, they both say this is fine. Neesey warns that when a youngster becomes uncomfortable, they should end communication, but both she and Ashley feel that safe, normal fan-creator interaction is fine, indeed desirable.  

Sapphire Putt is a 20-year-old who claims a YouTuber coerced her into filming videos of herself dancing when she was 16. When I ask if she thinks it would be OK for the YouTuber to return to YouTube, she says she would be “cautious” but “wouldn’t throw the possibility of maybe giving him a chance again”.

“If he actually shows that he’s learned, you know, I would give it a chance and if he would mess it up again then that’s it, you know.”

When I ask Ashley what she would say to people who remain fans of Austin Jones she says: “I’d say that I probably understand... but they also need to understand that what he’s doing isn’t right and no one should be treated the way he is treating people.”

***

The NSPCC is currently calling for an independent regulator to scrutinise internet companies and fine them if they fail to keep children safe.

“We want the government to draw up a list of minimum standards that internet companies must observe to protect children, and children should be automatically offered safer accounts that protect them from grooming and harmful content,” an NSPCC spokesperson says.

“We know from our Childline service that online sexual exploitation is increasing so it’s vital that more is done to protect young people from abusers who use social media to target and manipulate them.”

For now, Ashley is simply glad things didn’t go further. “It's scary not knowing what could've happened, knowing that I was brainwashed like to believe it was OK, and I'm just happy he's not able to message other girls at this point,” she says.

Neesey hopes that schools will get better at teaching consent. “As a young person, I knew I felt a bit uncomfortable but I just thought that I was being dramatic... so I think people need to be educated, for sure.”  She says education needs to be improved not just in schools, but in the media.

“Unfortunately, people are sort of used to it now, after quite a few YouTubers, so it’s sort of like, ‘Oh another one.' People aren’t talking about it as much – not that it’s old news, but it’s not as shocking. People aren’t giving it as much attention as it needs.”

The NSPCC advises that if a child is worried about an online situation they should talk to a trusted adult or contact Childline on 0800 1111. Parents can find out more about talking to their child about staying safe online by searching Share Aware or visiting www.nspcc.org.uk

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.