Field Notes: Central African Republic


A photo posted by Peter Gwin (@petergwin) on

Field Notes below all by Pulitzer Center grantee and National Geographic editor Peter Gwin in Central African Republic earlier this year. Find the below, and more, on Field Notes and on Instagram.

To understand the complexity of the problems in the Central African Republic, consider the global crosscurrents represented by Aristide’s shirt. (above)

He lives in Boyrabe, a predominantly Christian neighborhood that was heavily targeted by the predominantly Muslim fighters when the Seleka swept into Bangui last year. And lately, the neighborhood’s pro-Anti Balaka residents have skirmished the French peacekeeping force. And yet, Aristide wears a jersey from the French football club Paris Saint-Germain, which is owned by Qatar (a nation where, according to the UN, Seleka leaders have gone for funding) and sponsored by Emirates (an airline owned by Dubai, which is one of the places where, according to the Enough Project, smuggled CAR diamonds end up).

Aristide isn’t alone. I’ve seen dozens of PSG shirts as well as those for the English club Arsenal (also sponsored by Emirates). The shirt itself, an unlicensed knockoff, was likely made in China—along with most of the plastic goods in the marketplace and the majority of the motorcycles and scooters that dominate the roads—a nation that has been eager to gain access to CAR’s resources in recent years.

When I asked Aristide why he likes Paris Saint-Germain, he lists two of the team’s players who come from CAR’s neighbors Hervin Ongenda (DRC) and Jean Christophe Bahebeck (Cameroon). But mainly, he says, “I like football.”



A photo posted by Peter Gwin (@petergwin) on

Bats for sale in Bangui’s central market, three for $4. Technically they are illegal but so are hand grenades and apparently there is a glut of them trading illicitly in the city. (An EU peacekeeper told me that locals told him a Chinese grenade could be had for less than a dollar.) The bats present a whole other—and in some ways scarier—threat. With West African nations desperately trying to halt the worst-ever recorded Ebola epidemic, health officials warn that consuming bush meat, especially bats, which are known vectors for the virus, could be the match that sparks the next wave of infections. (In addition to bats, monkeys are another potential source of Ebola and are featured on the menus of several local restaurants. “It’s our traditional food,” the bat vendor told me. “You should try it.”) It must be noted that CAR has never had a recorded outbreak of Ebola. But if one were to happen now, with the country’s health service essentially shuttered and a quarter of the population displaced by fighting, it could turn the current tragic situation into a nightmare beyond compare.


A photo posted by Peter Gwin (@petergwin) on

Six days ago two Muslim men lured deliveryman Paul Koli-Miki into their walled neighborhood in Bangui with the promise of work. Once inside, they accused him of being Anti-Balaka and bound his arms and legs with packing tape, hit him on the head with a hammer, and proceeded to use pliers to rip three teeth out of his mouth. They left him semi-conscious and bleeding on the floor of the house, saying they would return after dark to throw him down a well. He managed to free his legs and push through the door. With his hands bound behind his back, he managed to stack a chair on top of a table and climb up and over the broken-glass-topped wall that separates the Muslim neighborhood from the main road, which is guarded by UN peacekeepers.


“I fell to the ground and begged some passing Muslims to free my hands,” he said. “They told me they didn’t know what happened to me, but they were not involved and left me. Finally some soldiers from Burundi freed me.”

Médecins Sans Frontières treated his wounds yesterday. “There is no police tribunal in Bangui since the Seleka came here, so I have filed a protest with the Assemblée Nationale. I hope I will get justice.”

I asked if he had a problem with Muslims before his attack. “No,” he said, waving a finger for emphasis, adding that he had had several Muslim friends, but they all fled after the Seleka left power in January. “I did not support Anti-Balaka before, but I support them now. Absolutely! Muslims should have no home in this country."




A photo posted by Peter Gwin (@petergwin) on

One can only speculate how this campaigner’s shirt for deposed President Francois Bozize ended up in Obo. Presumably it was discarded by some disillusioned supporter, who possibly was the one who gouged out the discredited politician’s face. But clothing is not disposable in Obo, and neither its tainted political affiliation nor its prominent hole deterred a hunter named Aramassi from accepting it when one of his neighbors offered it as a replacement for the rag he was wearing. Since he got it more than a year ago he has killed numerous baboons, wild pigs, and porcupines, as well as small antelopes, birds, and snakes while wearing it. He was also wearing it three weeks ago when he was kidnapped by the LRA. It sustained a big rip across his shoulder blades, he told me, when he fled from his captors through the bush, his arms still bound behind his back. “Why do you ask about my shirt?” He asked me. “It is not a good shirt like yours,” indicating my plain t-shirt. So we traded, and I walked home in the dark with the night breeze blowing through the rip in the back, and Aramassi went to bed, planning to get up early to hunt wearing my t-shirt.


A video posted by Peter Gwin (@petergwin) on

If you find yourself in Obo's small market just before sunset, you're likely to find a raucous football match underway. Boys from the village's sprawling neighborhoods, Christian & Muslim, materialize on a makeshift pitch with a balled up piece of old inner tube and boundless passion. No formal out-of-bounds are observed, and occasionally the play spills into the road, drawing the half-hearted curses of moto riders.


Roughly half the boys are 9 years or older (including the diminutive yet determined goalie in this video, Aristide), which makes them targets for the LRA, who use the children to bolster the group's thinning ranks. In 2008 the LRA kidnapped more than 80 people from Obo in a single raid, most of them boys & girls between 9 and 23. (The girls are given to commanders as "wives.")

Three weeks ago a 13 year old was taken a few kilometers outside the village, while he was helping his father hunt in the bush. It happened around sunset, about the same time the boys in Obo were gathering for their nightly football match




A video posted by Peter Gwin (@petergwin) on

What remains of CAR’s National Ballet rehearses on the grounds of the National Museum because fighting around the Bangui neighborhood where their headquarters is located has made it unsafe to meet there. Before the conflict, the group traveled around the country, performing traditional dances and songs from the country’s 16 different ethnic groups.
This one comes from the pygmies who live in the far southwest of the country. It tells the story of a woman poisoned by a jealous friend who suspects her of trying to steal her husband. In this snippet, a healer raises the woman from death.

“One of our goals has always been to educate the different Central African communities—both Christian and Muslim—about the diverse wealth of music and dance in our country,” says Florence Dambagoa, an ethnographer and the troupe’s chief of production and spectacle. Of the Ballet National’s 30 members, 14 are missing. “Some fled the country,” says Dambagoa. “The others we don’t know. We hope they are alive.”