Seventeen-year-old Moussa in an NGO-run centre for child soldiers in Bangui. July 22, 2013
AFP Photo / Xavier Bourgois

By Xavier Bourgois

Sitting on the wheel of an old rusty anti-aircraft gun, I observe the commotion at one the bases of the Seleka, the former rebel coalition that has been in power in Central Africa for the past four months. Real men, real fighters, carrying real weapons in a real conflict that didn’t last for very long but that turned into a humanitarian crisis while abuses continue and every day brings more misery.

Yet I can’t suppress a smile as a I watch an officer who must be a colonel or a general and who was probably a non-commissioned officer or a corporal just days ago kicking the behind -- literally - of a low-ranking comrade who could just as easily become a colonel or a general tomorrow.

That’s how the Seleka seem to work. There are those who want to make the city safe, and then there are those who exploit their sudden power to commit the worst abuses. Insignificant nobodies enjoy a meteoric rise in rank, while those who thought they were well-established fall into disgrace at the same speed. Contemplating the two protagonists before me I wonder when their roles will be reversed. That should be fun.

And I also wonder whether it’s my Western mindset that prompts my amusement, or is that scene objectively grotesque?

Actually, I decide, the scene is really grotesque. Or rather, it would be almost funny if the Central African situation were not this dramatic, if there wasn’t this confusing cocktail of good will and bad will … as one foreign officer succinctly put it: “Seleka is a mess.”

Young Seleka fighters in Bangui. July 25, 2013.
AFP Photo / Xavier Bourgois

My thoughts may be a little exaggerated, but I don’t think I’m that far from the truth. I’ve never seen as many “senior officers” in my entire life. Sure, a few with a proven military track record are beyond suspicion, but I smirk as I read the country’s official journal which carries the announcements of the latest promotions.

Not far from where I’m sitting, a bare-chested chap is being lashed with a belt. As I hear the slaps, I wonder if there’s a good reason for the punishment. I’m told he’s a deserter. At the other end of the camp there are little cells that are off-limits for me. From afar, I can just see hands clutching the iron bars. Whose hands are they? Bad guys? Good guys? The distinction between the two seems so tenuous that I’d rather not hazard a guess.

I prepare my cameras and set out to take a few pictures in the camp. It’s always the same scene: At first I get dirty looks and posturing designed to be intimidating. And then one of the chaps allows me to take a shot, and then another one joins him, and within five minutes dozens of soldiers are crowding me, all demanding to be in the picture.

We’re joking, we’re laughing, we share a smoke. One of the guys pretends to want to confiscate my camera. I offer to exchange it for his rifle and, why not, swap my cap for his red beret. He hesitates, glances over to his corporal or general (or whatever he is that day), puts on a skeptical look, sighs and scuttles off with a laugh. I think I’ve made a new friend.

Just before leaving the camp we even take a “family photo’’ at the request of the soldiers who ask me to drop off the prints next time I’m around. They have handsome faces, they’re all smiles and friendliness. I think of the men behind bars and whether they find their jailers as charming as I do.

AFP journalist Xavier Bourgois (third from right) poses with Seleka fighters in Bangui.
AFP Photo

Four months after the fall of Bangui, my editors and I decided it would be a good idea to return to the country, which has slipped into oblivion, ignored by the world’s media. I hadn’t been back for a whole year, tied instead to an editing desk while my colleague, friend and boss (not necessarily in that order) Patrick Fort covered the fall of Bangui and I subbed his articles. After a few frustrating months, I’m pleased to return to the village where everything has changed.

I see my humanitarian worker friends again, or at least those who still have a taste for this place after witnessing nights of atrocious pillaging, threats and sometimes physical violence. Daily routines have changed because now there’s a curfew that kicks in at 8 pm. I think of prisoners on conditional release wearing electronic bracelets that start whistling at a certain hour.

Hysterical laughter. It’s 6 pm and we’re all sitting together in a deserted restaurant. All the restaurants we used to go to are empty now. Every night we’re the only patrons, and we wonder how the restaurant owners survive. We eat and drink hurriedly. Everybody has to be home by 8 pm. But not me, as a journalist I’m exempt from the curfew.

We drink too fast. Relaxing, we forget about the rest of the city: the dark empty streets where everybody lives in fear of falling into the hands of “fake rebels” who think nothing of requisitioning a vehicle with a burst of their Kalashnikovs.

That’s precisely what happened to a priest, well-known here for his work with street kids, in the very same neighbourhood that we’re dining in. I had an appointment with him, but in the end I go to see him in the community hospital where he’s being treated after the incident.

A Multinational Force of Central Africa (FOMAC) patrol in Bangui. July 20, 2013.
AFP Photo / Xavier Bourgois

A Seleka fighter poses with his weapon on July 25, 2013.
AFP Photo / Xavier Bourgois

Trying to look on the lighter side...

The sad story of abuses, waves of pillaging and murders would be incomplete without a mention of the dozens of sometimes hilarious anecdotes that this country has produced as well.

Like the one about the Seleka, having entered Bangui, mistakenly assaulting the so-called Chinese Hospital at the edge of the city centre because they thought it was the presidential palace.

Or the one about the roving telephone card sellers who didn’t know what to do when the fighters threateningly demanded a recharge for their mobile phones. Except what the warriors brandished weren’t mobile phones at all. They were air conditioner remote controls. This story has been told all over Bangui, and perhaps it’s not even true. But what is true is that the inhabitants, despite their painful daily lives, enjoy a good laugh at the expense of the city’s new masters, in a country where the contrast between the capital and the rest of the country is stark.

And so there’s light relief in incidents like the one about Seleka fighters stealing a bunch of NGO vehicles only to drive them into the ditch, because they forgot to learn how to drive before their pillaging rampage. But when you hear that one of them, his stolen vehicle out of control, drove into and killed a family, the smiles freeze.

Some of the best laughs are prompted by the noms-de-guerre of some officers, like one hearty officer they call “Colonel Superman”. Or General Bin Laden, who even had a stamp made with that pretty name.

And how to suppress a grin when you get stopped on a dirt road by a Captain Jack Bauer who, as one of his comrades whispers in my ear, “never laughs at all”.

And here’s one more: A special forces mate of mine told me a story, from another war in another African country, about an officer at a checkpoint called ‘The Chief’ and whose distinctive feature was a rubber glove he always wore on his head.

A Multinational Force of Central Africa (FOMAC) patrol in Bangui. July 20, 2013.
AFP Photo / Xavier Bourgois

I met the super-colonel some time later. A cool guy, very motivated to do his job right. Except we couldn’t go off into the city that day to eradicate crime. He didn’t have a weapon, or a car.

It’s tempting to tell these offbeat stories just for a laugh and to put things in perspective. But sadly, once the laughter has died down, reality returns with a vengeance. Whether they wear a rubber glove as headgear, or call themselves Bin Laden, Jack Bauer or forget whether they’re a corporal or a general, they’re fighters who still have their work cut out for them in this dangerous and troubled country.

A Seleka fighter. Bangui, July 25, 2013.
AFP Photo / Xavier Bourgois