Rebels of the Seleka coalition arrest a man wearing military fatigues, claiming to also belong to the Seleka movement, suspected of looting a house in a popular neighbourood of Bangui on March 26, 2013.
AFP Photo/Sia Kambou

by Patrick Fort

Feet and hands tied together behind his back, the looter is dragged several meters by a rebel in the Central African Republic capital Bangui. His cries of pain are drowned out by the thunder of applause that erupts from the crowd of onlookers. The message is clear: the Seleka rebels -- who on Sunday seized control of the capital in a rapid-fire weekend assault that forced President Francois Bozize into exile -- are trying to end the wave of rampant looting that ensued.

"Zero tolerance for looters," says General Moussa Mohammed Dhaffane, one of the five Seleka ministers in the national unity government and who, with an automatic gun in hand, is personally participating in the hunt for looters along the city's dusty streets. "These are criminals and they're treated as such," says Tanguy, a resident of Bangui's Cattin neighborhood and who is among the 400-500-strong team that is searching for pillagers.

The tied-up looter is hauled into the back of a pick-up truck where he is then whipped with a bullet belt. Another thief is repeatedly kicked on the back of a second truck, while a third pillager is beaten with a baton. 

The crowd cheers with joy at the spectacle.

People watch rebels of the Seleka coalition after they arrested men (lying in truck) suspected of looting in a neighbourood of Bangui on March 26, 2013.
AFP Photo/Sia Kambou

Since they took control, the Seleka rebels, a loose alliance of three rebel movements, have set up patrols to try to combat the looting -- some committed by their own members, some by bandits pretending to be rebels and some by local residents. One resident called to report the sighting of a looter in Cattin, a residential area where Muslims and Christians live side by side.

Once there, group commander Ali Fatah finds an army truck overloaded with loot: a flat-screen TV, a bed, tables, a fridge, chairs and carpets. It looks like a mover's truck. 

"They broke the lock on the gate," a woman named Corinne says with a trembling voice, describing how the thieves made it into the dealership courtyard. "They fled through the backdoor. Thank God someone called and they were arrested before they could leave."

Not far from there, gunshots suddenly ring through the air. The anti-looting team, still accompanied by the minister and followed by the crowd, rush to the scene. In another dealership, a man has been arrested and is being undressed by his captors. Beneath the combat clothes, he is wearing a pair of sport shorts and a jersey. "These are fake Seleka (rebels)," Fatah says. "They try to look like us in order to loot and frighten people who are too scared to say anything."

A young Seleka coalition rebel poses on March 25, 2013 near the presidential palace in Bangui.
AFP Photo/Sia Kambou

"We have to stop this," Dhaffane says, well aware of the fact that it is crucial to win the hearts of the city's people after they were traumatized by the rebels' violent entry into the city on Saturday in which several people were killed.

"Yesterday we arrested five people, this morning 12," Captain Atim Ashevi says. Among the people caught, a youth is trying to contain his composure as tears well up in his eyes. 

The Seleka rebels leave the neighborhood amid supportive cheers. "They should stay here," a resident says. "My house was pillaged, and so was the house next door. My neighbor wanted to defend himself, he was beaten. He has been in bed since."

In the Benz-VI district, the mood toward the rebels is different. "What does the Seleka bring?," wonders one resident, requesting anonymity. "Here, they loot, they destroy. Businesses have been brought down. Those who had a job will be unemployed." An employee for telecoms operator Orange says that "since yesterday, we have nothing to eat. I give my children water with salt. We have nothing to eat and they loot houses."

Rebels of the Seleka coalition arrest a man, who was wearing a military fatigue and claiming to belong to the Seleka movement, suspected of looting a house in a popular neighbourood of Bangui on March 26, 2013.
AFP Photo/Sia Kambou