In Bangui, the capital city, the full tragedy of the CAR reveals itself. It is a singularly unfortunate country. The loosely organised village communities of the area proved unable to offer sufficient resistance to the raiders who supplied the Atlantic slave trade and many people were carried off over the centuries. When the Atlantic trade came to an end in the 19th century, slavers from the East took their turn at using the area to feed the Arab trade on the Indian ocean. The country was heavily depopulated by slaving and even today, with an area larger than France, it is inhabited by just 3 million people.In the colonial era the CAR was utterly neglected by the French imperial power; it was too far from the sea and the ships which carried raw materials from Africa to Europe; the area was densely forested and development of roads and infrastructure would have required great investments. Therefore, rather than undertake this long-term task, the entire country was simply divided up and leased to a few private companies who were free to use the resources as they wished, including the human population who were often pressed into slavery.
Since independence little has fundamentally changed. The presidents have been picked, supported and then replaced by France. The imperial power has cared only about the safeguarding of their economic and strategic interests and have been happy to prop up rulers, often by military intervention, who guarantee these interests, no matter how brutal they are. The little fame that the CAR has earned in the world is for the reigns of terror which have been used to ensure the status quo is retained. Dacko and Kolingba have gained some little repute for their cruelty and autocracy but the man who really put the CAR on the map was Bokassa, the cannibal, the butcher of schoolkids, who introduced a new standard among insane dictators when he spent $28 million in 1978, more than the entire government budget, in a ceremony where he was crowned ’emperor’ of the newly renamed ‘Central African Empire’. France actually bankrolled the whole thing.
Meanwhile the country remains almost totally undeveloped. The communications with the exterior are still so poor that it is not worthwhile to exploit most of the abundant resources of this fertile country. There are a few diamond mines in the West which are economically viable due to the low transport costs of this valuable commodity. In the North there are some game reserves where super rich Frenchmen, including ex president Giscard-d’Estaing come to shoot elephants. There are a few coffee plantations along the Cameroon border and timber, bananas and palms are exploited in the rapidly shrinking forests of the South, but these are on a small scale and relatively unprofitable since the transport costs are high compared to their competitors – all these goods have to be hauled over more than a thousand kilometres of muddy tracks into Cameroon and onwards to the port at Douala. The total income of the CAR government, around $800 million a year, is comparable to a room of Wall Street stockbrokers.
The history of the CAR in the last few years has continued on its tragic course. Our taxi-driver, who picked us up when we arrived in the city, filled us in on the events of recent years. The current president, Felix Andre Patasse, was the first person from the North of the country to hold power. He favoured fellow Northerners in employment which prompted the army, still dominated by Southern officers from previous regimes, to revolt. In 1996 and ’97 there were three mutinies of large parts of the army against the president. The presence of some 2,000 French troops was crucial to the president’s survival. The third mutiny saw heavy fighting on the streets of Bangui which lasted for a week. According to our driver, during this week it was impossible to step onto the streets of the city. Both sides in the conflict distributed arms among the city’s idle youth and formed squads of irregular troops which battled each other throughout the suburbs. The conflict was eventually halted by a deal which saw the introduction of a UN peacekeeping force to oversee the demobilisation of the irregular forces. However the end of the conflict created its own problems since many of the demobilized youth, armed and unemployed, took up a career in banditry and for much of 1998 and 1999, travel outside the city was extremely dangerous due to the high number of hijackers.
As well as its security problems, CAR has of late been suffering an acute financial crisis. Our driver told us the hardly believable fact that no wages had been paid to any public sector workers for the past 18 months. Since the city of Bangui has almost no private sector to speak of, this non-payment had a devastating effect on the entire economy of the city. All of the services: restaurants, bars, taxis, shops and other businesses which had depended on the custom of the public sector workers, had seen their revenue disappear. Added to this crisis was the influx of thousands of refugees into the city, fleeing from persecution and wars in other countries of the region. There were substantial numbers of Burundians, Rwandese and refugees from the wars in both Congos in the city, all displaced and desperate. Thus this city, which housed about a million people, had almost no money in circulation, everybody needed money, nobody had any.
This dire predicament had recently become even worse. The country’s main trade route for imports and exports used to be the Oubangui river. Goods were shipped by river to Brazzaville and from there by rail to the port at Pointe Noire. However the railway was destroyed during the civil war in Congo-Brazzaville and the war in the other Congo effectively closed the river to commercial shipping since piracy became so common. The closure of this supply route precipitated a severe fuel shortage in Bangui. For several weeks no petrol was available which caused, among other things, a wave of armed bank robberies in Bangui – the police apparently had no fuel to pursue the robbers. The fuel crisis was resolved just a week before we arrived in Bangui by Qaddafi of Libya sending a shipment of petrol as a gift to the CAR. Given all these problems, it is safe to say that the citizens of Bangui were far from content. Things were so bad that our driver could even fondly reminisce about the days when the Southerners had held power. “Back when our lot was in power, sure there may have been problems, but I mean it wasn’t like this!”, he said gesturing at the streets around him.
Despite our driver’s obvious passion for the subject, his descriptions of the tribulations of the people of the CAR were far surpassed by the vivid visual story which we witnessed through the car windows. We drove into the circular Place at the heart of the city. It appeared dusty and decrepit, almost like a ghost town. The shops looked poor and decaying, and many had obviously closed down. The only people on the streets were wretched and destitute-looking. Hungry Tuareg beggar children lingered on corners ready to cling to any passers by. Crippled and deformed old men slumped against boarded up businesses. Paint flaked from almost every building, one of the only exceptions was a new-looking brightly painted bank in the heart of the Place.
We drove through the Place and out along Avenue Boganda, one of the two principal roads which radiate from the city centre. This road was the front-line in the fighting of 1997 and many of the buildings still bear heavy scars. The tourism ministry sports a line of bullet holes – filled in but not painted over – so one can see how the building was raked with a burst of automatic gunfire. Many of the large concrete hulks which line the avenue also bear the marks of war. A tall government office block looks like it has been burnt out and only survives as a skeleton. In many ways the avenue resembles an urban wasteland more than the principal artery of a capital city.
Almost the only cars on the road are share-taxis, mostly crammed with 6 or 7 people for economy. The main exceptions are the UN vehicles, shiny new white Landcruisers with the letters ‘UN’ marked a metre high on their sides in black paint. They are part of the prospective peace-keeping forces for the DRC, currently based in Bangui in the absence of a peace to keep across the border. They drive around the city, often in convoys of several vehicles, driven by uniformed soldiers and packed with sophisticated communications equipment, a stark contrast to the destitution of the rest of the city. We drove by their heavily fortified and guarded base, surrounded by high concrete walls topped with razor wire. To our right we could see a large imposing stadium of grey concrete in the shape of an oblong bowl: built for Bokassa’s inauguration as ’emperor’ and left unused and empty since that day – a fine monument to the insanity of absolutism.
We kept going along Avenue Boganda and arrived at the major intersection known as ‘km 5’, a congregation of low concrete buildings and haphazard wooden shacks, all roofed with rusting sheets of corrugated iron. Unlike the rest of the city, this area was thronged with crowds of people and traffic. Fierce looking women guarded small piles of vegetables at the many informal stalls which filled all the available space at the road’s edges. Crowds of thin and hungry shoppers milled among the vehicles and stalls, their clothes often ragged or covered with the dust that hung over the area. The din of cars, horns and the cries of traders filled the air.
Our taxi muscled its way slowly through the intersection and continued towards the hostel which we had picked from our guidebook. Actually it hadn’t been a difficult choice, since according to the book there were only a handful of hotels in the city and only two hostels which were relatively moderately priced. We had chosen the one which was supposedly ‘popular with overland travellers’ and had facilities like a bar, restaurant and barbecue. However when we got there we found the site was derelict, boarded up, the buildings were falling down and the place was covered with weeds. The driver honked the horn until a caretaker eventually appeared. He explained that many tourists used to come before 1997 but not since then and the place had been forced to close down long ago.
Our taxi turned back towards km 5 and this time turned North at the intersection, away from the city centre, towards the other cheap accommodation option listed in our book: a Presbyterian mission with dormitories for travellers. On the way our driver pointed out one of the city’s foremost sights: the large pyramidical church of christianism, a sect which was born in the superstitious despair of Zaire and now spreads across Africa flourishing wherever desperation reigns. It took us some time to locate the mission since its entrance was marked with no sign, but eventually a passerby was able to point it out. We drove in the gate to be once again greeted with a desolate scene. The main building had a gaping hole in the roof and the place looked deserted. The caretaker knew nothing of dormitories but he did offer to rent us a villa for a few hundred dollars a month.
We had now exhausted the cheap accommodation options. We asked the driver if he knew of anything else. He replied that, yes, there were many boarding houses around the city but these would be far too insecure for people like us who would attract thieves, therefore he said we’d have to try one of the hotels. We reluctantly agreed and he took us to the hotel Iroko, the cheapest hotel in town. It was located off Avenue Boganda, along a network of incredibly uneven dirt tracks. The building was heavily defended with a large metal cage at the front protecting an open air seating area. The place did have a derelict air, the receptionist lay flat out asleep on a table in what must once have been a dining room. Most of the rooms had large gaping holes in the wall where air-conditioner units once hummed. But happily, there was one functioning room, and we accepted it willingly, although the price, $25 a night, was far greater than anything we had paid before in Africa.
II ACROSS THE RIVER
Bangui lies on the Northern bank of the Oubangui river, the largest tributary of the mighty Congo river, and on of Africa’s longest rivers in its own right. It runs over 2000 km from its source on the Western border of Uganda to where it meets the Congo. From the Bangui waterfront a large gently rounded green hill can be clearly seen across the grey sluggish waters of the great river. At the foot of the hill a few white-painted, single-storied buildings can be made out among the lush and verdant plant-life which thrives all along the river. At any one time a handful of dugout canoes can be seen, paddling tranquilly across the few hundred metres of water between Bangui and these buildings. It is a picture of natural harmony, an African idyll of peace, tradition and fertility. However, all is not as it seems.
For the buildings at the foot of the hill are the town of Zongo which lies in the country formerly known as Zaire, as close to hell on earth as one is ever likely to get. Even the name of this country presents a problem, most people in Africa call it Congo-Kinshasa after its capital city Kinshasa, but this is hardly satisfactory since it springs from the colonial tradition of naming a territory after the centre from where it was conquered, pacified and administered, sort of like saying: the native region under the dominion of the fortified European citadel of Kinshasa. Others refer to this country as Congo-Zaire in reflection of its former name ‘Zaire’, but this is equally unsatisfactory since the name ‘Zaire’ was invented by the mad dictator Mobutu, during one of his phony drives for ‘Africaness and authenticity’, but in reality the name is no more authentic than any other. The colonial name ‘Congo’ is already the property of its neighbour, the other Congo with its capital at Brazzaville, just across the river from Kinshasa. Finally the official name, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, is patently unsuitable and is a name which I only heard used once in Africa. The reason for the unsuitability is the extreme absurdity of calling this state democratic which has eminently succeeded in quashing any threat, however vague, of democracy by murder, torture and mass repression. Rather than in democracy, it has excelled in the field of dictatorship and brutality and the Kabila regime that was in power at the time, was the proud world record holder for the number of journalists in prison without trial.
We were originally intending on trying to cross this gigantic country from Bangui through the Northwest DRC to Uganda, the route which was once part of the ‘Trans African highway’. In the 70’s and 80’s a steady trickle of adventurous Europeans in Landrovers and trucks travelled this route on their way to complete the famed overland traversal of Africa from the Mediterranean to the Cape. However by the time that we finally got to view this country from the Bangui waterfront, any ideas of going there had been firmly set aside. In Yaounde, we had found on the internet, an account by a group of South Africans who had done this journey in 1998. It had taken them 4 months of gruelling travel, constantly harassed and arrested by paranoid and corrupt security personnel. The transport situation was woeful. The Belgians who were the colonial rulers and were far from committed to the development of the country, had left some 88,000 km of motorisable tracks in the country at independence. By the end of Mobutu’s rule in 1997 this figure had decreased to 12,000 km, naturally in the vicinity of mines. The voracious forests of the Congo basin have gobbled up the rest, temporary aberrations, and reclaimed what was their own. The South African travellers had been forced to walk for hundreds of miles through this wilderness since many of the roads had disappeared. Where there were roads, there were no motorised vehicles and even large sections of the once-great Trans African highway were now no more that 2 feet wide and passable only on foot or by bicycle.
Based on this report from 1998 we were still intending on attempting to cross the country, but it appeared that things had now become far worse than two years before. In 1998 the Ugandan and Rwandan regimes, and the foreign policy of Britain and the US which underwrites them, had turned against the Kabila regime which they had created, and took up arms against the government. They created two indigenous rebel movements as paper-thin fronts for their invasion; the Congolese Rally for Democracy” under Jean Pierre Bamba, as a disguise for Rwanda’s interests, and the Movement for the Liberation of Congo for the Ugandans. Even the leaders of these movements themselves admit that they are in fact puppets for their backers who supposedly came to the DRC to assist them. Against the invasion of these two armies, who are the military heavyweights of the region, battle hardened by their wars at home and well armed and trained by their US and British backers, the Kabila regime would have had no chance. His army and administration is famously corrupt and ill-disciplined, not much better than the old guard of Mobutu which turned on the civilian population rather than confront Kabila and the advancing Rwandan and Ugandan armies. So Kabila tried to save his skin and invited several foreign armies to the DRC. The Zimbabweans sent some 10,000 troops, the Namibians a few hundred, the Libyans several thousand, and crucially the highly organised Angolan army, battle-hardened from their 25 year war with UNITA, sent some 10,000 troops. In return for this military support, Kabila handed over several of the rich mineral resources of his country to these foreign armies to be personally managed by the military and civilian hierarchies. Good incentives indeed for them to defend their frontlines.
Since the early days of the war and the foreign interventions, things had largely remained at a stalemate. The country was divided roughly in half, diagonally from Northwest to Southeast, a line corresponding with the main mining axis of the country. Each of the foreign armies seemed principally concerned with extracting and defending their share of the mineral wealth. The United Nations had been busily trying to broker a ceasefire and it succeeded when the Lusaka accord was signed in 1999 by all the warring parties, laying down various terms for an end to hostilities and an eventual introduction of peacekeeping troops to monitor the ceasefire which, at some unspecified time in the future would lead to a withdrawal of foreign troops. According to the media reports that we had been hearing, it seemed that this ceasefire was largely holding. The agreement seemed to allow the various parties to get on with the important business of enriching themselves, without the inconvenience of having to fight a pesky war. Thus we had hoped to be able to travel through the country given the peace on the ground. However, while travelling across the CAR, and in Bangui itself, we met several people who had recently been in the DRC, or came from there, and from what they told us it appeared that the equilibrium of the DRC did not represent peace at all, but was an equilibrium of bitter war and horror that reached into every part of life.
Although the main protagonists had not been directly confronting one another, except in minor skirmishes here and there, there were a multitude of low-intensity proxy wars going on across the country. The occupying forces on both sides of the war generally seemed to secure their control by choosing one ethnic group as their local enforcers. Militias are formed from the ranks of the numerous unemployed youth of the chosen ethnic group. These militias don’t fight any wars or engage in battles, they merely act against the local civilian population, extracting “taxes” from them, ‘recruiting’ young men to be sent to the front lines, and suppressing any ‘rebellion’ against the occupying armies, who are naturally extremely unpopular. Their power is based on their ethnic make up, since their victims are drawn from other ethnic groups, thus they attempt to tie the interests of these favoured ethnic groups to that of the invaders. For without the support of the occupying armies, the logic goes, the ethnic groups suppressed by these militias would surely rise up and massacre all of this oppressing tribe. So even if the viciousness of your ethnic militia appalls you, you are bound to support it for fear of horrific retribution. Meanwhile the other side of the war channel funds and arms to violent terror groups among the suppressed people, creating a terrible cycle of violence.
Recent visitors to the DRC reported a civilisation that had all but ceased to exist. Villages and market towns lie uninhabited as the population has abandoned them and reverted to a primitive life in the bush rather than face the impossible levels of exploitation and oppression. Transport and trade had essentially vanished since the roads were controlled by dozens of different local strongmen and militias, all extracting unbearable tolls on travellers. Many of the soldiers were routinely drunk and drugged and we heard stories of soldiers opening fire on vehicles just for fun. Several hundred thousands, or even millions, had died during this brutal, pointless war. The Central Africans considered travelling in ex-Zaire to be incomparably more difficult and dangerous than in their own country, which is no mean feat. They thought of the country as a wild place, to be avoided at all costs.
What’s more, just before we arrived in Bangui, serious fighting had flared up again between the regular armies in the DRC. Fittingly, in this most cynical war, the fighting was between two armies who were supposed to be on the same side. The Ugandan UPDF and the Rwandan RPF, the two key US allies in Africa, had already had frequent skirmishes before over the town of Kisangani, the country’s third city, and crucially the centre for the country’s lucrative diamond trade. This time the conflict erupted into all out war. The city was demolished as the two allies fought it out using heavy artillery within the city streets. Thousands of civilians were killed before the RPF finally drove the Ugandans out of the city and secured their mastery over the diamond profits.
A couple of weeks after the destruction of Kisangani, the Ugandan UPDF started pulling several thousand troops out of their frontline positions in Northern Congo. This was apparently done out of respect for the Lusaka accords but was actually probably due to increasing rebel activity in Uganda itself. Kabila immediately scrapped the peace accord and launched an offensive on his Northern front. Hundreds of thousands of refugees poured across the Oubangui river to find safety in the rainforests of Congo-Brazzaville, one of the most inhospitable places on earth. While we were in Bangui, heavy fighting continued on this front, scarcely 50 kms South of us. All things considered we thought that maybe we’d visit Congo next time.
After abandoning our plans of traveling through the country formerly known as Zaire, we had only one remaining possibility of completing an uninterrupted overland trip to South Africa; a route that would take us through Sudan. There were problems with this route. Southern Sudan was at war, a civil war between the Muslim-dominated government and various minority groups in the South of the country, which had been raging on and off since independence. Therefore, if we wanted to cross Sudan, we’d have to travel several thousand kilometres Northwards to Khartoum to avoid the warzone, cross vast tracts of desert and go through the remotest, wildest parts of CAR where roads don’t really exist. However we were attached to the romantic idea of making a complete traversal of subsaharan Africa, thus we decided to attempt to secure a Sudanese visa, reputedly no easy task.
So, on the morning after we arrived in Bangui, we made our way to the Sudanese embassy to lodge our applications. We found the place easily enough and were pleasantly surprised to find the staff to be extremely helpful and friendly. We filled in our applications and handed them over but, unfortunately, when we asked when the visas would be ready, they responded that they didn’t known. They’d have to send our applications to Khartoum for approval, it all depended on when Khartoum got back to them. This might take a week, maybe longer. If we called back at the end of the week, they’d tell us if they had heard anything. Although disappointed by this news, we put on a brave face and resolved to use the time to discover some of the hidden delights of Bangui.
Our explorations started on Avenue Boganda, near the city’s central Place. There were a couple of general stores, in one of which we managed to replace our stolen torch with a stylish looking metal one, equally as cheap as the lost one and also made in China. We visited the town’s only supermarket of luxury imported goods to find basic items like butter and yogurt being sold at ridiculous prices like $15 for a half kilo. We stopped for a nescafe in one of the city’s two coffee shops, both based on the French model and run by Lebanese families. We moved onto the roundabout at the heart of town but there was little entertainment to be had among the couple of banks and the scruffy market behind. What’s more we attracted flocks of small beggar-children who were dressed in rags and wore truly desperate and hungry expressions. They proved incredibly persistent and were immensely difficult to shake off. At this stage we had exhausted the entertainment options of Bangui’s principal commercial strip and so we decided to stroll around the edges of town to see if the natural beauty was a substitute for the thinness of the urban attractions. The waterfront was our first destination but the ill-kept wasteland covered with scrub grass and weeds in front of the dirty-grey water, thronged with idle young men, left something to be desired in terms of charm. We retreated to the area beyond the commercial centre, hoping to discover some hidden charms, but after a few hours trudging along desolate, dusty roads, lined with patches of wasteland interspersed with cracking, grey, concrete high rise blocks with bombed-out airs about them, or rows of rusting corrugated iron fences topped with razor wire defending ugly concrete houses, under an unrelenting sun, we thought better of this.
We decided to give up on the hidden charms and instead make do with the standard tourist facilities of museums, hotels, restaurants and cinemas. The museum was our first stop but when we got there it seemed closed and deserted. We wandered around the building and eventually found a watchman lounging about in a shack at the back. He informed us that the museum was currently closed for lunch and that we should come back in a few hours. This seemed odd since it was mid-afternoon, definitely not lunch time. We peered through the grimy windows of the main building. From what we saw, it had either been a very long lunch – long enough for all the displays to have decomposed into dust – or else it was a museum of interrogation chambers, for the building contained nothing but a large room with a single, wooden table and chair in the middle.
After our failure at the museum we checked the cinema. While it did appear to be functioning, the films on offer were two ‘straight to video’ Hollywood action films, dubbed into French, the very definition of torture on celluloid, not even a year in Bangui would have been enough to make this seem like an attractive option. Next we investigated the hotels. There was one real ‘International class’ hotel in town, the Sofitel, a concrete high-rise on the waterfront at the edge of the city. We tramped out to it, along the long unshaded waterfront, under the oppressive heat of the afternoon sun. It was a vision from another world, an open air swimming pool overlooking the river with an elegant poolside bar, restaurant and tourist gift shop. A few French NGO workers and businessmen splashed about in the pool and sipped drinks at the bar. But alas this was another world barred to us, for the $10 charge of a sandwich alone was beyond our means and we had no choice but to turn around and trudge back into town.
Our next, and final recourse was the city’s restaurants. Our guidebook listed a dozen or so restaurants, mostly reasonably priced and serving everything from pizza to coq au vin. By the time we got to the fifth restaurant to find it had also closed down, we were starting to lose hope. Eventually we did manage to find one which still existed, although it too had a semi-deserted look about it, and there couldn’t have been many recent guests. The prices were high, about $6 a dish, especially dear when you consider that the menu consisted of just two items, chicken of fish. Nevertheless we were happy to have found some food and ate our meals gratefully before hurrying home as dusk set lest we might have to face the terrors of the Bangui night.
IV ESCAPE FROM BANGUI – ATTEMPT 1
After the rather disappointing results of our investigation into the pleasure possibilities of Bangui, we decided it better to leave the city and wait for our visas in some smaller country-town where our keep would be far less expensive, we’d have far less worries about our security and we’d be able to amuse ourselves by taking walks in the countryside. Therefore we set out on the next day to catch a bus to M’baiki, a small town in the rainforest 80km south of the capital, known for its mahogany carvings and the large population of pygmies in the surrounding countryside. The transport departed from km 5, the downbeat market area, centre of town for most people, but completely avoided by the city’s resident expats and with a terrible reputation for crime. Therefore, when our share-taxi deposited us, complete with all our baggage, at the crossroads at the centre of km5, and we were instantly surrounded by a swarm of ragged men with desperate eyes, we followed our taxi-driver’s earnest advice and chose one of these men at random to ‘guide’ us to the bus.
The bus rank turned out to be 200 metres away through the crowds of makeshift stalls and dense throng that perpetually fill this area in daylight hours. We were glad indeed for our guide who merely walked a few steps in front of us, because the sense of menace from the vast number of ragged youth was tangible. The markets of Lagos or the West African cities did not compare to this in terms of visible desperation, despair and danger. We were relieved to arrive unscathed at the bus rank, although the buses were in fact small, uncovered pick-ups with no provision for seating at all. Nonetheless we climbed up and did our best to eke out spaces which would allow us to journey with a minimum of pain. We watched impassively as new-coming passengers were mobbed by gangs of potential porters, fighting among themselves to carry the luggage. Before long we had reached a ridiculous level of overcrowdedness which the vehicle’s owners reckoned, using their arcane science which appears to defy all logic, was sufficient to depart.
Inevitably, after passing along a few kilometres of dusty road, by rows of squalid shacks and spindly shelters, we came to a security checkpoint. Our vehicle stopped and the driver went away accompanied by one of his helpers to conclude their business with the group of officials sitting at table some 10 metres back from the road. After a few minutes they returned and it appeared that we were about to proceed when I felt a tug at my shirt. I turned around to see the sad sight of a fat, middle-aged, uniformed gentleman looking indignantly at me. He demanded “why haven’t you registered?” in an angry tone and pointed at a small sign by the officials’ table, which was much too far away to read, but I later learned that it read: “registration of foreigners”. I apologised for my incredible negligence in not having informed myself of this regulation and both myself and Deirdre resignedly climbed off the vehicle, cursing the loss of our places, and presented ourselves with our passports to the desk. Several of our fellow passengers groaned as we departed, obviously not relishing the prospect of this delay.
In contrast to our last series of encounters with the CAR security services, on this occasion we were well rested, both physically and mentally, and were determined not to cough up without putting up a fight. Thus we affected total disinterested boredom when the most senior official examined our passports and turned to us with wide eyes and said:
– “but where’s the card that you got on entry to the city?“
We shrugged and said:
– “What card? They didn’t give us any”.
The official held up a green piece of card and declared:
– “At km 12, when you entered the city, you were supposed to get one of these”.
We still acted totally nonplussed and replied casually:
– “oh yeah, well it’s your country, naturally you know the laws better than us, still they didn’t give us one”.
He explained further
– “when you enter the city you should pay $5 for this card which you then surrender upon leaving the city, again paying $5 each. Without this I’m going to have to arrest you for clandestine entry, a very serious offence”
– “Oh drat”, we replied with an utterly disinterested air.
– “Yes of course”, he continued, “I could out of the kindness of my heart, help you out. I could issue you with the card as if you’d entered through this checkpoint, just pay me the fees and say, $10 each in fines, and we can arrange the whole affair”
It was hard to retain our composure at the extravagance of the sum demanded, $40, a good month’s wage in the CAR, roughly equal to our intended budget for the week in M’baiki. Still, we soon got a hold of ourselves and nonchalantly suggested that it would be a better idea if we just forgot about the whole thing. We would pretend that we’d never been in Bangui and we’d pick up one of these cards on our way back in, nobody would be the wiser and it would all be nice and legal. Somehow he seemed unimpressed with our suggestion.
The negotiations didn’t seem to be going anywhere, our fellow passengers were becoming impatient with us and we could hear a few cries of “would they ever just pay up” from the distance. The official was staying put at his original demand: “either pay the $40 – remember I’m doing you a favour here – or else you’re under arrest”. “I suppose you’d better arrest us then”, I replied. He did. We despondently removed our bags from the pickup. While doing so we excused ourselves to the other passengers for the delay by mentioning the outrageous sum demanded. Upon hearing our explanation their impatience turned to sympathy. We took the bags and climbed into the back of the police vehicle. We made one last attempt to salvage our trip by offering to pay $10, but it was dismissed out of hand.
2 officers climbed into the front of the car and we took off, back towards the city centre. We drove directly into the main Place and continued going towards the waterfront. We came to a halt in front of an enormous chain-link gate, some 10 metres high. A uniformed officer opened the gate and we drove in to a large yard surrounded by low buildings, apparently a compound of the security services. We stopped in front of a long 2 story building with a sign outside which read: “Police for the surveillance of the territory”. There were no windows on the ground floor save one, heavily barred, about 2 metres long and 2 metres above the ground. We could see a large number of hands extending out of this window and as we were led past it, we heard many disembodied plaintiff voices pleading for us to buy them a cob of corn – for in Africa prisoners must feed themselves or starve. This sight made me think, for the first time, that maybe we were in the wrong country to by hard-balling cops.
We were led up a staircase, dragging all our luggage with us, and into a dark corridor where we were told to wait. Our apprehensions had an opportunity to flourish in the few moments that we were waiting and when we were ushered into an office our demeanour had utterly changed from our earlier nonchalance. The office was sparsely decorated with a wooden desk and a few chairs, there was not even a fan to stir the oppressive atmosphere. Behind the desk sat the chief of ‘surveillance of the territory’, a thin, middle-aged man with a military moustache and neat uniform. He gestured for us to sit down, but I, in my nervousness, knocked one of the chairs over as I turned and sent it clattering to the floor. This unfortunate start further convinced me that we were heading for a spell downstairs or a very expensive alternative, but happily the chief laughed it off and proceeded to launch into a long explanation of why we needed an entry card for the city. His speech was littered with self-pitying references about how he was the chief, but he didn’t even get an official car. We listened with as great an air of humility, sympathy and submissiveness as we could muster, waiting for his speech to find its way to the ‘fine’ we were anticipating. However, we were surprised that instead of fining us, the chief wrote out a letter, stamped it with a carefully chosen selection from among his impressive rubber-stamp collection, sealed it in an envelope and ordered us to present it to the officer on duty at the checkpoint at km 12 where we had originally entered the city.
We left, immensely relieved and, on our way from the building, our sharpened sense of empathy for their plight prompted us to buy 10 cobs of corn for the prisoners downstairs which we passed in through the bars. We took a taxi straight to the hotel which we had left that morning on our way to a pleasure trip to the countryside and left our baggage there. Then we continued directly to km 12 where we handed the letter to one of the officials. Sure enough, after a small amount of haggling, he stapled one of the cards into our passports, we handed over $10, and we were once again legal foreigners in the CAR.
V TREADING WATER
Thereafter, for the following week that we spent in Bangui, we gave up on the prospect of sightseeing. Survival was our only goal. We remained for long periods of time in our room simply watching the time pass, for we had almost no means of entertainment. Our shortwave radio, heretofore our saviour in such times, chose this time to finally die, after having been soaked during our walk through the rainforests of Cameroon. We had no reading material left and the selection available locally was poor to say the least. Deirdre passed the time by playing several million hands of patience, while I concentrated on sewing patches onto my worn out clothes, taking up hems and fixing tears. To make matters worse, I developed a nasty case of dysentery and had to make frequent runs to the toilet. The fact that the toilet was only separated from our room by a low partition certainly didn’t help to create a pleasant or fragrant atmosphere.
The problem of getting food did occasionally drive us from the safety of our room and into the city. Each day we left our room at about noon, walked along the channel of dense weeds that was once a river or canal, onto one of the main boulevards where we flagged down a share-taxi, squeezed in, and travelled to the city centre. We’d make our way, fending off beggars to one of the Lebanese cafes where we’d eat a schwarma sandwich and a guava juice each. Afterwards we’d walk a few hundred metres out of town to the news-stand where we’d buy a local paper if there was a new one out. Then we’d flag down another taxi to travel back home, past the bullet riddled department of tourism, the brightly painted ‘bar-dancing’, the heavily defended Nigerian embassy and the even more heavily defended UN compound. The whole expedition cost about $4. To add some diversity to our day, when we were dropped off we’d sometimes walked back along a slightly different route . We’d turn off the avenue of weeds early, down some sandy backstreets which took us by one of the strange wigwam shaped temples of the church of chistianism.
After returning to our room we’d spend the afternoon playing patience, sewing and running to the toilet. By 6.30pm it had got dark and we’d be hungry again. Feeding ourselves in the evening presented a much greater problem than it did in the afternoon. There is no street lighting in Bangui and it is a very dangerous to be wandering around in the dark. Therefore since we couldn’t afford to rent private taxis and the share taxis were too far away and wouldn’t leave us exactly where we wanted to go, we were limited to what food we could find in the immediate neighbourhood of the hotel. In most African cities this would have been no problem, since wherever there are people there is street food, plates of rice with sauce and other simple meals for a few cents. But it appears that Bangui’s economy is in such a sorry state that even these meals are beyond the budget of most. The only area where there are such meals available easily is km 5, out of bounds to us after dark. In the environs of our hotel, there was only the simplest snacks available. Deep fried doughballs, charred cobs of corn and boiled eggs formed our evening meals. After a couple of days we ventured a little further along the dark lanes and found a woman selling small grilled sticks of meat, seasoned with garlic and lemon, which tasted to us like the finest food imaginable and made our diets tolerable thereafter.
After dinner was the time when we’d treat ourselves. We’d sit in front of the hotel and drink a small bottle of Cameroonian beer each and talk to the only other guest of the hotel, Martin. Martin was a builder, a site manager from a small village near Kumba in the English speaking part of Cameroon. He was a jolly fellow with a large waist and a big smile. He had been brought to CAR on a contract by the owner of the hotel, which was why he was staying here. He considered the Central African Republic to be a “terrible place”, which he’d say with a shake of his head and a merry chuckle. He told us how his boss had received a $1 million advance from the government for his current project, but had then invested this money in another business and was now unable to pay his workers – even though the building technicians earned less than $30 a month. Therefore many of the workers didn’t turn up for work for long stretches at a time. When they did show up, they were often unable to do anything since there was a chronic shortage of materials in the country. For the last month there had been no cement in the CAR until a shipment had just arrived from Cameroon, albeit at several times the cost price. These delays had kept Martin in Bangui much longer than he had intended or wanted.
Martin put much of the CAR’s problems down to the Frenchman, and the fact that he never taught anybody to show respect. Yet he also attributed much of the problem to the frequent changes in the presidency. He thought Cameroon’s stability compared to the CAR was due to the fact that there had only been one change of president since independence in Cameroon, while the CAR had gone through 5! Curiously Bokassa was the only one whom he seemed to have any respect for: “in the emperor’s day you used to hear about this place, but now it’s nothing”. Indeed, he considered the country, its language, its standard of development, even its football, as being equally woeful and he whiled away his time lonely in this hotel, with nothing to do, waiting for his contract to end. Still, despite his low opinion of the country, he had genuine sympathy for the plight of the people here. He’d shake his head and chortle softly saying ‘terrible, terrible’, when talking about the wages of his co-workers or the government’s corruption, with a sad look in his eyes.
VI PRESIDENTIAL DECREES
The time that we spent in Bangui happened to coincide with a week of National mourning. The president Felix Andre Patasse’s first wife had died and, as our taxi driver informed us upon our arrival, this meant that the whole nation was in mourning. It was hard to escape this fact since the president, with the majestic instinct that seems to come so naturally to African heads of state, issued a few orders that made sure his subjects couldn’t help but notice their collective grief. His first and perhaps most impressive command concerned the contents of CAR’s only television channel. Each evening, in place of the regular light entertainment schedule, one hour of coverage of the mourning was broadcast. This involved a stationary camera filming a long line of dignitaries shaking hands in turn with the president, one after the other. This uninterrupted hour of hand-shaking was followed by an hour of classical music performed by a Viennese orchestra and choir. Apparently the president deemed this music appropriately dignified and sombre for this period of National mourning. I can’t tell what the general opinion of the public was towards it, but the few whom I asked expressed the opinion that European classical music in general, and Viennese choral music in particular, had a rather limited following in the Central African Republic, probably less than ten. Still it did go to demonstrate that the president’s grip on power was firmer than might be supposed, for I can scarcely imagine any Western leader daring such a provocative act. To leave people with the choice of no television or Viennese choirs would be to invite instant revolution and the eternal dismantling of the state.
Yet despite the authoritarian commands of the president, it was almost impossible to find anybody who was willing to openly criticise the imposed period of mourning. On the contrary, most people seemed to enter wholeheartedly into the spirit of grief. Even our first taxi driver who had absolutely no sympathy for the president, had informed us of the situation by saying “we are in mourning”. Indeed we encountered various people who expressed pride at the extent to which they had entered into the spirit of things. One man who lived near our hotel boasted to us that he had stayed up all night, standing outside the room that held the coffin, praying fiercely all the time. This devotion to the dead surprised us at first, but our wise friend Martin explained it to us. “In Africa”, he said, “everybody secretly rejoices when a rich person dies. Their relatives are obliged to provide sumptuous food and drink to the mourners. It is unthinkable not to properly celebrate the dead in such a way. There are even many cases where the relatives won’t spend a small amount of money to buy medicine to save a life and then spend many times the sum on celebrating the death. Thus when a really important important person dies, there are many rejoicers, but they wear faces of mourning”. However, the president whose television decree was so meekly accepted, was to try the people’s patience to a considerably greater extent.
On Thursday morning, before our customary schwarma lunch, we visited the shiny new bank on Bangui’s main square in order to cash a travellers cheque. We arrived there at approximately 11:30 am, but found the foreign exchange desk unmanned. We asked the porter and were informed that the official had probably taken an early lunch. We asked what time she’d be back and were disappointed to be told that foreign exchange was a morning only service, could we please come back tomorrow. Thankfully we had enough cash to survive until then and thus, with the quietism that we had laboriously learned in order to avoid the constant psychological trauma of trying to organise things in Africa, we meekly accepted this advice without any fuss. We went and had our lunch as normal and, on our way to catch a taxi home we actually came across the president’s cavalcade itself. It was preceded by a large number of police and soldiers with rifles, all gesturing urgently for people to clear the roads, then it zoomed by, accompanied by about 10 military vehicles stuffed with firepower, including one heavy artillery piece which seemed to be overdoing it to say the least. A bystander informed us that he was on his way to pay a final visit to his wife’s coffin for her body was due to be moved to the country for the next day for burial.
We thought nothing more of this incident until later that evening when we returned from our dinner of odds and ends. Martin asked us had we heard about the president’s announcement. “What announcement?”, we replied. “Well”, said Martin, “he just announced on television that, out of respect for his first wife tomorrow will be a public holiday, that means everything will be closed”. “What!”, we exclaimed in shock, “but tomorrow’s Friday, we have to go to the bank and the embassy, we have no money to survive the weekend, how can he do that, surely the banks can’t close”. “I fear they may”, he said with a sad chuckle, “what’s more Monday is also a public holiday for religious reasons, and Tuesday is the CAR’s national holiday”. We were struck dumb with horror. The president had launched a surprise public holiday immediately before 4 consecutive holiday days. It would be almost a week before we could obtain money. We could only hope against all that we knew that the banks would ignore this holiday and remain open. Surely reason dictated that otherwise many people would find themselves in difficult straits?
7 am the following, Friday, morning saw us outside an unquestionably closed bank. The security guard approached us, as we stood outside the chained-closed gates and told us to come back on Wednesday. We protested imploringly that we had been told to come back this morning and that we absolutely had to change money. He replied with a smile: “well there’s nobody here, the bank won’t be open till Wednesday, you’re welcome to wait”, and left us standing there rattling the gate with impotent rage. We tried the only other bank with foreign exchange, again it was closed and firmly locked up. Things had now reached a serious crisis point. We had no money left and we were intending on leaving the city in the next couple of days, since we hoped our visas for Sudan would be ready today or on Monday at the latest, and the prospect of having to stay an extra week in Bangui, especially in absolute poverty, sent shivers down our spines. We had to come up with some means of getting money. We finally decided to try the Sofitel tourist hotel, maybe they’d be able to cash a cheque for us, but first we had to make our way to it across town.
Our predicament was made considerably more difficult by the nature of this ‘public holiday’, central African style. Whereas public holidays in Western countries are normally greeted with joy – most people get a paid day off and those in marginal jobs simple work anyway – here it was quite different. A very small proportion of the population is employed in regular jobs with holiday pay and other benefits. The vast majority of workers depend on informal work to survive, like hawking goods on the street, selling food or casual labouring. If these people take a day off, it simply means that they don’t eat. So what’s that problem, you’d think, surely these people would just go to work anyway? Well, that’s not the way president Patasse saw it, for when he calls a public holiday he means it, anybody who dares not observe it is guilty of disrespect and will face the consequences. The streets of central Bangui were crawling with armed military personnel, out to enforce the public holiday, and maybe earn a little money with which to celebrate at the same time.
Myself and Deirdre were obvious targets for these soldiers out to earn some beer money and so we had to steer our way across the city with extreme caution. We had only got a few blocks from the bank when we were arrested for the first time. We followed a footpath which cut diagonally across a block. Halfway across we were stopped by a semi-drunken officer who informed us that the path was a high-security zone and that we were forbidden to use it despite the fact that a steady stream of civilian pedestrians were using it right in front of us. Happily our true tale of pennilessness was strong enough to deflect his fire and he let us go as soon as he became convinced that he’d get no money out of us. We hurried on to the hotel and arrived there, by way of various backstreets, without any further mishaps. The hotel refused to cash the cheques for us since we weren’t residents but after some lengthy pleading the kind receptionist finally assented to letting us have 100,000 CFA, about $150, minus a commission but at least we had money to survive the long holiday.
Having acquired some money, our thoughts turned to the visas. We had to visit the Sudanese embassy to learn the result of our visa applications. Again we had to walk right across town and again we were ‘arrested’, this time for walking along a high-security stretch of the waterfront. Our excuse about the banks being closed and us being penniless worked again, although this time we were lying. We arrived at the embassy to find it closed, like all the other premises in the city. However we knocked on the door and were admitted by the doorman after he had checked the surrounding streets to make sure nobody was observing him. We were led into the waiting room but the receptionist informed us that the embassy was closed for the public holiday. We persisted and pleaded with him to tell us if there was any news of our visas. Reluctantly he concurred and went off to see if the visa official had left yet for the weekend. We were most encouraged when the official entered the office a few minutes later, with a broad smile on his face. “I’m afraid Khartoum haven’t got back to us”, he said still smiling broadly, “since we’ll be closed for most of next week, you can come back on Monday week and we’ll tell you if we’ve heard any news then.” We left the embassy devastated, our plans in tatters. We had scarcely the courage to face another 11 days waiting in Bangui and even then there was no guarantee that we’d be granted the visas especially since the Khartoum government had just started a bombing campaign against UN bases in the South of the country and Western tourists might not be especially welcome.
VII ESCAPE FROM BANGUI – ATTEMPT 2
Faced with this situation, a long uncertain wait in probably the least pleasant place that either of us had ever been in, our determination to cross Africa overland vanished. We left the Sudanese embassy and, without having to say a word to each other, we knew that our goal had changed – our only aim now was to get out of the CAR as quickly as possible, to get to East Africa by whatever means were available, at whatever the cost. Our friend Martin, whose building site was at the airport had told us of the flight schedule from Bangui which wasn’t particularly difficult to remember since there were only about 5 flights a week. Only 3 companies fly to Bangui: Air France, Air Afrique and Air Sudan. Of these Air Sudan was out since it flew only to Khartoum. Since there are no travel agents in the CAR, we’d have to try to go the the other two airline offices themselves and hope that they had somehow defied the public holiday.
Our first stop was Air Afrique, but the office looked closed, the door was locked and the shutters were drawn. Still we approached the door and tried to peer through the glass. We could make out nothing inside. We turned to go despondently. Just then a security guard behind us hissed at us to catch our attention. He gestured for us to follow him and led us around the back of the building, through a door and a series of dark corridors, into the office, where we saw that a woman was manning the desk. They were open for clandestine business! We waited for the two other secret clients to be dealt with before approaching the desk and inquiring about flights to East Africa. To our delight she informed us that there was a flight on Monday to Douala, Cameroon from where we could get a connecting flight the following day to Nairobi. We had no Cameroonian visa and wouldn’t be able to get one, but still we eagerly agreed to this course of action – anything rather than being stuck in Bangui. She asked us how we wanted to pay, “credit card”, we replied, but alas, despite the VISA stickers plastered all over the window, she refused. “The cashier isn’t here today”, she said, “it’s cash only or else you can come back next Wednesday”. “But”, we protested, “we simply must fly on Monday”. “Well, the office might be open for half an hour tomorrow morning and the cashier might be here”, she replied sounding extremely unconvinced.
We left the office dejected, it seemed that our major hope had fallen through. The cost of the tickets was astronomical, some $650 each one way, about 4 times what we had paid for a return flight from London to the Gambia, and there seemed no chance of getting that amount of cash together with the banks closed. We had a bright idea – maybe there would be a boat leaving soon to travel down the Oubangui to Brazzaville. We walked to the port and asked some of the men lounging idly about. No joy – the next boat wasn’t for two weeks – so that idea was quickly shelved. Our last hope was Air France but this seemed like a slim possibility since we knew that from Bangui they flew only to Chad, completely the wrong direction, but perhaps we might be able to get some connecting transport from there and besides it couldn’t be worse than Bangui. So we duly trudged several kilometres out along Avenue de l’Independance to the Air France office.
As we approached the office, it looked firmly closed. The gates to the compound were chained shut and we were on the point of giving up when we saw a security guard open the gate and let a car containing two men and woman out. We hoped that, similarly to Air Afrique, they were clandestinely open for business, and called out a question to the guard. Yet he informed us that, no, they were indeed closed. We were on the point of walking away when the driver of the car called out to us:
– “Are you looking for plane tickets?“, he asked,
– “Where do you want to go?”
– “East Africa, anywhere, Nairobi, Kigali, or even Douala”
– “Douala? Nairobi? I may be able to help you, come with me”
He gestured for us to get into the back of the car which we did, having no other plans. Once into the car he explained to us:
– “I know some very important people in the ministry of defence, sometimes they can arrange for very cheap tickets on military flights. I’ll try to locate my contact and bring him back to talk to you. Where are you lodged?”
– “Hotel Iroko”
– “Okay, I’ll drop you there now and go and find him”
We took off, heading across town. The car was an old battered Peugeot 504 estate. The driver was in his thirties, respectably if quite cheaply dressed, with a sparse moustache. He carried a large mobile phone, prominently – quite a status symbol in Bangui. His male passenger was tall, thin, similarly dressed and kept silent throughout the journey. The female passenger who sat in the back with us was much older, perhaps 50. She recounted to us tales of her life in France, of which she was obviously proud, and showed off her command of French slang. She had lived in Toulouse for 10 years: “a beautiful city but ruined by the influx of Arabs, especially the Algerians. They’re all thieves and savages”.
We turned off the main road some way short of our hotel and started driving through the backstreets of Bangui, unpaved, uneven and lined with shacks of corrugated iron and flimsy wooden boards. We began to feel concerned since we were certain that this wasn’t the way home, but our doubts were dispelled when we came to a stop outside a hut and the woman passenger got out. We returned to the main road and continued towards the hotel but, as we were nearing the turn off to our hotel, the driver sounded his horn, long and loud, waved frantically at something and came to a sudden screeching halt. We looked around to see what had caused this behaviour and saw that another car, which had been travelling in the opposite direction, had come to a halt beside us. Evidently our driver had spotted somebody he knew and sure enough he turned around to us and said: “this is your lucky day, the guy driving that car is the minister of defence, if anybody can find you a flight he can”. Our driver got out of the car and walked back to greet the minister who had also got out. The minister was a tall, respectable looking man in his early forties with a benevolent look, dressed in gray slacks and a patterned jumper. He was far from our image of what an African defence minister should look like – no uniform and no dark glasses and what on earth was he doing driving his own car? – but this was the CAR and things were different here. Only the previous evening Martin had informed us that the strange man who came alone to drink a beer occasionally in our hotel was in fact the minister for industry, although Martin had belittled the importance of this minister considering the complete absence of industry in the country. Still, when this minister approached our car and nodded in the back window, smiling paternalistically at us, we responded with as much politeness as we could muster. Our driver suggested that we should go for a drink together so we could discuss the matter at hand. We agreed and so did the minister who climbed back into his car and followed us to a nearby bar. As he followed us I got a chance to observe his car, a brand new white Fiat Uno. It seemed an extremely modest car for a minister for defence, but it did carry the official ‘FACA’ number-plates of the armed forces, and besides we reasoned that it was impressive enough for the CAR.
We once again turned off the main street and back into the dusty side-streets, this time coming to a halt outside a whitewashed concrete bar. We entered together, passed through a bar-room full of holiday drinkers and into the courtyard. We took the table furthest from the bar – our driver said this was necessary since the minister was afraid of spies eavesdropping his conversations. Over a round of beers we exchanged small talk about our impressions of the CAR with the minister and it’s probably safe to say that the opinions which we expressed were a little generous. The minister also recounted the tale of his narrow escape when his house had been blown up during the last army mutiny. Eventually the conversation came around to the matter of flights. The minister explained that there were two possibilities: there was a commercial flight to Douala on Monday with Air Centrafrique which would cost about $200, or else there was a military flight to Nairobi on Sunday, via Douala, which we wouldn’t have to pay for, except for an insurance charge of about $50. The minister finished his large bottle of Guinness, shook hands with us, exchanged a few phrases in Sango with our driver, and departed. Our driver at this stage affected a look of embarrassment and told us that he had forgotten his money, could we pay for the drinks? We had been expecting this and figured that it was a small price to pay for such a cheap escape from Bangui, so we coughed up without complaint.
We got back into the battered Peugeot and continued on our way to our hotel. This time we managed to arrive there without any detours. We were expecting that the driver would leave us here and return later but to our surprise he accompanied us into the hotel and sat himself down on one of the wrought-iron chairs in the caged area at the front. We didn’t quite know what to do, so we excused ourselves and went to our room to consult. We were doubtful on a number of points about the deal. Firstly the minister of defence hadn’t been quite convincing. Secondly the minister referred to a flight with Air Centrafrique, but Martin had not mentioned the existence of this airline. Thirdly, I remembered reading an anecdote in a travel book about a guy getting sold a fake air ticket in Bangui. Therefore we resolved to proceed with caution, we wouldn’t make any definite arrangements today, much less part with any money, but we certainly wouldn’t abandon the project altogether – after all it seemed like our only chance of getting out of Bangui in the foreseeable future and it would cost only about a tenth the price of a commercial flight.
After formulating this resolution, we returned from our room to entertain our guest. An awkward silence hung over the group. We didn’t know why he was still here and wished he’d go so we could further discuss our plans. He broke the silence by producing his mobile phone from his pocket and declaring that he’d now call about the flights, but first he’d need our details. He produced two forms which we filled out with our names, ages and passport details. Having got these he dialed a few numbers and began to speak: “yeah, great, okay, oh yeah, will do”. He hung up and said
– “okay we can get the military flight”.
– “That’s great”, we responded, “so when does it leave?”
He looked a little unsure:
– “like we said earlier
– yeah that’s it
– What time?
– the morning, eh, 10
– Okay we’ll get the money tomorrow
– Tomorrow? but you’ll have to pay now, to reserve the seat, the soldiers wives will be going shopping, they always book out the plane
– but we’ll reserve it now and pay tomorrow, even Air France let you do that
– but for the insurance, you’ll need to pay now” Once again the bank closure came in useful
– but we’ve no money, the banks were closed today, we couldn’t get any
– no money? none at all? not even $20 now?” This was beginning to look very suspicious. “Could you perhaps borrow money from the hotel?”
– “we already owe them a whole week of rent, we tell you we can’t get any money until tomorrow, come back in the morning”
He finally gave up, rose and left looking deflated, with a half-hearted pledge to return the next day.
As soon as he left we set about establishing for sure whether the whole story had been a hoax as we now strongly suspected. We caught a taxi to the airport, a crumbling concrete pile with no planes nor passengers to be seen, just large numbers of bored-looking soldiers hanging around in small groups. We approached the information desk which was boarded up and obviously hadn’t been used for some years. Our posture betrayed the fact that we needed information and a soldier promptly approached us to ask what we were looking for.
– “What flights leave on Sunday?
– There are no flights on Sunday
– What about Monday?
– Air Afrique fly to Douala
– What about Air Centrafrique?
-“They’ve been out of business for years, since the mutinies”
We returned to the hotel, now convinced that it was all an elaborate scam. Later we recounted our tale to Martin who was in no doubt about the deal’s fakeness: “military flight”, he chuckled, “they are so tricky, so tricky”. We may have escaped the scam but we were still in Bangui.
The next morning we made our last throw of the dice. We arrived at 7am outside the office of Air Afrique. After about an hour’s wait the security guard emerged and once again led us in through the back entrance. To our joy the cashier was present behind her desk and we were able to purchase two tickets in a matter of minutes. We practically danced home, clutching the tickets tightly as if they were made of some precious mineral. For the rest of the weekend we remained closeted in our room, only emerging on a couple of occasions. The would be con-man actually had the audacity to show up looking for money, but we dispatched him quickly with a casual mention of the history of Air Centrafrique.
Other than that we only came out to eat, terrified lest one of Bangui’s many malevolent spirits would somehow sabotage our escape plans if we exposed ourselves unduly to the city.
On Monday morning we arose at 7:30, three hours before the flight was due to leave. It had rained heavily overnight and all the roads surrounding our hotel were flooded. We were terrified lest this flood might jeopardise our departure and indeed when we left the hotel, the streets were empty of cars. We waded through a few blocks, aiming for the main boulevard which we hoped would be free of water and full of taxis. Before we got there, however, a large minibus pulled over and offered to give us a lift. We negotiated a price and were soon safely deposited at the airport after ploughing our way through several streets which looked more like rivers than roads.
Once inside the airport, the worst was behind us. The only perils left to deal with were the pack of porters who persistently tried to help us through customs and immigration. We decided to take the easy way out and tipped one of them before he had a chance to help us, which meant that all the others stayed away since we were ‘taken’. Some other passengers weren’t so lucky. We watched one porter ‘help’ a passenger by voluntarily emptying all his possessions onto the customs desk so he could then plead with the customs official on the passenger’s behalf. The final hurdle was the immigration official, but we were confident of passing this since we now had our official Bangui entry card stapled into our passports. Sure enough we passed the formalities without a problem, but his reaction to seeing the card in Deirdre’s passport was not what we had been suspecting. A surprised look came over his face and he asked: “where did you get this?” “Km 12, at the checkpoint,” she replied brightly. He sighed, shook his head and, looking slightly embarrassed, pulled the card from the passport, tore it into tiny pieces and threw it on the ground. It appeared that the whole elaborate system of registration of foreigners, highly organised and coordinated between the officers at all the checkpoints around the city and involving the chief of the service, was all a scam, totally illegal. Still we didn’t worry about it too much; after all we were on a plane. Bangui was behind us, and from this perspective the world looked like a very happy place indeed.