In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I have seen the resilience of the inhabitants of Martissant, who daily travel through gang wars to get to work in the morning. I have lived with Congolese people in a slum in Kinshasa, where I heard of people who died of hunger. I have supported children who were orphaned and stigmatised by their villages after their families were devastated by Lassa fever in Nigeria.
Despite this, the first time I saw such levels of fear, dismay and disarray in people's eyes was here in Bangassou. The month that has just passed was frankly, not fun.
There were rumours, grenades, gunfire, displacements, drowning, killings, screaming. People have just relived an episode of war, barely three years since the previous one.
To tell you what happened, I'll start by taking us back to Friday, December 11.
December 11, 2020
It’s the day before I turn 30 and I am having a low-key celebration with my team at a local bar. At that time, I couldn't have asked for a better way to mark the occasion. COVID-19 spares us a little here and we were able to enjoy some barbecued goat, beers and Central African music.
It was proof that people appreciate the calm of Bangassou more than ever. During my briefings in Brussels, before I came here, I was told that even though the security situation was volatile, life was gradually resuming since the dramatic events of 2017.
What happened in 2017 caused a lot of pain. I often listen to shy allusions to these traumatic events. Everyone has large wounds that are still bleeding...
It’s true that for several months I’ve been able to travel the roads without problem, meeting people who smile from their thatched houses and tell me about their daily lives. They say that despite the difficulties, at least, “there is security” and that each community in the area “goes about in peace”.
Memories of 2017
Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world, but the Central Africans are fighting for their life and their projects. Schooling children, building a thatched house, planting cassava in a field, tinkering with a bicycle or an old motorbike, running a small business in the market, sewing magnificent loincloths or cutting leather shoes from scratch, distilling “ngouli”, braiding hair, making a comfortable chair or fixing a radio to listen to the comedy programmes.
All this is possible with a little stability and, in the general instability of this country which is still two-thirds controlled by non-state armed groups, Bangassou was recently spared. People took the opportunity to get on, to chat under the tree and dance.
From talking to people here, it feels that what happened in 2017 caused a lot of pain and everyone suffered badly. I often listen to shy allusions to these traumatic events. Everyone has large wounds that are still bleeding. It doesn't take a lot of emotional intelligence to understand that people here lived through the war and, more importantly, it's recent. The proof is, first of all, in the rumours.
The slightest little warning is taken seriously and shared at an incredible speed. On December 18, a group of “rebels” was reportedly seen moving in the forest. Unnatural. Disturbing. And then, on December 25, we woke up to the real news given by our project coordinator: they took control of Bakouma, a town a little further north. Some of the team and I were there a week ago, supporting the health centre.
Rumours are flying. They say that they want to stop the elections. That they burned the ballot boxes and kicked the mayor out of town. They say they do not intend to attack the population, besides a soldier who looted a house was reportedly killed by his general as punishment.
Some armed elements are said to be already in town, infiltrated and ready for attack. It's Friday, December 25, it's Christmas, rumours are raging and no church is singing...
There is talk of 200, maybe 300 men arriving from the north, east and west to overthrow the city authorities and thus stop the electoral process. It is said to be a new coalition of several armed groups that were enemies in 2017. This alliance arouses fear as it is seen as unstable.
It is said that the elections are a pretext to satisfy the desire for vengeance that has endured for three years. Some armed elements are said to be already in town, infiltrated and ready for attack.
It's Friday, December 25, it's Christmas, rumours are raging and no church is singing.
Saturday, December 26
D-1 before the elections. On the medical side, we have revised the disaster plan and we are ready to manage an influx of wounded people at the hospital. Opening the door of the office, I see a motorbike, chairs, trunks, food, two bicycles.
Suddenly, I hear an engine and I do an about-turn: it is my colleague Jean who arrives by bike and is dealing with his personal affairs.
He says: "a yeke ngangu, papa", which means, "it’s difficult", in Sango.
“People know where to find me. They are going to come to town to pick me up because I work and have some money. I have already dealt with these people, three times they have looted everything from me, once kidnapped and tortured. I don't know where to put my wife and kids ... do you think I can bring them here to the hospital?"
Later that evening, it's Nicolas who approaches me under a tree in the hospital. It is dark and he says to me: “My wife and my children are hidden under a tree trunk in the bush. They are there with nothing, they sleep on a tarpaulin without light, without water. I don’t know what to do. I went to sleep near the UN base but I can’t stay there”. In the eyes of my colleagues whom I know well, I see immense discouragement and heavy fatigue.
Sunday, December 27
The day of the election. D-Day.
80% of the city is empty. For the community, for sure, the “rebels” will come. “The platform to cross the water 10 km from here has been broken, the bridge 15 km away has been destroyed. They have been delayed but they will succeed in coming,” noted a friend. The tension mounts, another gets angry: “What do you mean, they broke the bridge? It will only annoy them! They'll be able to cross the river anyway, so keep them calm.”
As I listen to Simon on the phone, I close my eyes and imagine the terror that must reign around him
We wonder if the Central African Armed Forces (FACAS) and MINUSCA (the United Nations' "Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic") will stand up or if they will let them enter peacefully in order to avoid a brutal confrontation. We still don’t know, but today there is no need: no attack took place today and a few rare people are even able to symbolically go to the polls.
Saturday, January 2
It has been a long, slow week. We tried to rest as soon as we could because it's like counting the hours before an attack. Rumours persist that armed groups will attack on Monday, the day the results are announced.
Bangassou is almost a ghost town; hordes of people have been seen walking with all their possessions on their heads, seeking refuge left and right. People have fled into the bush or across the river into the DRC, except for a few heads of families who have remained here and there to watch their belongings in case of looting.
The other NGOs have left the city. The 13 international staff and I are at the base. I feel like we are united and also less stressed and anxious than the previous weekend. There is a kind of weird vibe that fits the definition "calm before the storm" perfectly. We are not bored of rumours, instead we are in stand-by mode.
Marco, our project coordinator, brings us together and says these exact words: “I think, unfortunately, something not nice is going to happen. We must remain vigilant.”
It must be complicated to manage a team under these conditions and I admire the work he’s doing. We have just had a bite to eat and we are talking, sitting in our thatched hut.
I do not yet realise that what I can hear are detonations and machine guns, but my body understands...
It is 8 p.m. At one point, I get up and go to call a few colleagues to ask them how things are with them as they stay up in total darkness.
As I listen to Simon on the phone, I close my eyes and imagine the terror that must reign around him. He's there, by the side of the road, under his straw roof, without electricity and so in total darkness. At any time, a group of men carrying heavy weapons could walk past his house and violence could erupt. And people here have been through this before.
I ask, "how are you?". And I feel stupid. What else can I say? What to do? "We are together, courage and good night", I say.
In the morning, I meet him at the office. He didn’t sleep, instead he took turns on guard with neighbours, listening to the sounds of the forest. My call made him super happy, but I feel helpless. In his eyes I see worry, but also a vital focus.
Sunday January 3, 5:21 a.m.
Something is wrong. That’s the first thing I thought of when I woke up today. There was something weird that just woke me out of my sleep, but I don’t know what yet. Suddenly, “BOOM”. I hear an explosion and peek out the window. The sky is black and I’m not sure: is it the storm?
No, it's not the storm. I raise my mosquito net awkwardly and get out of bed. I lie on the floor. I do not yet realise that what I can hear are detonations and machine guns, but my body understands. I'm literally thinking, "no, is this really happening?"
For a second I couldn't believe it. Suddenly I hear a calm but firm voice: "Dale, safe room, now please". It's Marco calling me.
There, no more uncertainty, that’s clear. I'm glad to be told what to do. I grab what I think are my shoes, my radio, my phone, my water bottle and I hesitate for a second: have I forgotten anything? I remember my training, I remember Haiti. We don't care if I forget something. I obey and get out.
I walk 10 metres from my room to the safe room, which has the distinction of being the only place with concrete walls capable of accommodating us all. In the background, the explosions are heavy and terrifying.
Walking into the "safe room" I see almost all of my colleagues who live on the base, who obviously woke up before me. I catch most of their eyes. I see people who are tense, who are very awake, who are sleepy, resigned, focused, but, above all, I immediately feel a calm and reassuring atmosphere. I sit down and realise I have brought two different shoes. My colleagues laugh at me, I give a quick joke in retort. We release some stress, we breathe, we support each other.
Marco is quite calm, very calm, which is reassuring. The room is not large and we are sitting on the floor, half of us in pajamas. From this room you can access water, food, toilets. In fact, this room is also the project coordinator’s room and we joke with him about how tidy it is.
The mood is subdued as the bangs get louder. Some explosions are so violent that you jump. The heavy machine guns sound as if they were just behind the perimeter wall. You can hear them from all sides and the noise is non-stop.
After a moment of "taking our bearings", once we all feel safe, we start to radio the various departments of the hospital to assess the situation. At the beginning, we heard “all staff, get down!”, Then nothing for a while. Now it looks like it's moving a bit anyway.
I call my team, but to no avail. Quickly, I identify that none of them made it to the hospital, of course. At last, I manage to reach a guy who has taken refuge in the hospital; he tells me he has no info on the others. He reports that many people have just taken refuge in the compound. For now, the attack is still too violent and I tell him to stay down and safe from the bullets.
During all this, it’s raining. That's crazy. It's been three months since it rained, it's the dry season, but it's stormy and it's raining. As if the picture isn't dark and dramatic enough. In the safe room, we tell ourselves that it’s like something from a film and that chance sometimes makes things weird.
Between thunder and grenades, the ground sometimes trembles, the birds do not sing, the air is damp, the earth is soaked, and the red soil turns brown
Saturday January 3, 10:00 a.m.
It is 10 am, the shots have moved away. Marco then allows a small team to come out to assess the situation. As the base is within the hospital grounds, it is easy to get there on foot. In three minutes, I am with my colleague Alex, who has taken refuge in internal medicine.
The toll is clear: the settlement has turned into a displacement camp. There are women and children everywhere, more than in the last few days.
The "COVID zone", which is empty, has become a "refuge zone". Alex and I guide people there to free up areas of the hospital which must be clear to handle a large influx of wounded people.
The shots start again. We run for shelter in a hospital room, lie on the ground and wait.
"Dale for Marco". The project coordinator is calling me on the radio.
"Receiving ", I say.
"Return to base as soon as possible."
In the first gap in the shooting, I do. This situation goes on for hours. We go back and forth, we lie down, and we try to manage this little mess as well as possible.
On the health promotion side, Alex and I manage the crowd, sharing information with patients and caregivers, and together with the supply team organise food distribution for the night shift staff, who have now been working for almost 24 hours.
Logistics needs are identified and shared with the logistics team, who quickly install water for the area people are taking refuge in. On the medical side, the lack of staff makes things difficult to manage, but my colleagues are doing a wonderful job. I lost count but I think there were about ten injured people in the emergency room.
Saturday January 3, 5:00 p.m.
They have wounds from gunshots and explosions, sometimes serious, but luckily everyone is safe. It is 5 p.m. I hear weird gunfire and my colleague tells me, “They've taken the city. They shoot in the air to let it be known."
Despite that, we continue to work until 9 p.m. The whole team works hard and everyone goes above and beyond, across communications, logistics, supplies and medical care. Looking back, I am impressed with what we did in this situation.
Towards the end of the battle, a mobile team even leaves the compound to look for the wounded. Watching the ambulance as it pulled out of the gates, I understand the strength of MSF's principles at this critical time.
Saturday January 3, 7:50 p.m.
7:50 p.m. The prefect of Mbomou speaks on the radio: "I regret to confirm that the town of Bangassou is taken by armed groups, after several hours of fighting with the FACAS, supported by the peacekeepers. I had tears in my eyes when I learned that some people who tried to cross the shore to take refuge in the DRC drowned, it's pitiful and I call on these armed groups to spare the lives of civilians and to respect their commitments within the framework of the peace agreements.”
It's official. No more rumours. When the mobile team return to the compound, they tell us, “They were 200, 300, heavily armed. With rockets, mortars, heavy machine guns on pick-up trucks. Some are kids. They waved at us with big smiles, as if nothing had happened."
It's surreal, but it's reassuring: we have worked hard on this in recent months and we feel known and respected by all parties to the conflict.
Enemies and neutrality
On the other hand, in the hospital, there are patients who are also "rebels" and who raise many concerns. One evening, when I’m coming back from the "refuge zone" with two health promoters, they tell me we have to go into the surgery ward. I believe them and I follow without knowing why. They go around the patients, look at them silently and then exchange a few words with a tall man in the middle of the room.
I see eight wounded men, silent, eyes downcast or asleep, some hidden under their covers. Then we go out and I ask them what was the point of what we just did: "We are seeing if people are calm. You know, some of the people in that room are enemies,” they say.
"What do you see if there is a problem?" I ask.
“You can tell. We have already seen that. If we see it, we can help. The big man is the president of the youth, he tells them that if there is revenge everything can degenerate and, in reality, nobody wants that."
It's clear. I am far from having the measure of everything that is happening here. It’s humanly crazy and I can only trust them. I now realize how difficult it is for Central African staff working at the hospital to remain neutral in these situations. But I admire them. I don't know how they do it.
Saturday January 3, 9:00 p.m.
9:30 p.m. End of the day. I’m with the international staff, sitting in the hut, like the day before. As if nothing has changed. Except that everything has changed. Now they are there, they are in town. No one really knows their plan and there are always lots of rumours. Schooling for children, repairing bicycles, small businesses, even most of the local radio stations, are all over.
In the eyes of my colleagues I see the resignation and the fear, the sadness and also the anger, I feel a mixture of all these horrible emotions and I say to myself, fuck, no one on earth should go through this. The day after the attack, people wake up tired in this new city. They are there. And now?
"They tasted the honey of plunder," Pelé told me. "They are hungry. They are in town but there is no one there. They will get bored, maybe argue over the goals and their strategy. The vengeance from before may return. Are they going to Bangui? We don't know, that's why everyone has a headache, that's why no one wants to come back."
After the attack
Pelé sleeps in the hospital, he has to move the furniture in the medical office every day to lie down on an old bit of foam. He was there three years ago. It’s a routine he’s reliving once again. A routine that no one should go through for a single day.
They occupy the city and the surrounding roads. The peacekeepers are in their base with what remains of the FACAS. At the hospital, we continue to work normally but we have nearly 1,700 displaced people who occupy all the space. Also, nearly 100 staff are sleeping in the offices.
Nicolas finds me once again in the shadows, on a dark, hazy and cold evening, without moon and without stars. He is shaking and his eyes are red, as if he has been crying for days on end. In a broken, tight voice he says, “They're after me. They have the list of drivers. I don't know what they want. Why are they doing this to me? Maybe they want to enlist me by force to drive their truck to Bangui. They came to my house three times, my brother was there and was questioned. Why me again?”
Today I am sitting next to Jean in my office and I see two children playing under the shade of a large acacia tree. One of them sees me and he sneaks up, smiling, to the window.
He speaks to me in Sango with his shy and playful voice, he’s having fun playing hide and seek. Then he walks into the office and, with my invitation, starts playing with the megaphones next to me.
He makes me smile, but I feel my heart knot, he must be seven or eight years old. After a few minutes, his sisters come to pick him up, curtly, but with a smile. They return to draw water from the nearby pump.
I turn my head to my colleague and ask him, "Papa, what do the kids think about everything that's going on? How do you, as a parent, handle this?"
He replies, "Well it’s horrible, isn't it? You see them manage to create their own little paradise through their games, but we parents are trying, in vain, to see how they’re going to survive all this in the long term. The school is closed. If they don't even have a little formal education, what will they become? They are bored and they hear the shots. They are afraid at first, but then they construct guns out of sticks. When they lose their parents, tomorrow, they are the ones who will attack you. When I imagine my children like that, I’m terrified.”
Across the river
Nothing is the same anymore. Across the water in the DRC, 15 or 20,000 people are reliving the same thing situation they were in three years ago. People who had to give up everything, to plant a wood of tarpaulin-covered trees to shelter their children.
Food is getting too expensive, traders have lost most of their belongings, people are hungry, there are no latrines, there are too many mosquitoes, no drinking water, no NGOs, no network, no radio.
As I cross the water on my way back from this camp in DRC, a soldier with a hunting rifle and some grenades asks me for money: "I want to call my mother," he says. He looks about 16.