Leitura para o fim-de-semana: uma viagem ao inferno da República Centro Africana

Enquanto o mundo está distraído com a crise económica, o campeonato do mundo de futebol ou a instabilidade na Ucrânia, há dois locais no planeta onde a população está a ser massacrada. Um é a Síria. O outro é a República Centro Africana, um pequeno país que começou a ter problemas no final de 2011 e que desde então já perdeu a conta aos milhares de mortos provocados por uma guerra civil que escalou para tensões entre muçulmanos e cristãos. Esta reportagem da The New Republic mostra um pouco do que por lá se passa.

Fotografia: Michael Christopher Brown

Fotografia: Michael Christopher Brown

Hell Is an Understatement

A report from the bloody, crumbling Central African Republic

BY GRAEME WOOD

Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), has never been known for the reliability of its public utilities. Most trash is picked through by scavengers, and the remaining mango pits, scraps of plastic, and rusty bottlecaps pile up on dirt roads or get blown into fetid open sewers. But since December, along a desolate stretch of the Avenue de France, the Red Cross has operated an on-demand, white-gloved sanitation service that, within an hour of being called, will show up to collect human bodies, whether chopped up or left intact.

The Avenue de France marks a divide between two neighborhoods, and the human remains belong to those who have, for one reason or another, strayed too far in the wrong direction. The road itself is devoid of foot traffica no-man’s-land where both sides can deposit their victims, so they don’t have to bury them or let them rot within smelling distance in the African sun. North of the line is the Fifth Arrondissement, a neighborhood inhabited almost exclusively by Christians now that its Muslim residents have either been killed or forced into exile. The Muslims who haven’t fled the country live primarily in the Third Arrondissement, just south of the Avenue de France. There, being a Christian is a condition nearly as fatal as being a Muslim is to the north, south, east, or west.

About 15 percent of Central Africans are Muslims, and for much of the country’s 54-year history, they lived in relative harmony with the Christian majority. But in the last year, CAR has collapsedfirst in a spasm of political violence and now in a grisly carnival of factional and religious slaughter that has left it one of the very worst places on Earth. It is a country the size of Texas, with as many people as Boston, and an economy less than a tenth the size of Chattanooga’s. Reliable data doesn’t exist for the number dead, but from December until March, street lynchings became so common that they ceased to be news. The danger is unequaled anywhere in present-day Africa except, perhaps, Nigeria on a bad day. Bangui competes with Damascus for the title of world’s grimmest capital city.

After a visit last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the BBC that “desperate is an understatement.” And Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made a special stop in Bangui in early April, as part of her effort to deploy blue-helmet peacekeepers as quickly as possible (which, given the lightning reflexes of the United Nations, means no earlier than September). Power’s interest in CAR dates to the beginning of the crisis, and one presumes it has to do with her wish to avoid adding a self-indicting chapter to a revised edition of her 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning A Problem from Hell, about U.S. inaction in the face of genocide.

Anyone who walks the streets of Bangui for a day knows why she might be alarmed. The last year of fighting has traumatized the population, and now nearly everyone is nursing a lethal grudge. It is a city of overlapping vendettas. Roadblocks are staffed by gun-toting, battle-hardened children, and even an interaction as simple as complaining about a broken cell phone can turn into a spray of indiscriminate machine-gun fire on a crowded city street. During my week there, I learned to stand silently, hands cupped behind my ears, to discern the direction of distant gunfire and figure out where to go, and where not to.

And if you go in search of trouble, Bangui will rapidly oblige. On March 24, my photographer and I took a car to Boy Rabe, a neighborhood known as a stronghold of the Anti-Balaka, the Christian militia that is currently the most feared group in Bangui. It takes its name from its young fighters’ ritual initiations, which supposedly confer resistance to AK-47 rounds (in French, balles-AK, or “ah-kah”) and machetes (balaka in Sango, the national language of CAR). The Anti-Balaka arose from self-defense forces in the countryside and from Christian populations in Bangui, and now that they have the advantage over the Muslims, they are demanding payment and spoils from frightened civilians of all races and creeds.

To meet the Anti-Balaka on their own turf is to throw oneself at the mercy of well-armed adolescents, often drunk, with delusions of invulnerability. Our taxi driver slowed to a walking pace as we came close to Boy Rabe, saying roadblocks might be concealed ahead. We searched for signs that the Anti-Balaka might emerge from behind buildings to rob us, or worse. As we drove on, the road grew quiet, and the commotion of shared taxis and wobbly motorbikes gave way to pedestrians, and finally to the ominous emptiness of no one at all.

Then we hit a roadblock. The half-dozen children who surrounded us when we exited the car all wore threadbare, dirty clothes, and around their necks they strapped anti-sorcery charms, mostly amulets and leather pouches of herbs. Their weapons were dirty and battered, as if used in harsh conditions. The youngest was about ten, the oldest no more than 16. In their hands, I counted three AK-47s, two pistols, two swords, and a crooked, blunt scythe, before I realized I should stop counting and start figuring out a way to leave as soon as possible.

They must have scared our driver, because by the time we took stock of the situation, his vehicle had disappeared back down the road. To each other the children spoke Sango, but when I whipped out my notebook and started asking questions in halting French, they snapped to attention and at least for the moment looked receptive. “We’re journalists,” I said. “We want to know the story of the people of Boy Rabe and talk to the boss here.” The boys just blinked at us, until one said, “There’s no boss.” Those words relieved me slightly: As long as they were talking, they probably hadn’t decided to kill us. But while I spoke, the one with the scythe was scampering up the street with a look of excitement. The photographer, Michael Christopher Brown, shrewdly refrained from taking pictures and said, in his dopiest American English, “I’m American! I live in New York City!”in hopes of showing that we were harmless, and not spies.

About 20 yards uphill, a grown-up emerged from behind a fence. He looked like he was in his thirties, and he wore a clean navy t-shirt over a beefy torso. He was clearly in charge: the boss the boys claimed not to have. As soon as he appeared, he screamed, and the kids reacted like a string of lit firecrackers, yelling and raising their weapons. The first words I could make out from the man were “Get out of here,” and Michael and I both raised our hands to show we carried nothing more dangerous than the tools of journalism. I blurted out some words about wanting an interview, and he yelled, “No interview,” then, “Get out of here,” again. He stormed close enough to shove Michael and take away his camera while shooing us down the road at full scream.

We didn’t dare run or look back, in case he or his soldiers would interpret a glance over the shoulder or a panicked sprint as a sign of aggression or guilt. By then anything might have provoked them. With each slow step I wondered whether Kalashnikov rounds might shred my back or legs. In my imagination, I felt a phantom finger pressing firmly on the base of my skull, where one of the kids might take me out with one lucky shot.

The dirt path to the main boulevard stretched out for another 200 yards but felt much longer, and when I noticed the total absence of traffic thereand therefore the total absence of witnessesit occurred to me that, if the man decided it was safest to kill us, no one would see what happened, and our corpses would appear that afternoon, the palest stack of limbs on Avenue de France.”

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