Letter from Bangui: The long walk
Christina is from Bocaranga, which sounds more like the name of a film than a sprawling hillside market town. It lies in the northwest of the Central African Republic (CAR), amid stunning scenery of forested hills. But Christina doesn’t live there any more. She and her three young children are now staying 160 kilometres away, in a different town, called Bouar. It doesn’t sound like a huge distance – exactly 100 miles. But Christina and her kids walked, or rather fled, the whole way.
I met Christina in Bouar, at a local centre d’écoute, or listening centre, set up to support Central Africans who’ve survived violence. She’s been in Bouar for almost a year now, but her situation has barely changed.
‘I lived in Bocaranga most of my life,’ she tells me, her face closed. ‘When the Seleka rebels took over our town [in March 2013] everyone fled into the bush, because we were all terrified. We slept out there in the bush for nights, me and my husband, Jean-Pierre, and the kids. When we returned to our house, Seleka came straight to the door.’
Jean-Pierre had a job with the local farmers’ council, and the rebels knew he had a salary. ‘They demanded money from him,’ says Christina, ‘and when he told them he didn’t have any money they shot him dead. In front of me.’
Seleka, a militant alliance of five rebel groups, took over CAR last spring, unleashing a regime of violence and fear across the country. After murdering Christina’s husband, these Seleka rebels stole everything they wanted from her house, and then torched it.
Shocked, traumatized and with her young children in tow, Christina sheltered with neighbours and friends in another district of the town. But no-one was safe in Bocaranga – the rebels were lashing out at everyone. After three fearful weeks, Christina decided she and her children had to get out.
‘We didn’t know where to go,’ she shrugs. ‘But lots of people were moving, and I thought maybe we’d be safer in Bouar.’ Carrying a few possessions salvaged from the fire, she and the children walked day after day along dust tracks and through the bush. During the first months of Seleka’s regime, villages across CAR emptied: hundreds of thousands of Central Africans fled to the bush because of the rebels’ brutality, including their reputation for raping women and girls.
Christina has two sons and a daughter, and I asked where they stayed as they were walking towards Bouar.
‘Sometimes we slept outside under trees, sometimes in people’s houses,’ she says. ‘They were strangers who lived along the route, but they always let us sleep with them and gave us some food.’ She tells me that every time she approached a villager’s house, the family invited her and the kids inside and fed them too. ‘No-one ever turned us away.’
After two weeks of continual walking, the exhausted family finally arrived at the edge of Bouar. Waves of other displaced people had flooded into town and local families offered to host them. Christina and her kids were taken in by one of them.
The host family was kind, she says, but she and her children have no room of their own; they sleep on mats in the main living space and, after almost a year, their few belongings are still in bags.
Around 6,000 displaced Central Africans have been registered in Bouar, though the actual number is probably higher. Many, like Christina, can’t go home because they literally have no home to return to. Christina earns a little money doing people’s washing, and says her family survives on about 100 Central African Francs a day, the equivalent of 20 US cents. They eat cassava, including the leaves, a few vegetables and very little else. She’s attending a local employment training scheme, hoping to start a little business selling hot food, but has no capital and no-one to borrow from. Her host family has finally asked for a contribution and she can’t afford to pay them either, and worries about being kicked out. Her main comfort is that her kids are attending school, and the centre d’écoute is a sanctuary for her.
Though CAR is wracked with violence, Christina’s old home, Bocaranga, is calmer now.
But when I hesitantly ask if she would consider going back, she flinches.
‘I couldn’t bear to,’ she says. ‘Our life there is finished. Now we need our life here to begin.’