The language of peacekeeping
Our small plane touches down on time at the small aerodrome in the town of Kaga-Bandoro. Aerodrome sounds rather grand for this dried-mud airstrip in the middle of the Central African bush. But this one-hour plane ride has just saved us a day’s driving, with the constant risk of road barriers erected by rebels who are heavily armed and have no qualms about shooting first. Plus this is the only aerodrome in the Central African Republic (CAR) with its own restaurant, selling the best curried chicken.
We’ve landed to refuel the plane, which takes about 45 minutes – and I desperately need the toilet. There’s a UN military base, with facilities, just beyond the airstrip. When I reach the entrance, two foreign UN peacekeepers (known locally as ‘Casques bleus’ or ‘blue helmets’) smile at me. I speak to them in French; they frown and shake their heads. Ah.
‘Do you speak English?’ I ask, squinting in the searing midday sun.
‘Yes, yes!’ one of them replies enthusiastically.
‘Can I please use the bathroom in the base?’
‘Yes, yes!’ He clearly doesn’t understand me.
I gesture towards the toilets just inside the base (I’ve been here many times before) and they wave me through.
On my way back, feeling much better, I greet a Central African security guard. ‘Madam, tell me something,’ he says, gesturing towards the two peacekeepers. ‘These men don’t speak our language – where are they from?’ I tell him I don’t know and will ask. With gestures and a few words of English the two peacekeepers tell me they are from Nepal. I explain this to the Central African, now standing beside me.
‘So they have come here to protect us: but how am I supposed to talk with them?’ He flicks his cigarette to the ground and mushes it with his boot.
This UN mission, MINUSCA (the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic), established in April 2014, is the eighth peacekeeping mission to be launched here since 1997. It began painfully. Pakistani casques bleus were deployed to Kaga-Bandoro while the town was under siege by Seleka rebels. The long-suffering civilian population presumed these new non-French speaking armed men were rebel reinforcements, and began violently demonstrating against them – because the UN had not taken the time to explain its peacekeeping mandate to the very people it had apparently come to protect. The Pakistanis could not speak up for themselves as they had no language in common with the Central Africans. It was a mess.
MINUSCA now has some 10,000 peacekeepers, plus 2,000 civilian staff, deployed across CAR. They’ve been recruited from more than 25 different European, Asian and African countries. The overwhelming majority of peacekeepers are men and two of the major troop-contributing countries are India and Pakistan. To put it crudely, peacekeepers are sourced from poorer countries with less international clout, while rich Western nations control overall UN operations and continue to wield an unhealthily heavy influence on CAR’s politics.
The context of conflict is complex here, but is in essence a chronic struggle over myths, money and trust. Communities have been manipulated against each other for years, and trust between them has been shattered for political gains. I know many Central Africans who are glad the casques bleus are here, because overall security has improved; but interactions between the UN and ordinary Central Africans have been stymied by mutual incomprehension and some horrific child-sexual-abuse scandals. Can there be a meeting place between the two?
This, somehow, brings me back to the airstrip restaurant. It’s small and local, run by a Pakistani called Ali, helped by a couple of Central Africans: a space where locals and internationals can sit together and eat good cheap food. I just have time to gobble down some curried chicken before my flight takes off again. Ali is sanguine about Kaga-Bandoro. ‘We know suffering in my country, so we can understand this place,’ he says. ‘We need to live with them during their struggle, and protect them.’
The UN forces are clearly going to be here for at least the next 10 years – and have realized they need to be talking with, and listening to, local people across CAR. The bush is where rebel groups have risen up in protest at the political marginalization and exclusion of their communities. Dialogue is the way forward – whatever language you say it in.