The day Bangui fell: rebels, looting… and stolen cookies

A NGO’s safe after looting by the Seleka rebels.
 
Sunday, March 24. After three days of fighting, Seleka rebels captured Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. They ransacked the city, targeting international NGOs as well as national organisations. Our Observer works for one of these. She tells us about this extremely tense day, where fear and absurdity were present in equal measure.
 
The Seleka rebels had taken up arms three days earlier, despite having signed a ceasefire agreement with the national army on January 11, 2013, which led to the creation of a national coalition government that included ministers from the Seleka.
 
However, the rebels felt that the agreement was not being respected, and so on March 17, they gave the government a 72-hour ultimatum. Among many demands, they requested the release of political prisoners, the departure of South African troops, and an end to roadblocks. They indicated that if these conditions were not met, they would take up arms again.
 
And on March 21, they did. The rebels moved rapidly that day, not meeting much resistance. Cities fell one after the other. The next day, the rebels took Damara, a city located 75 km from Bangui. The final barrier before the capital had fallen.
Contributors

“We were able to have a conversation of sorts with the rebels, but the situation could have rapidly gone awry"

Camille Bargain works for a French NGO based in the Central African Republic.
 
I arrived in Bangui on March 23. Normally, I’m based in Kabo, near the border with Chad. But there were rumours swirling of sexual violence targeting white women in particular. Even though my organisation works with the Seleka, which is well-integrated there, I decided it was best to leave. In Bangui, our NGO’s headquarters is located in a middle class neighbourhood, where the population generally has a positive attitude toward us. We feel safe there.
In the capital, the tension was palpable. But we knew that if things got really bad, the French army would come evacuate us. The embassy sent us loads of text messages to tell us to stay at home and await instructions.
 
On Sunday morning, around 7:30 a.m., we heard mortar fire as well as light weapons being fired. Together with two of my colleagues and our security guard, we huddled in a house near our office. An hour later, the rebels smashed our gate. We informed the embassy, who told us that they could not do anything. So then, for two hours, we listened to our office being looted, hoping that the rebels would not find us. Unluckily for us, they ended up coming toward the house we were hiding in and started shooting at the doors. We yelled at them, “Stop shooting, we’re coming out!” And we did, and they greeted us and shook our hands…
 
“One of them was stuffing his face with cookies and candy that he stole from us”
 
There were roughly ten soldiers from the Seleka. They told us they didn’t want to harm us, that they just wanted to rob us. Money, computers, phones, cars, everything got snapped up in a whirlwind of French, Sango, and Arabic. It was a very bizarre situation. We managed to have a conversation of sorts with them, but we could tell the situation might degenerate rapidly. We cooperated as much as we could in the hopes that they would leave as soon as possible, but they seemed to be enjoying their visit. One of them was even stuffing his face with cookies and candy that he stole from us. His commander grabbed the cookies from him, slapped him, and yelled at him that they weren’t there to steal everything.
 
But I was still scared. Two of us were women, amidst ten soldiers, and we were afraid things might get out of hand.
 
They ended up leaving… and then came back half an hour later. They practically apologized for looting us. They told us that they took our cars only to run some errands and that they would bring them back to us later — which they didn’t. They even returned a pressure cooker that they had taken during their first visit.
 
“I told myself that the worst might happen”
 
We took refuge in a neighbouring NGO office. But around 4 p.m., a Seleka general called us and said: “In ten minutes, soldiers will come and loot your office”. The looting of international organizations thus seemed very organised...
 
At that point, I became extremely anxious. I started losing my cool. Night would be falling in an hour and a half; the soldiers had been fighting all day; they’d been stealing and drinking alcohol everywhere they went. I told myself that the worst might happen.
 
Luckily, an armoured UN vehicle came for us. After spending two days in their headquarters, we were evacuated to Yaoundé, Cameroon.
 
We returned to Bangui this past Friday. Despite the authorities’ promise to disarm, the city is far from being safe. We hear shots ring out before and after the curfew, as well as other more sporadic shots throughout the day [shots rang out during FRANCE 24’s phone conversation with our Observer]. And the lootings continue. We learned that our offices were again visited two days before we returned — but there was nothing left to take.
 
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist François-Damien Bourgery.
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