It’s 5.45 am. I am on my terrace, overlooking the hill just above Bangui, sipping my first coffee. The soft early-morning mist is rising; the sun glitters and birds chatter as the city below awakens. The hill is so lush all I can see is forest and flowers. It all looks and feels especially radiant this morning, because I am actually thinking of leaving Bangui. For good.
There are professional and personal reasons propelling me towards leaving. But the Central African Republic (CAR) has been my home for two and a half years, so it’s a big decision. I can’t truly make up my mind until I take one more trip to the bush, to think it through without distractions from people close to me. So I’m flying out to Obo, a town on the eastern edge of CAR, close to the border with South Sudan.
I’ve been to Obo many times: I know its red dust streets, the small market selling fabrics, blankets and medicine. I know the two priests at the Catholic mission where I always stay, the Sudanese merchants and the (very) few aid workers stationed there. Obo is surrounded by vast, dense forest: it’s a beautiful place, but utterly neglected by the government and the international community (the US has a secret military base here, but that’s another story).
Obo’s location has blighted the lives of its residents: they live under the shadow of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a violent militia set up by Joseph Kony from Uganda in the 1980s. LRA gunmen have previously targeted this town, kidnapping scores of children and adults, some of whom have never been seen again. These days the LRA is much weakened: Kony is old and sick and the remaining foot-soldiers are hungry feral men who’ve spent years roaming in the bush. But Obo is still vulnerable. Two months ago a hunter saw strange men in the forest 10 kilometres out of town and raised the alarm: three locals went to investigate, including an aid worker. They were all murdered. Communities have fled the villages surrounding Obo, leaving only the very poor eking a living from the forest. Locals call the LRA Tongo-Tongo (‘early morning’) as they always strike at first light.
‘We are the most forgotten Central Africans,’ says Matthieu, a local activist who has worked as a volunteer supporting LRA victims for years. He lives in a settlement beyond Obo, towards the Sudanese border, and is an expert on the long-term impact of the traumas haunting this remote region. I ask him to accompany me a few kilometres into the forest, to visit the scattered small communities still daring to live there. We rent a motorbike and head out down the rutted track that leads towards the Sudanese border.
I have motorbiked down this track before, in awe of the vivid rainforest where wild pineapples grow and chimpanzees swing; but today something feels wrong. My stomach starts aching with anxiety, and I feel overwhelming relief when we reach the first tiny settlement of two forest families. But they are nervous, too: ‘We don’t sleep here any more,’ the father tells me. ‘We walk back to Obo at dusk – after the killings we’re too frightened of Tongo-Tongo to stay.’
As he talks I watch his weary face, then catch myself looking around, jumpy as hell. I am really spooked, and abruptly tell Matthieu we need to get back.
I don’t relax until we reach the outskirts of Obo. I love CAR, but am mentally exhausted by its chronic conflicts.
The world has, meanwhile, lost interest in the LRA ‘story’. But Obo residents live in stasis, victims of this unreported violence that still festers. Courageous individuals like Matthieu have spent years supporting those who manage to escape the LRA, but like most of the young people here he can’t find a paid job and lives hand to mouth.
‘I want to stay to help my community but my wife just had a baby,’ he tells me. ‘I’ll have to move to Bangui soon to look for work.’ I completely understand, but worry what will happen when even dedicated activists like Matthieu are forced to leave.
He asks if I’ll be in Bangui when he arrives. I tell him that I’m not sure. But even as I say these words, I realize that I have made up my mind.