|The Central African Republic|
|Written by Sascha Grabow & translated by Julien Millot (french)|
|Monday, 22 September 2008|
When I arrived December 2002 at the border between Cameroon and the CAR, the christian missions had just finished evacuating their personnel since the security situation was rapidly deteriorating. I gave them some valuable films for safekeeping as they were being flown back to Germany. Next morning I crossed into the relatively unknown area, the one news I had was the CAR`s reputation for worst road blocks anywhere overlanding through Africa.
A combination of walking, hitchhiking, sitting on top of the load of some lorry, and mini buses got me through 25 army road blocks (of which I ended up paying `fees` fourteen times) and 600 kilometers in two days towards the Capital City Bangui. The place was in dire distress, every couple of months Libyan-sponsored troops tried to capture the christian-run Capital & Presidential Palace ...
... The president in his turn had some battalions of mercenaries coming across the river from Congo, the infamous Baya Mulenge, as a last resort in defending his rule & authority. Later he wasn`t able to pay them, and in their anger they went on a rampage in two main streets and killed and raped about two hundred. Thus, with three different rivaling armies in the City, nobody really had a receipt for absolute safety anymore.
Once in town as the only traveler in the country I quickly became friendly with the french expat crowd who in their turn hadn`t had much contact to the outside world for a while. After spending a night in a church hostal, I was invited to stay with Victor, the Sorbonne-educated Professor of computer science from Brittany, who taught at the local University and stayed in the same heavily guarded compound as the prime minister, with all the amenities like swimming pool, tennis court and personal chef at our disposal.
One night I walk home at around 1 am. The next thing a `knight-rider`-like black car with black windows comes my way and suddenly picks up speed, swerving over towards me. As a long-learned reflex I instantly start running to get at least a minimum of space between me and these guys, who knows what their intentions may be. Fire, about twenty rounds, is opened directly, and now my whole plan is to get off the main lit road and into a dark side alley. The one I choose unfortunately ends with a wall, so I jump up, heave myself on top of it and jump down on the other side, cowering low.
I find myself in a field and the next moment am surrounded by soldiers. Pulling out my light-colored handkerchief I slowly lift it up and raise myself, in this way assuring them that I wasn`t a threat and needn`t be `mowed`down or the like. They see me and bring me back to their car that turns out to be the toy of a minister of the country. "I am so glad that it`s you and not some thugs", I am trying to explain to him in french. But after checking my passport and finding all those stamps from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Zaire, they don`t buy my reasoning; they claim that if I really was a tourist how come that I jump walls, how come that I seem to know every small path around here, for them I`m definitely a suspect, probably a South-African-trained mercenary.
An army truck is called, on it`s pallet I have to lay down flat on my back, a guard is hovering over me, and all this less than twohundred meters away from Victor`s residence. When I lift my head slightly trying to wipe the blood off my wrists, blood from some scratches incurred while jumping the wall, my guard hits me with his kalashnikov over the head and orders me to remain low.
When arriving at the country`s central prison at about two o`clock in the morning, I`m ordered to empty my pockets, to take off my shoes, and am led bare-footed to a cell that already holds six black guys. The guards open the massive steel-bar door, push me in, lock from the outside and by then the prisoners have woken up. They position themselves in one line in front of me, looking grim and showing me something written in french near the ceiling, telling every newcomer that it is his duty to dispense some cash. Especially one giant of a man looks really frightening. I turn around, but the prison guards have long turned around and walked back to their room ... this is REAL here, no kidding.
Feverishly I`m contemplating a sound move; if I had those guys against me all night long this could be potentially really dangerous, with aids rates of 30 % and more in places like this, what`s there to do?
Then it flashes through my brain, I put on my brightest smile and telling them my name, I shake hands firmly with each of them, thus breaking the ice. One would be excused to think that it was kind of a gamble, but as in other relationships, appealing to the respect of a person or a situation will in almost all circumstances yield the best results.
Later one of them even shared his mat and blanked with me (never EVER forget your protection against getting bitten by mosquitos - malariarisk!), and when the giant fell asleep I secretly borrowed his slippers. Why? In this `sty` the smell was nauseating, and the toilet consisted of a hole in the floor on the other side. I urgently had to pee, but no ten horses would get me bare-footed near it, risking worms and all.
The next morning ...