“Can you help me find my husband?” asked an elderly resident of this dusty, traumatised town in the northwest of the Central African Republic (CAR).
The old woman explained she had last seen him three months previously when he and his brother were kidnapped by bandits known as Zaraguina just outside Paoua.
Asked to pay a ransom to secure her husband’s release, the woman managed to raise three million CFA francs (about US$6,600) - a fantastic sum in a country where two-thirds of the population survive on less than a dollar a day - by selling the family’s livestock.
But those she paid either betrayed her or had no connection with the kidnappers; now destitute, she is still waiting to be reunited with her husband.
Just one, and now the most serious, of the deadly threats facing civilians in CAR, Zaraguinas have abducted scores of civilians, mostly children, for ransom, according to an Amnesty International report, Central African Republic – Civilians in Peril in the Wild North.
“There has been virtually no action taken by the government to directly prevent the abductions, arrest the perpetrators or otherwise protect the population,” according to the report.
CAR is roughly the size of France but boasts fewer than 5,000 soldiers on active duty.
That Paoua is an island under the control of these government forces surrounded by rebel-held territory is little comfort to its residents, most of whom have been forced to flee on several occasions when the two sides clashed. As if to erase the memory of such traumatic episodes, the worst of which took place in early 2006 and 2007, people refer to them only as “les événements”: the events.
“Up until very recently government forces were burning entire villages to the ground and summarily executing large numbers of people,” the Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston, stated in a preliminary report on CAR released in early February 2007.
While Alston took pains to stress that “President François Bozize [who came to power in a March 2003 coup and legitimised his rule through the ballot box two years later] has taken significant steps to end abuses by his troops”, and that such abuses had fallen dramatically, he noted that it was “too early to conclude that the government has definitely turned a new page”.
Safety in the bush
The road leading north out of Paoua towards Chad is dotted with largely deserted villages. Many, like René (not his real name), a farmer, have set up temporary homes in the nearby bush, a safe distance away from the main road.
“It began with the events of 15 March 2003,” René told IRIN in a makeshift compound of straw huts about a kilometre from his empty roadside village, where his home had been torched. That was the date Bozize seized power, ousting Ange-Félix Patassé, who was born in Paoua.
“Soldiers would drive by, shooting into the village. When we saw vehicles we had to flee. Some of those who stayed were killed,” said René.
Spikes of rebel activity in the Paoua area in 2006 and 2007 led government troops to target civilians, including children again, accusing them of backing the insurgent Armée Populaire pour la Restauration de la Démocratie (APRD; People’s Army for the Restoration of Democracy).
Asked if he had any sympathy for the rebels, or knew why they had taken up arms, René shook his head. “We have nothing to do with politics. Our politics is the soil.”
Chad is another source of danger, with bandits and soldiers purportedly pursuing Chadian rebels. “Three years ago vehicles with Chadian number plates came and 27 oxen were stolen. An ox is like a tractor in the fields, without them we can’t farm so much land,” said René.
Even those who are able to cultivate often find it too dangerous to take their produce to market. Stored food also increases the chances of violent looting raids.
Armed poachers present additional threats to civilians in the northeast and southeast corners of the country.
Thanks to a de facto ceasefire between the army and the rebels, a precarious peace prevails in Paoua. Yet a sense of true, durable security is missing.
“We have great problems with security,” one resident told IRIN. “We need a protection force. In town things are okay, but going outside is difficult,” he added.
Paoua became something of a ghost town after the “events” of 2006 and 2007, with much of the population fleeing into the bush or northwards into refugee camps in Chad. Many have yet to return.
“It all happened very suddenly. The rebels came into town early one morning two years ago,” recalled Alexi, a 27-year-old recent returnee from Chad. “The army thought the young people here were helping the rebels so I had to flee into the bush with my two children and my wife. I have not seen her since,” he said. “Now we are just praying for peace.”
Peace is a prerequisite for reversing the dire humanitarian indicators in CAR, where decades of brutal dictatorship, mutinies, coups and attempted coups, compounded by a dearth of development aid, have created what the International Crisis Group described in December 2007 as “worse than a failed state, it has almost become a phantom state having lost all significant institutional capacity”.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, almost a quarter of the country’s 4.3m inhabitants are affected by violence; 295,000 are forcibly displaced, a third living as refugees in Chad, Cameroon or Sudan. Life expectancy is 40 for men, 45 for women; more than one in 10 children die before the age of one; and just under a third of the population has no access safe drinking water. Of the 177 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index, CAR ranks 172nd.