Life in and around the rainforests of Dzanga Sangha can appear otherworldly. Even if one stands amid the bustle of Bayanga — a tangle of tiny stores selling cigarettes, mobile phone credit, vegetables, haircuts and noxious booze — the activities of the country’s leaders in Bangui, more than 300 miles away, seems remote enough to be an irrelevance. If one treks for a few hours into the jungle, the city no longer exists at all.
Yet in early 2013, the peace that survives even the ceaseless chaos in this small corner in the country’s far south west was brutally shattered by news emanating from the capital. There were graphic tales of the kind of violence to which the Central African Republic has never previously borne witness.
“I was hearing BBC reports and through the Mauritanian shopkeeper, who had his contacts in Bangui, about the approach of the Seleka,” Louis Sarno says.
Towards the end of 2012, a rebel army bearing a name that means “alliance” or “coalition” in the country’s official language Sango had fought its way to power in some northern and central regions of the Central African Republic. The president of the past decade, François Bozizé, initially tried to stem the rising wave of disruption and dissatisfaction by signing a peace accord with Seleka leaders and offering a number of compromises. But in March 2013, stating exasperation at broken promises, Seleka militia marched all but unopposed into Bangui and toppled the president. Bozizé, who had seized control in a similar coup d’etat ten years previously, did not hang around to fight his corner. The buzzing sound heard near Bayanga soon after, coming from the direction of the Sangha River, turned out to be the engine of a boat motoring the president to exile.
Locals joke that the Central African Republic has survived coups d’etat approximately once a decade since it earned independence from France in 1960. Life has tended to go on. But this time, the change of government in Bangui came to precipitate close to two years (and counting) of savagery that has terrifying echoes of past conflicts in Rwanda and Darfur.
The Seleka, a mostly Muslim coalition with senior figures from Chad and the Sudans, rampaged through the country for about a year, with little more than token intervention from France, wary of previous failed operations in their former colonies in Africa. But then, citing defence of the country’s religious identity, loose rabbles of mainly Christian militia sprang up across the Central African Republic, assembling under the title “anti-balaka”. The anti-balaka further terrorised the country and slaughtered Muslims, often showcasing their butchery in front of the relatively few international journalists covering events. They wore shiny amulets on their fatigues, which they claimed made them immune to weaponry (a powerful strategy among communities with strong beliefs in sorcery), and swarmed in disparate groups of brigands in all regions of the country. Almost all Muslims have now either been forced to flee the Central African Republic or have been murdered standing their ground — and still the violence continues. According to most recent reports, “thousands” are dead and 430,000 people have been forced to flee their homes. Of the Central African Republic’s official 4.6 million population, 2.5 million need assistance, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Although the battles were supposedly drawn along religious lines, most international commentators and locals alike realised it was nothing quite so formal. Religious groups had lived alongside one another with almost no friction for decades prior to the recent unrest; despite plenty of other hardships, religious disunity was not a problem in the CAR, where even inter-faith marriages were common. It was instead difficult to discern motivations beyond greed and wanton warmongering, and much easier to see the horrors: two separate waves of terror brought a crisis of unparalleled magnitude to what was already one of the most impoverished nations in the world.
News of Bozizé’s routing reached Yandoumbé quickly in March 2013, but Sarno initially expected little to change. He was a veteran of coups d’etat. But word swiftly followed that Seleka were on their way to the only region of the country that might be considered relatively prosperous and that Andrea Turkalo, Anna Feistner, Rod and Tam Cassidy, plus workers from the WWF and other NGOs, had been persuaded to flee. Feistner and the Cassidys had been spending a quiet afternoon bathing in the Sangha River when a motorcycle courier brought instructions to depart; Turkalo and Shamek, the Mauritanian shopkeeper, told Sarno that he too should evacuate. Rod Cassidy was most reluctant of all to abandon his property, but eventually informed his staff to chop down a tree to block the road, removed the sign that advertised Sangha Lodge at the end of the drive, and jumped in a boat. In pitch darkness, a few hours behind the WWF convoy, the Cassidys motored south, then cut the engine crossing the border with Congo-Brazzaville, believing Seleka to be already in command of the checkpoint. The group intended to wait it out across the river and come back as soon as the coast was clear.
Sarno initially opted not to go. He had other options. But the year that followed would become the most turbulent he had endured since first arriving in Africa. The Ba’aka, known to be the poorest people in the country, were not an immediate target of the Seleka, whose beatings seemed primarily designed to extract money. Besides, the Ba’aka’s survival skills allowed them to vanish into the forest for indefinite periods, a natural refuge from the Seleka forces comprising mainly ill-equipped, desert-dwelling fighters from the north. Sarno retreated to the forest with four of five Ba’aka families for the first three weeks after the coup d’etat, hoping to weather the storm beneath the canopy. But word soon came from Shamek, a Muslim, still manning his shop in Bayanga, that a second group of Seleka was on the way. They were more nasty even than the first, and Sarno was one of their principal targets.
Sarno’s 30-year presence among the Ba’aka had largely been regarded as a harmless peculiarity by the Bantu of Bayanga, but some confused villagers had also reached for more cynical explanations. There were rumours, which had apparently now reached the Seleka, that Sarno had prised from the Ba’aka the location of the rainforest source of “red mercury”, a mythical commodity, but thought to be more valuable than even diamonds.
Sarno says, “The local Africans always wondered, and some of them had said to me, ‘We know why all the other white people are here, but we haven’t figured out why you’re here…There’s something you’re not telling us. We haven’t figured it out yet, but I think it’s because of this mercury.’” Seleka had grown intent on finding Sarno and capturing these imaginary riches, threatening to take Ba’aka hostages if he did not reveal himself from in the forest.
Sarno finally had no choice and fled first to Congo-Brazzaville, with his family, and then to the United States, by himself.
“It was the worst moment of my life in a lot of ways,” Sarno says of the moment he bade farewell to Agati and their children. “They were going to head into the forest, so they would be all right. But it was horrible just leaving them like that.”
What he initially expected to be a three-week trip to America stretched into three months of misery, exiled in the country of his birth but pining for what had become home. The Seleka rampaged through Yandoume and Bayanga and every phone call with Shamek described new horrors. Seleka climbed the viewing platform in Dzanga Bai and sprayed bullets through the families of bathing elephants, killing 26 animals and hacking off their tusks. They also ransacked Sarno’s house, tearing apart his notebooks containing work from 30 years, destroying recordings, stealing medicines and crunching beneath their boots the last authentic example of the mbyo flute known in the world. It had been bequeathed to Sarno by its last maestro, who had since died.
Shamek managed to use his financial muscle to halt further slaughter of elephants, convincing the Seleka general to focus his efforts on warding off other poachers swarming to the area. The elephant massacre also belatedly brought international attention to the plight of Dzanga Sangha and Sarno got wind that a former Israeli commando named Nir Kalron, who had more recently turned his attention to conservation in the world’s most threatened areas, was leading a party back to the region to ensure the protection of the bai. Meeting up with the conservationists in Cameroon, Sarno travelled with them back to Bayanga and, emboldened, realised it was time to negotiate with the Seleka leaders.
“I knew where the base was, so I went,” Sarno says. “I walked up and I said, ‘I want to see the colonel.’”
Speaking through an interpreter to the Chadian Seleka general, Sarno demanded the Ba’aka be left alone. They had nothing to offer, he said. The general seemed willing to co-operate, and Sarno gave him a Casio watch for his understanding. (The general later said, “I will die with this watch on my arm.”) The largesse bought immunity from the hassles of the senior figures in the Seleka, but the instructions did not filter to the general’s underlings. Soon, after many more petty invasions to Yandoumbé, Sarno and the Ba’aka upped sticks again and fled into the forest, where they stayed for another three months.
The forest, according to Sarno, remained a place of reliably exquisite beauty. Ironically, the Ba’aka seemed more happy than they had for years, rediscovering their authentic forest life. Sarno says, however, that he found himself turning into a character from a Joseph Conrad novel, giddy with the idea of defending his rural fiefdom from enemy incursions. “The Ba’aka said that if anyone followed us into the forest it would be easy to kill them because the Ba’aka had crossbows and spears and they can be virtually invisible in the forest,” Sarno says. “They said, ‘Yeah, fortunately we’re nice people, but if we were mean or evil people, we would be killing them.’ We had theoretical discussions about it, you know. I was starting to get Kurtz-like. ‘Kill them! Put their heads on a pole on the path to scare any that came afterwards!’ Then I realised, what am I doing? I’m turning into Kurtz.”
Even after the Seleka were finally beaten into retreat, and their own president deposed in Bangui, the arrival of the anti-balaka was only three days away. According to both Sarno and Rod Cassidy, who returned to Sangha Lodge, the new arrivals were even worse. “The anti-balaka are rubbish; they’re just scum,” Cassidy says. “The people who chased them [the Seleka] aren’t Christians. What’s Christian about chopping up women and children?”
Shamek, whose presence in Bayanga had been invaluable during the Seleka’s occupation, was forced to flee across the border. His store was ransacked by looters, and enormous credit accounts (including one extended to Sarno) remain unpaid. Other Muslims had little option but to follow him and stay in refugee camps in Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon. Many were forced to part with huge cattle herds, their entire livelihood sold for a pittance. Sarno and Cassidy both stared down anti-balaka brigands, sensing that the bravado of the young mercenaries would be unable to withstand the gumption of their seniority. There was no chain of command among the lawless groups, so negotiation proved impossible, but both adopted the kind of strategies best employed to undermine a playground bully.
“If you act scared in front of them, they get worse,” Sarno says. “But if you stand up to them, they back off. They had a real bully, thug mentality, the anti-balaka. They knew that I’d come back when the Seleka were there, so there was something about me they weren’t quite sure about. So I was just standing up to them. I wasn’t afraid to scold them…They’re not afraid to kill people, because they have killed people already and are used to it. But for me, it was just a bluff.”
Sarno also started a whispering campaign in Bayanga, intended to shatter the illusion of the anti-balaka’s weapon-proof skin. “I was saying, ‘Their magic, it’s not real magic. It’s bullshit. I’d like to try stabbing one of them. Let’s see if the knife goes in or if it breaks.’”
Eventually, Sarno and Cassidy, among others, managed to persuade what was left of the municipal authorities to arrange a small group of fighters from the Forces armées centrafricaines (Faca) to come to the area. As expected, the bullies of the anti-balaka disappeared at the first sign of a force with bigger guns. The Faca remain in the region.
It is difficult to quantify now what was lost during the raid on Sarno’s home. His journals and flute were irreplaceable, but even more so, any notion of the Eden-like idyll was shattered. While exiled in the United States, Sarno wrote a fresh account of the Seleka occupation of Yandoumbé, a 19,000-word essay named Flight (From Paradise). It is astonishingly good: an impassioned telling of what remains a globally under-reported crisis, from Sarno’s unique viewpoint from deep within the country’s overlooked, indigenous community. It is deeply personal, but tells a story of broad relevance. Sarno’s Ba’aka friends are given the rounded characterisation often absent from anthropological and journalistic studies, while the narrator, who describes himself as “a bag of fragile bones”, offers bitter commentary.
“I’m still a refugee in the country of my birth,” Sarno writes. “Five, six times I’ve had to delay my return to Africa, as I watch my beautiful adopted country Centrafrique being pulverized, driven into the dirt. People murdered; houses, offices and hospitals looted; whole towns pillaged; kidnappings for ransom; brutal mass rapes, as if the militias are intent on raping every woman and girl in Centrafrique.” He continues: “I’ll let you in on a secret. When those Sudanese poachers came to Dzanga bai and slaughtered twenty-six elephants with automatic weapons and then chopped off their faces to free the tusks, I was glad. I really was! Because I knew that now, finally, there would be a vigorous international response.”
Compared with some areas of the Central African Republic, notably the capital, where blood still slakes the streets, Dzanga Sangha got off lightly from the civil war. But its effects, even since the arrival of the peacekeeping Faca guards, has still been devastating. Prices have skyrocketed, further crippling what was already an economy barely worth its name, and corruption is even more widespread among anyone clinging on to an office. There is disquiet and nervousness greeting any news trickling down from Bangui, plus a keen sense of absence felt for the likes of Shamek, the Mauritanian shopkeeper, for whom it is still too dangerous to return.
The rangers of the WWF, and bullish pragmatists such as Rod Cassidy, continue with business as usual, but there is no mistaking the absence of their most lucrative commodity: tourists. Cassidy reported advanced occupation figures at Sangha Lodge of close to 40 per cent for 2013, a phenomenal figure for central Africa and testament to the renown the Cassidys and their property had developed. But a trickle of cancellations after the first signs of unrest soon became a torrent and it is no longer difficult to find a vacancy. Meanwhile at Bai Hokou, at the centre for the gorilla habituation program, the tips jar resembles an art exhibit — a transparent plastic cube, empty except for a spider suspended in a web — and the visitors book an exercise in cruel irony. “This park is beautiful — a miracle, really,” declare visitors named Ann Pescatello and Bonnie Wade on March 7, 2013. “Long may it all continue and flourish!” There is only one further entry, which came 17 months later, in August 2014.
For all that, there was not so much as a hint of disruption from militia in my time near Bayanga and Yandoumbé, and hasn’t been since the Faca arrived in June, according to locals. At the risk of peddling my own Eden-like fantasy, my time in the Central African Republic — staying at Sangha Lodge, visiting unique habitats of elephants and gorillas, hanging out in a glade of avocado trees with Louis Sarno — was incomparable. As my motorcycle taxi ferried me to and from Yandoumbé, my only obligation — endless, but endlessly joyful — was to wave to the groups of Ba’aka children who would pour out of their homes to the road with a heartening squeal, “Weeeeeeeee!”, as I passed.
After one such journey one afternoon, sitting again in Sarno’s house, Yambi, his youngest son, grabbed a packet of spaghetti and darted outside to cook it in a pan over a fire in the garden. He was soon distracted by another family roasting some duiker meat outside their home, and wandered over to view the alternative feast. Learning that the meal was not yet done, he returned to his original pan to discover another young boy had seized control, clutching the pan and working on the spaghetti. Yambi yelped his displeasure.
“Aha! A coup d’etat!” Sarno offered, with a wry chuckle.