Bangui, Central African Republic. Whether victim or accused in the conflict gripping the Central African Republic it is to Radio Ndeke Luka that people have turned. The radio, supported by the Swiss NGO, Fondation Hirondelle, has been perceived as impartial and factual in its reporting throughout the recent turmoil. The following story follows an afternoon in the life of Radio Ndeke Luka. It is a “day like any other,” according to the Ndeke Luka team.
It’s 12:30pm on Friday, February 7, 2014. A group has gathered in the courtyard of the radio. Three men, covered in dust, barefoot and with torn clothes sit on the ground. One of them crying, bleeding from a deep gash on his head. Facing them are six men with threatening postures, claiming to be “real Anti-balaka,” and proud of having arrested “these three robbers.” The “real Anti-balaka” have come to the radio to show that they “are not bandits but want to ensure the safety of the residents of Bangui.” They have also come to denounce the “fake Anti-balaka, those who kill, rape and pillage.” Since December 2013, clashes between the Anti-balaka militias (“balaka” means machete in Sango) and the Seleka (“coalition” in Sango), the former rebel group, have continued.
The atmosphere in the radio’s courtyard is serious, with the Anti-balaka’s reactions unpredictable. We at the radio want to know why these men who are accused of the worst atrocities have chosen to come to Radio Ndeke Luka instead of going to the authorities. “We came to Radio Ndeke Luka because it is the only radio station that tells the truth. It’s only here that Central Africans can really hear what we have to say,” says one of the “real Anti-balaka” wearing sunglasses. A silent man beside him with a baton wears a red headphone over his dreadlocks that picks up FM radio. Cries of pain are coming from his cell phone where he is watching the “arrest” of the man with the head injury. We ask to see the film. The man has both his hands and feet bound and two men drag him along the ground while he begs for mercy. They force him to sit and he is subjected to a rain of blows to the head. “He stole from the central market; we have corrected him,” one of the Anti-balaka calling himself “Twelve Powers”, explains matter-of-factly. The Anti-balaka men “arrested” the two others in the 7th district of Bangui.
Since February 6, following a meeting with the traders of the central market association, these “real Anti-balaka,” have taken up the task of stopping looting. They have come before journalists without any attempt to hide their identities in an effort to improve their image as both the Anti-balaka and the Seleka are accused of atrocities. One of them, Emotion Namsio, even has a laminated “Anti-balaka” identity card with a photo, an official stamp and the title of “Spokesman.” When we asked him what legitimacy the Anti-balaka have in substituting for the police he replied, “What police? There are no more police here, no public order.” These men have thus improvised vigilante justice, beat up looters to discourage others who would be tempted to do the same and “relieve the population” in the absence of law enforcement. Coming to Radio Ndeke Luka to be heard is their way of letting the population know they are serious. They are aware that the journalists will question their initiative and they have chosen to submit themselves to their scrutiny.
Our team takes their statement with great care as these Anti-balaka may want to manipulate the radio. Later our journalists will question the police as to why the duty of maintaining order and security has fallen to the “real Anti-balaka,” and how the police plan to respond before the situation deteriorates further.
The heat is oppressive but the Anti-balaka refuse to give water to their “prisoners.” The man with head injuries states that he works in a pharmacy and tries to explain why he attempted to steal from a shop in the central market. “It’s because of poverty, my brother. I took some beer and I let myself do that,” he said, adding, “I’m asking all my Central African brothers to stop looting, stealing, to stop doing whatever they want.” He has two children and his wife is pregnant again, he says. A few minutes later, alerted that her husband is at Radio Ndeke Luka, his wife arrives in tears, begging forgiveness from the Anti-balaka but the man with the baton drives her towards the door.
She sees her husband leave in a van full of looted goods from the market. The Anti-balaka spokesman himself wipes her tears, saying in Sango “Your husband will not be beaten any more.” When asked about their destination, the Anti-balaka says that they will “deliver the men to justice.” What justice are they referring to, since according to them, there are no more police? The Anti-balaka smile in response. The van starts up noisily. They set their “prisoners” free 500 meters down the road, before disappearing.
Jean-Luc Mootoosamy, Fondation Hirondelle Programme Manager
Photo: J-L Mootoosamy/Fondation Hirondelle
Translated from French by Monika Emch