August 3, 2008 / 4:04 AM / 11 years ago

WITNESS: In search of invisible borders in central Africa

Joe Bavier has reported on West and Central Africa for four years. He joined Reuters as Kinshasa correspondent in 2006. In the following story, he describes a trip to Central African Republic’s porous eastern border with Sudan in the aftermath of a wave of raids by Uganda’s rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.

Undated file photo of Joe Bavier, who has reported on West and Central Africa for the past four years. He joined Reuters as Kinshasa correspondent in 2006. REUTERS/Handout

By Joe Bavier

BAMBOUTI, Central African Republic (Reuters) - “We aren’t in Sudan, are we? Because we’re not allowed to go to Sudan.”

The question, asked by an admirably rule-abiding aid worker, made me smile. Here in this forgotten corner of Africa, where simply finding an international border requires patience and 21st century technology, who would ever know we were here?

“Still in Central African Republic,” I said, looking down at the GPS on my satellite phone. “I think.”

A friend and colleague once said Central African Republic has one redeeming quality — it’s easy to find on a map. After all, the directions are in the name.

But its history shows how much this poor former French colony has been a victim of that geography.

Sandwiched between some of the world’s most unstable countries, it has been variously crisscrossed by marauding fighters from Democratic Republic of Congo, coup-assisting Chadian mercenaries, southern Sudanese rebels, and Janjaweed militia from Darfur.

I was in the densely forested eastern borderlands on the trail of the most recent trespassers, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) — rebels from northern Uganda who are led by self-proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony and notorious for using boys as child soldiers and girls as sex slaves.

SPACE INVADERS

In late February and early March, along a 100-km (60-mile) stretch of ‘National Highway Number 2’, the grandiose name of the overgrown dirt track that runs east from the capital Bangui to Sudan, the LRA kidnapped some 150 villagers.

They entered from bases in neighboring Congo and over 10 days of operations, they didn’t fire a single shot.

“They knew there were no police, no soldiers here, so they did it in broad daylight. They stayed all day,” Vincent de Paul Koumboyo, mayor of Bambouti, Central African Republic’s easternmost village, told me of the day the LRA arrived.

“After two months, the authorities in Bangui sent people to carry out an investigation. They stayed 48 hours then left again,” Koumboyo said.

The LRA’s violent incursion into this remote area has raised fears of a new front being opened up in a tangle of interlinked conflicts involving Sudan, Congo and Uganda.

United Nations officials fear a possible joint military offensive by these neighbors against the LRA — agreed in June as a strategy if the rebels do not commit to peace — could push the Ugandan insurgents into sparsely populated southeastern Central African Republic.

And if this country has been largely forgotten by the outside world, the people of eastern CAR have all but disappeared, even from the thoughts of their own countrymen.

“If Central African Republic is the a—hole of the world, then Bambouti is the a—hole of that a—hole,” one aid worker unceremoniously summed it up.

Walking through the town, I saw not only the results of the recent LRA incursion, but the legacy of a long line of invaders.

Mayor’s office: burned. Police station: long ago abandoned. Health centre: looted by rebels from neighboring south Sudan, never rebuilt. School: a roofless empty concrete shell.

“Imagine you’re living in a village in Scotland, and the Vikings show up and rape and pillage and destroy everything. It’s like that,” one senior U.N. official explained over drinks, before I saw the aftermath for myself.

TO THE MEANINGLESS LINE

Soon after arriving in Bambouti — after a 14-hour trek in a 4x4 and some help from a chainsaw-wielding villager to cover the 100 km (60 miles) from the next significant settlement — I stumbled upon a soldier.

The sight of the man, dressed in a new uniform, his AK-47 slung over one shoulder, would not have been particularly remarkable had I not been told that the Central African army didn’t have a single soldier posted within a day’s drive.

I approached, noticed my reflection in the mirrored lenses of his sunglasses, and hazarded a ‘Bonjour’.

“He doesn’t speak French,” the young man sitting next to him said. “He’s Sudanese.”

Only then did I notice the patch on his shoulder bearing a small flag and the words ‘South Sudan’.

As part of a power-sharing peace deal aimed at ending decades of civil war in their country, south Sudanese rebels are now officially part of Khartoum’s government army.

But I couldn’t help wondering, could this man have been among the fighters that burned Bambouti to the ground just a few years back?

Then, the invisible line between the two countries did nothing to stop southern Sudanese rebels raiding for provisions and new recruits.

And still today, one man with a gun was not going to let the border keep him from making the short trip to satisfy his curiosity about some visiting outsiders.

A few days later, with time to kill and my interest piqued by my encounter with what seemed to be a one-man invasion, I persuaded some visiting aid workers to take me to the border.

A bumpy ride on a pickup that left my arms torn and bleeding from the thorny vines hanging over the track, and we were there.

Nothing. No checkpoint. No border guards.

After a few minutes hacking through chest-high grass, we finally found a concrete border marker. Posing for a group photo to prove we’d been there, I leaned against it, and it fell over.

As I tried to put the marker back in place, slightly worried I’d perhaps just committed a major international offence, I stopped. What did this border, so often violated by armed men with ill intent, really mean to anyone anyway?

Certainly nothing to the people of Bambouti. Even less to the killers who prey upon them.

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com)

Editing by Alistair Thomson

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