Tag: Central African Republic

Central Africa’s diamonds come at high price in blood and sweat

Miners work on the diamonds mine of Banengbele, 10km south of Boda. (Pic: AFP)
Miners work on the diamonds mine of Banengbele, 10km south of Boda. (Pic: AFP)

Barefoot, with sweat pouring down their naked chests, 50 men slave in the depths of the Central African forest digging for diamonds in a sandy pit half the size of a football pitch.

They all share the same desperate hope – that one day they will find a diamond that will change their miserable lives forever.

The mine at Banengbele, near Boda in the south of the strife-torn Central African Republic, is one of many in the region where groups of diggers – or “Nagbata” as they are called – toil like ants with shovels and spades for the equivalent of three dollars a day.

The owner of the mine takes a cut of that for food, with many of the miners supplementing their meagre rations with bush meat like snake caught in the surrounding jungle.

Conditions in the camp are grim. Four men sleep in a makeshift shelter no more than 1.5 metres wide made of sticks, plastic sheeting and a mosquito net.

After long days of back-breaking labour in terrible heat, many numb themselves with cannabis and palm wine.

“We work hard. I ache all over,” said Jean Bruno Sembia.

Widow Huguette Zonki had no choice but to follow the miners into the bush to feed her four children.

“I have to survive somehow,” she said holding her baby, whose head was covered in pustules. “My husband was killed in the war. I earn three dollars a day cooking for the men and I spend between five days and a month at a time out here in the camp.”

Smuggling and sacrifices

The miners sacrifice chickens and give money to children in the hope that the spirits will smile on them in a country where neither Christianity nor Islam has entirely displaced traditional animist beliefs.

“Every morning I pray to God to help me find big diamonds,” said Laurent Guitili. “One day for sure I will find a big one. Then I will be able to have my own mine and earn all the money I need.”

When one of the miners does find a gem, the person who holds the concession takes it and sells it, giving them back between 30 and 60 euros per carat.

Good quality diamonds sell on locally for around three times that.

But at least in Boda miners are paid. In the north of the country, where some of the country’s richest mines are still in the hands of armed groups, they are forced to hand over what they find at gunpoint.

The Kimberley Process, the international body which tries to stop the sale of so-called blood diamonds, slapped a ban on the export of diamonds from CAR after the overthrow of president Francois Bozize in March 2013 by Seleka rebels threw the country into civil war. The mainly Muslim insurgents had allegedly funded their revolt with illegal diamonds.

Seleka and rival “anti-balaka” Christian militias have since battled to control the mines, the economic lifeblood of the impoverished country, with smuggling booming.

“If you are armed you can have diamonds,” said former prime minister Martin Ziguele. “And with those diamonds you can buy more arms and fund your rebellion.”

French and UN peacekeeping troops have tried to wrest control of the mines from the armed groups so the legal trade in diamonds can restart, vital to putting the shattered economy back on its feet.

The government hopes the embargo can be partly lifted at the next Kimberley Process meeting in Luanda in Angola later this month.

Francois Ngbokoto, of the ministry of mines, said the export ban may now actually be encouraging smuggling.

Sectarian violence

Since the sectarian violence that erupted as the Seleka rebels were driven out, the town of Boda has been divided in two, with Muslims — who used to control the diamond mines in the area — forced to take refuge in their own enclave.

The mines are now held by the country’s Christian majority having passed through the hands of both of the Seleka and the anti-balaka militias during the fighting.

“It is better to work for someone from here,” one of the Nagbata said, referring to Christian owners.

One official told AFP that jealousy at the relative wealth of Muslims had been one of the “underlying problems” which aggravated sectarian violence in the region.

That resentment has not gone away. At Boda’s mining police office a sign shows a miner selling a diamond to a bearded Muslim middleman with the warning: “Nagbata do not sell your diamonds to illegal buyers.”

Moussa Traore, a Muslim dealer who set up in the town two months ago after getting a licence from the ministry of mines, insisted he sells his diamonds legally to the government’s central office in the capital Bangui.

However, miners and the authorities claim a huge amount of smuggling is going on, with Central African diamonds being channelled through neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, DR Congo and Sudan.

All agree that without the boost in the economy that lifting the export ban would give, there will be no peace in the country.

“With the embargo the price of diamonds has dropped,” said Traore. “They need to lift the embargo so proper business can start again.”

Sugar factory in CAR reopens amid strife

A sugar refinery – the war-torn Central African Republic’s biggest factory – is back in business after soldiers recaptured it from former rebels who occupied it for more than a year.

In a rare boost to the impoverished nation’s battered economy, the plant’s 150 employees are back on the job in Ngakobo in the east of the former French colony – with African peacekeepers providing security.

They had fled to the capital Bangui amid sectarian violence sparked by a March 2013 coup by the mainly Muslim Seleka movement.

“We had no more work, no more money. We were bored, so we are happy to be back,” said 30-year-old Solange Ngortene, a secretary at the factory.

Under a blazing sun, workers are busy cutting sugar cane on four hectares of rolling green fields. They would go on to cut 200 tonnes of raw cane that day, enough to produce 20 tonnes of sugar worth some $27 000.

Workers collect sugar cane at the largest sugar factory in the Central African Republic in Ngakobo, 450km east of the capital Bangui. (Pic: AFP)
Workers collect sugar cane at the largest factory in the Central African Republic, in Ngakobo, 450km east of the capital Bangui. (Pic: AFP)

“I was unemployed for more than a year. I was only getting between 10 and 30 percent of my gross salary. That wasn’t easy with a family to provide for,” Ngortene told AFP.

Like many employees of factory operator Sucaf, Ngortene fled with her family to Bangui when the Seleka seized swathes of the landlocked African state in December 2012.

Seleka rebels
The Seleka, a predominantly Muslim rebel militia, looted the refinery, which normally produces 11 000 tonnes of sugar a year, and then commandeered it as their eastern base.

Their coup three months later plunged the country into chaos, eventually displacing a quarter of the 4.6-million population.

After seizing power, some of the rebels went rogue and embarked on a campaign of killing, raping and looting.

The abuses prompted members of the Christian majority to form vigilante groups called “anti-balaka,” or anti-machete in the local language, unleashing a wave of brutal tit-for-tat killings.

Fifteen months on, Seleka has been chased from power following intervention by French and African troops, leaving the economy of the mineral-rich nation – already on its knees following decades of neglect and corruption – in ruins.

While the former rebels still control the area surrounding the refinery, the plant itself was recaptured in an operation involving 30 African peacekeepers in a force known as MISCA and 60 hired private guards. By the end of April, the factory was ready to reopen.

“The factory is going well,” says Sylvestre Serelgue, wearing blue overalls outside the mechanical workshop he helps to operate. “Our brothers from MISCA are providing security. We feel at ease in the factory.”

The problem, he says, is the local Fulani tribesmen, nomadic herders who are armed and directed by Seleka.

“The Fulani really bother us. They attack the staff in their neighbourhoods. There are 15 or 20 of them and they take our money,” Serelgue says.

Gabonese MISCA officers explain that the some 15 Seleka rebels controlling Ngakobo have recruited the Fulani to rob area residents.

“Many employees who sought refuge in Bangui after fleeing the Seleka came back here when it became even more dangerous” in the capital, says Akroma Ehvitchi, the factory’s Ivorian site manager.

“They returned alone, without their families, as there’s no transport and there are still security problems.”

Employees send money back to their families in Bangui aboard the company plane, “but the salary isn’t enough,” according to Prosper, a 42-year-old day labourer. He earns 1 100 CAR francs ($2.20) a day – barely enough to buy a kilo of sugar.

“It’s not much,” acknowledges Sucaf boss Thomas Reynaud. “But in some families you have five or six people who work here.

“The goal is to restart production to save the site,” says the young Frenchman, who was hosting a delegation of diplomats and military officials from Bangui.

Ehvitchi, leaving the factory aboard a company pickup truck, preferred to make light of CAR’s plight of widespread violence and abject poverty.

“In such a situation if you understand what’s happening it means it has not been well explained to you,” Ehvitchi says with a laugh.

Stephane Jourdain for AFP

Classroom heroes in CAR

“We, the teachers, we try to make the violence and the war that we have experienced disappear,” says Nguinissara Rita, a primary school teacher at the St. Charles Louanga Missionary displacement site in Bangui, capital of Central African Republic.

It is almost an impossible task in a country in the grip of a humanitarian crisis that affects some 2.3-million children.

Nevertheless, Ms. Rita takes the challenge head-on. In the overcrowded mass of tents, people, bags and mattresses in this makeshift camp, the classroom serves many purposes: For her pupils, it is a form of protection against potential recruitment and abuse; for her, it is a place to help lay a foundation for reconciliation in a conflict with no end in sight.

“We teach forgiveness to our children because we need to forgive the others,” she explains.

Temporary learning spaces
The school year in the Central African Republic has been disrupted for the better part of two years, and since 2012 most schools have been closed. To help provide educational opportunities to children, Unicef has supported international and national partners in setting up about 118 temporary learning spaces, covering more than 20 displacement sites in Bangui and other areas affected by conflict. As a result, over 25 000 children are back in a learning environment.

These temporary spaces are meant to operate only until schools reopen. “In the meantime, at least these children, who are living in difficult circumstances in the displacement camps, will regain some sense of normalcy and routine in a safe environment,” says Celeste Staley, chief of education at Unicef Central African Republic.


There have been efforts to reopen schools, but the process is slow and full of challenges. Many schools have been looted and damaged in the conflict. And given the continued insecurity, getting teachers back into classrooms is extremely difficult. Additionally, staff salaries are in arrears, which discourages teachers from returning.

Rebuilding and strengthening
Unicef supports the education cluster, a group made up of the national Ministry of Education along with NGOs and UN agencies engaged in the education sector. The cluster supports coordination among partners, joint assessments, identification of funding opportunities and sharing of information.

To support the reopening of schools, Unicef is providing basic school materials, light school rehabilitation, teacher training, and catch-up classes for children who have missed several months of classes.

The cluster is working with the transitional government to rebuild and strengthen the education system, which even prior to the crisis was among the least developed in the world.

“We know that it will be difficult to rebuild what was already a broken education system,” says Judith Leveillee, Unicef deputy representative in the Central African Republic. “But we must do what we can to get children back to school. This is where they should be. They have already lost so much.”

Back at the Louanga displacement camp, an energetic and passionate Nguirissara is teaching her young pupils a song. “Maybe it is my destiny; I don’t know,” she says. “But teaching children is something I like doing – and this way I can help them and my country.”

Suzanne Beukes is communications officer at Unicef’s Africa Services Unit.

Women take a stand against violence in CAR

A thousand women staged a silent rally outside Parliament in the strife-torn Central African Republic on Monday, their mouths bandaged in a mute protest against violence towards women.

Civilians including women and children are bearing the brunt of a surge in violence in the country, aid agencies have warned, with torched villages and abuses including murder, rape and torture.

“Stop violence against women. I am not an object,” or “No to murders, torture, rape” read banners held by women of all ages and religions who planned to cover their mouths with white tape from 6am to 6pm to make their case.

Women with their mouths covered with pieces of cloth gather on the steps of the National Assembly in Bangui to protest against violence against women. (Pic: AFP)
Women with their mouths covered with pieces of cloth gather on the steps of the National Assembly in Bangui as part of an anti-violence demonstration. (Pic: AFP)

Held in Bangui as part of International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the rally aimed to raise awareness of the spike in violence between unidentified armed groups and former rebel fighters.

It is the deadliest the country has experienced since March, when a coalition of rebel groups known as Seleka deposed president Francois Bozize, who had ruled since a 2003 coup.

In his place they installed the mostly-Christian country’s first Muslim leader, President Michel Djotodia.

Djotodia received a delegation of women at the presidential palace on Monday, but said he would wait until the protest was over before discussing their concerns.

“Since you are not talking we will wait until the time comes to organise a meeting and discuss the problems women are facing,” he said, before donating two cattle and $6 000  to the movement.

The president said his wife should have been present “but since this morning she has not said a word”.

“I talk to her and she doesn’t reply. I ask myself: Why isn’t my wife speaking? And I am told she is observing the movement of Central Africa’s women.”

CAR’s sectarian violence forces thousands into hiding

The Central African Republic is in danger of becoming the world’s latest failed state, with increasing sectarian violence sparking a humanitarian disaster. Médecins Sans Frontières’ Dutch general director, Arjan Hehenkamp, has recently returned from the country. He sent this harrowing report:

I’m just back from Bossangao, a town of 45 000 people 330km northwest of the capital, Bangui. From the air, you can see tin rooftops and big compounds, and it looks like a prosperous and bustling regional centre. But then you start looking for people and you see that there’s no one there – all the houses are deserted. Most of Bossangao’s inhabitants have gathered in a church compound, an area the size of nine football pitches, where 30 000 people are enclosed by their own fear.

(Pic: Médecins Sans Frontières)

The country has been gripped by violence since the coup d’etat in March, and religion is becoming a part of the conflict – basically everyone is scared of being targeted by everyone else.

The church compound is like an open-air prison. People don’t even dare to go and fetch the wood they need for cooking. They don’t dare to go out of that protected zone back to their houses – where they would have a roof over their heads and some proper facilities – even though their houses are sometimes only a few hundred metres away.

(Pic: Médecins Sans Frontières)

When you walk into the compound, you’re faced by a teeming mass of people, and you have to navigate through all the families that have set themselves up there. They’re living, they’re cooking, they’re defecating, all in the same compound, and they’ve been there for three weeks. They’ve recently got some shelter materials, but otherwise they’re living in the open air, surrounded by mud and garbage.

Our medical teams are working in the compound, and we’ve set up water and sanitation facilities. We’re pulling out all the stops to provide them with basic amenities and medical care, but at the end of the day it’s an untenable situation. It’s just not suitable for a 30 000-strong group of people – the risk of disease outbreaks is too great.

There are 1 000 to 1 500 people, also mostly Christians, staying in another protected zone around the hospital – they have slightly more space, but in essence it’s the same thing. And there’s a 500-strong group of mostly Muslims in a school nearby – testament to the religious divisions that have crept into the conflict.

(Pic: Médecins Sans Frontières)

We are working in the church compound, and also in the hospital, with both international and local staff. The hospital provides inpatient, outpatient and surgical services, and is functioning at a reasonable level, but it needs to be cranked up in order to deal with the numbers of patients we’re seeing and the kinds of injuries they’re arriving with – injuries which are quite horrific and difficult to treat.

One of our patients was a man who had been shot four times in the back, and his head had been partially hacked off by a machete. The surgeon tried to sew it back on and save the patient, but sadly he died.

Another was a child from a village outside Bossangao. His parents had tied him to the house with chains because he had diabetes and was prone to running around and having fits. But they lost the key to the padlock, so when they had to flee into the bush they couldn’t take him with them. When they came back he was still alive, but he had been slashed badly across his arms when he held them up to protect himself.

(Pic: Médecins Sans Frontières)
(Pic: Médecins Sans Frontières)

This is the level of brutality and violence that is affecting people, and we are probably only seeing a part of it. Outside Bossangoa, we know there are troops and local defence groups going around and seeking people out, engaging in targeted killing or small-scale massacres. Our teams have come across sites of executions, and some have actually witnessed executions.

The villages along the road from Bossangao to Bangui are deserted. For 120km, there’s no one there – 100 000 people have disappeared and fled into the bush. We can’t reach them, and they can’t reach our services. This is a major humanitarian and medical concern.

Compared to last year, when there was already a chronic humanitarian crisis in Central African Republic, the crisis has doubled, the capacity of the state has vanished completely, and the humanitarian capacity has halved.

There’s an acute need for aid organisations to deploy themselves with an international presence outside the capital, and in particular for the UN to lead the way in doing so. An international presence has a protective effect – I’m pretty sure that if MSF had not been present in Bossangoa, the level of violence and killings would have been much higher than it was.

Since the armed takeover in March, the violence hasn’t really abated. There have been violent reprisals and counter-reprisals. The violence continues, but now it is just more targeted and out of sight.