The first thing a foreigner will learn about the Central African Republic (CAR) is that the country hardly exists at all. When explaining to a colleague or friend about your trip to CAR you will more often than not be met with a blank stare. After giving some geographical hints to CAR's location a slow nod and change of subject usually ensues. The reason for this general ignorance has many roots: a lack of any tourism in the country, large and more commanding neighbors and a relatively small amount of natural resources to be exploited. Whatever the reason for CAR having been shamelessly relegated to the world's margins, it is without doubt one of the most isolated and least developed countries on the planet. With neither the nuclear arms of North Korea, the repressive junta of Burma nor the charismatic autocrat of Iran, the suffering and plight of the residents of CAR generate an international shrug.
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People gather at a hospital in Kabo, northern Central African Republic, Dec. 17, 2007. Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the world's poorest and most neglected countries with an average life expectancy of 39 years. Decades of fighting between various rebel factions in the north of the country have resulted in hundreds of deaths and over 200,000 internally displaced people. Outside of the capital, Bangui, there is no electricity or paved roads and banditry is extensive.
I first heard of the misery enveloping the Central African Republic last year when CAR was chosen by numerous organizations as one of the world's most underreported and neglected stories. While Darfur and the Congo seemed to generate ample media attention, the situation in CAR was unknown to all but a few. Located in the center of Africa and sharing borders with Chad, Sudan, the D.R. Congo and Cameroon, CAR is nearly the size of Texas with a population just over 4 million people. Since gaining independence from France in 1960 the poverty-stricken nation has experienced a succession of coups and attempted coups. In the last decade alone it has experienced almost constant rebellion, leading to a state of anarchy in most of the north of the country. CAR is one of the world's poorest nations with an average life expectancy of only 39 years. With no electricity outside of the capital and virtually no paved roads, it is a land abandoned.
With assistance from the international NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF), I spent two weeks roaming the north of CAR with cameras and a tape recorder. I visited isolated villages and towns that have become a fierce battleground between government forces and a patchwork of rebel groups. The fighting has left thousands without homes and hundreds of others dead or missing. What I found there was a world of terrified but proud people, a world that won't make the nightly news but which refuses to give into the bliss of ignorance.
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A woman sits with her child in the town of Massabiou, in the Central African Republic, Dec. 10, 2007. Massabiou, a village close to the Chadian border, was attacked by Junjaweed from Sudan in April, resulting in the killing of 36 residents and thousands fleeing. The residents that have returned to the village are now destitute with little food or shelter.
Driving in one of MSF's hearty white Land Rovers, I head to the village of Massabiou near the border of Chad and Sudan. Over a rutted dirt road we are caught for hours in a sea of cattle belonging to Sudanese nomads, the animals' striking horns jutting up for miles ahead through the dust. The isolated and impoverished town of Massabiou had been the site of a Janjaweed attack earlier in the year. Sudanese Janjaweed, the group of horse- and camel-riding bandits responsible for much of the strife in Darfur, are known to periodically attack border villages and towns in CAR. Numerous residents were killed in the early morning attack and all of Massabiou's cattle were stolen and crops destroyed. Arriving into the town one is struck by the banality of the violence in this country. With charred and destroyed tukels (huts) surrounding them, a small group of men sit on a dirty square mat in the shade of the town's only tree. They seem to have been expecting our arrival but with little to do without crops or cattle they are always waiting and expecting. The women and children look at us apprehensively from the few remaining tukels standing. These people learned quickly that strangers often have violent intentions and only leave after causing much misery. As one MSF employee translates from the local dialect of Sangho into French, we learn of the wanton despair of their situation. They have nothing and live in constant fear of another attack. With only a few knives for protection, the residents tell us they all sleep around a campfire in a desperate attempt at collective protection.
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Moussa Youssouf waits in a rural medical clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, Dec. 11, 2007, in Sikikede in the northern Central African Republic.
I head with the village chief back to where some of the 36 people killed are buried. We walk for 15 minutes under a scorching African sun through dry brush with no discernable trail. After beginning to question my need to see the burial site we come to a small clearing under some trees. The men stop and raise both hands as if to accept an offering from the heavens. With eyes fixed to the sky they recite a short prayer I can't comprehend. We stand around small mounds of dirt perversely shaped the length of a small body and delicately covered with sticks and twigs. I start to wonder who has witnessed these graves. Has anyone from the government come to investigate? Has a representative from one of the various rebel movements arrived, vowing revenge? Has a team of U.N. blue helmets come and taken pictures and notes for a future trial in The Hague? After some awkward minutes staring at the ground my guide turns and gestures for us to head back to Massabiou. He will need to gather wood for the evening's fire, hoping all along that morning comes quickly and without blood.