Sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of ‘Le Croissant D’Or’, a quality patisserie and cafe in downtown Bangui, you could for a moment forget the heat, dirt and tension outside. You could forget that there was an army mutiny being played out each night, and that people were dying, and that every main street had a bunker full of French army soldiers at each end. Sipping a cafe au lait and munching on a fresh pain au chocolat we could imagine that we were back in a Bordeaux cafe, where our trans-Africa trip had begun four months earlier.
No one in the group expected our trans Africa crossing to go without a hitch, but none of us expected to be caught up in a frightening, but increasingly common occurrence in Africa – ‘the army mutiny’.
As we entered Bangui, one Saturday morning in November 1996, I realised all was not as it should be. Unlike every other African town I had been to, the streets were deserted. For the capital city of the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), there was not much happening. The streets should be teeming with people attending Saturday markets or just passing through.
Another clue that all was not well were the bullet holes in the buildings. We had become accustomed to the derelict nature of many buildings in Africa, but not many were riddled with bullet holes, and fresh ones at that.
It had taken some effort to reach Bangui and now I laugh at the irony of going to so much trouble to enter a country that in the end, we were forced to stay in for much longer than we had planned or wanted to. And indeed, we had trouble leaving, in the end.
After two weeks stranded at a Lutheran Mission in Garoua Boulai, in Cameroon, we nearly gave up hope of ever reaching Bangui. Garoua Boulai was our chosen port of exit from Cameroon to the C.A.R. While there we met another overland group who had just been through the C.A.R. Other than the expected theft and hassles they had a smooth transit through the country. We were baffled as to why the border guards would not let our group in.
Each of us had the stamp ‘refouce’, or refused, in our passports on the same page as our C.A.R. visas. The authorities at the remote border posting of Garoua Boulai were determined not to let us in. “Too much trouble for tourists” they told us. “Humph” we told them. Intrepid travellers that we were, we went back to Yaounde, an administrative centre in Cameroon, and obtained new visas. We entered the C.A.R. at a new border post without incident. All it took were a few bottles of beer and a carton of cigarettes.
Shortly after arriving at the Bangui city limits, while stopped at a corner trying to work out our map, a soldier came running towards our truck. He was wearing full combat gear and was frantically waving a gun above his head as he shouted at us. When he reached our truck we realised he was speaking in French. We also saw that he was white – the French Army.
No one in our group could speak French but a Swiss girl had a basic understanding. After a few minutes of heated discussion with the soldier she informed us that there was fighting just a few blocks away. Soldiers from the C.A.R. regular army were mutinying, running through the streets shooting their guns and menacing the French soldiers. The soldier told us it would not be wise to take our big orange overland truck full of foreigners through the centre of town at that point in time.
As happens all too often in Africa, the army had not been paid for months. After a previous mutiny earlier that year, the soldiers’ weapons had been taken from them. The night before we arrived in Bangui they broke into the state armoury and took back their weapons. Now they were out to make a point, and the French soldiers had been called in from their army base at Bouar to control the situation. One third of the C.A.R. regular army were mutinying and we and driven into the middle of it all.
As gun shots began to echo through the streets, the French soldier directed us to our destination – the old Peace Corps house. As if through the sheer power of wishing it to be, we drove unhindered through the outskirts of Bangui to the other side of town. We didn’t get to see much more of Bangui that day. The soldier told us to drop to the floor of our truck as we drove through town, for fear of attracting the attention of the rebelling soldiers.
The Peace Corps house is run by a Canadian couple. They have lived in the C.A.R. for many years and have stayed on when most foreigners have left Bangui. The Peace Corps house is a popular stopover point for travellers and overland trucks. It offers secure and civilised accommodation and also a chance to watch videos and have regular showers. Despite the situation in Bangui, we thought we were in heaven.
We set up our tents in the front yard and got to know our new home. We expected to be in Bangui for only a few days. Our destination was Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bangui was scheduled as a stop for repairs, collecting money and having our last taste of civilisation as we know it, before entering the so-called dark heart of Africa. Little did we know then that we would never make it into Zaire.
You can see Zaire just across the Ubangi River, which forms a natural border between the two countries. We were only a short drive, or ferry trip, from the most notoriously corrupt and disorganised country in Africa. Zaire has little infrastructure as well as limited communication, and few roads. At the time, the currency was devaluing on a daily basis. Some people had given up using money and we were advised to take tins, clothes and food in order to trade with the locals.
Above and beyond the stories we had heard about Zaire, we were looking forward to driving through the country. The previous group, whom we met in Garoua Boulai, had taken 30 days to cover 1300 kilometres. They told us that on some days they would travel only five kilometres. Most of the time would be spent digging the truck out of ruts and bog holes that were higher than the truck itself. Some local trucks that did not have 4 wheel drive took 6 months to get across the country. Most of this time was spent repairing the truck and digging it out of holes.
The day after arriving in Bangui we went to the bank. Money was to be wired to us from a bank in New York which would cover the costs for the rest of our trip. The bank was closed and we were informed that it would not reopen for a week. The mutiny had put banking activities on hold.
We decided to make the most of our time in Bangui, enjoying hot showers every day, videos at the house and breakfast at ‘Le Croissant D’Or’. Despite the arguments for and against colonialism and foreign influence in Africa, I believe that the French have left an indelible gastronomic legacy in every country that have had an influence in. To come across a French Patisserie when you have eaten okra and onions for a month is akin to reaching the Holy Grail.
After our morning pastries we would visit the supermarkets and stock up on snacks. Crisps, soft drinks, fresh fruit and cheese were popular. Again we benefited from the French influence by being able to purchase imported cheese. I even went as far as paying US$4.00 for an apple. After months of tropical fruit I craved an apple. It went well with my Normandy brie.
Bangui was also a poste restante stop. I was delighted to receive a parcel from my brother, sent all the way from Australia. Inside were a few copies of my favourite gossip magazine, newspaper clippings, bags of sweets as well as photos and letters. The clippings were about African trouble spots. My family would receive my letters months after I sent them. Nightly news bulletins occasionally showed stories about the troubles in Africa and my folks never knew if I was in the thick of it or not.
Our days began to follow the same pattern. After visiting the shops we would return to the house and watch TV, write journals or rest. Five o’clock heralded the start of our nightly curfew. We were not allowed to leave the grounds of the house because after dark the action really began. A lone tourist wandering the streets of Bangui at night was not necessarily a target, but they could easily get caught in the cross-fire.
We became accustomed to the sound of gun fire and explosions each night. It was usual for the night sky to light up with tracer fire, as the rebels and the French fought it out just a few blocks away. At the end of our street was a bunker occupied by the French. We would wave to them as we walked into town. They would sometimes come over to chat, but there were always three or four soldiers occupying the bunker.
Our street was significant because at the end, away from the bunker, was the ‘front line’. Physically it wasn’t much of a barrier, just a collection of branches and debris piled up across the road. Symbolically it was significant. The front line indicated the area where the French had no control. Slowly, over the two weeks we were in Bangui, the front line crept up the street, until our house was inside rebel territory.
As tourists we never felt under direct threat. We were not targets for the rebels but we could get into trouble if we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. One evening, at the time when we usually had our showers and gathered inside to watch videos, I wandered up to the front gate. It was locked but I could open a small flap and look out into the street. Nothing much was happening but as I turned to go back to the house I noticed a movement on the high perimeter wall.
I looked up to see a rebel soldier perched in the corner. His machine gun was set up on a tripod and it was pointed towards the house. I looked at him for a few more seconds, smiled my biggest, friendliest grin (why, I will never know) and slowly walked back to the house, trying to look casual and non-threatening.
I got inside then told the rest of the group that there was an armed African soldier on the wall with a machine gun pointed right at us.
People started to yell and most dropped to the floor – just like in the movies. A local man was sent out to talk to the soldier. Apparently the soldier had heard that there were foreigners in the house, and the rebels suspected that we were with the French Army. After being convinced that we were just innocent tourists the rebel packed up his gun and left. That night some French soldiers were shot and people were killed.
By this stage we had been in Bangui for nearly two weeks. We had finally got hold of our money and were itching to leave. While in Bangui we became aware that there was serious trouble in Zaire. After much argument we decided not to go through the country. Massacres were taking place in Eastern Zaire and there was every chance that we would not be allowed into the country.
Instead we decided to backtrack to Cameroon and fly from the capital, Douala, to Nairobi. We would leave our truck in Douala and take a new one on the other side. Most of the group was glad to avoid more trouble. Already we were two weeks behind schedule and with the uncertainty on Zaire, we had no idea when we would reach East Africa. It was now the end of November and we were looking forward to celebrating Christmas in Nairobi.
The day of departure from Bangui dawned as any other. Someone had tried to set fire to the front line overnight. It was still smouldering as we packed our belongings into the truck. Farewells were said as we piled into the truck for the first time in two weeks. The front gates were opened and the truck slowly inched it’s way out into the street. The locals had cleared part of the front line, so we could get through and onto the main road.
Just as the truck appeared outside, bullets whizzed past the front fence. Someone down in rebel territory was shooting towards the bunker. We reversed back into the compound, hearts racing. Again we found ourselves laying on the floor of the truck. Would we never be able to leave this place?
After an hour things were quiet again. We left the Peace Corps house and made our way through town. At one stage we took a wrong turn and came face to face with a rebel road block. Three men were laying on the road, behind their machine guns. We did a quick 30-point turn and headed out of town.
As we departed the C.A.R. we encountered more violence and aggression. At Bouar we had rocks thrown at our truck. We endured two very thorough police checks, which we managed to get through without any bribes or aggravation. Finally the border post at Garoua Boulai was in sight. It was getting dark and we arrived just after it had closed. We had to wait the night, before being allowed back to Cameroon, where our attempts to get into the C.A.R. had begun nearly a month before.
You can never anticipate how you will cope in times of stress and danger. To be honest, I never felt threatened or in danger in Bangui. One traveller I spoke to in Nairobi had heard about our experience. Jokingly, he said to me “I bet you’ll have trouble getting to sleep without the sound of gunfire to send you off”. Strangely, he was right. It took me weeks to have a decent nights’ sleep.
In a war zone, if you can hear the gunfire you know where they are fighting. You start to get nervous when all goes quiet.
OK, this is old. Written in the late 1990s. I think the story is good but the writing could be better.
In 1996/7 I spent 6 months traversing Africa. This is one of many adventures I had along the way.
Anyway, I had almost forgotten this experience, until I found it tonight.