The child soldier gazed out over arid scrubland – haunted by the past, unsure of the future.
Rebels had recruited Siriri for the equivalent of $30 and gave him an AK47 to share with another teenager.
He was then sent to the frontlines of the Central African Republic (CAR), where violence has been surging since a disputed election in December.
‘They recruited many young people to go and fight,’ Siriri said softly.
‘They told us that if we were successful in combat, we would be incorporated into the Central African armed forces.’
The 17-year-old survived being shot, but saw many of his friends killed.
‘We died like animals,’ he said.
By the time he reached a town 50 miles to the south, he was out of cash and unable to face more horrors.
Realising he had been lured into a nightmare, he decided to desert.
‘We fled into the bush,’ said Siriri, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. ‘We were completely lost.’
Eventually he got back to Kaga Bandoro, his hometown in the rebel-held north.
But today, several weeks on, his ordeal continues, as classmates and relatives cast him out from the community. ‘At school, they call me a murderer,’ he lamented.
‘My family call me a rebel every day. I am scared here. People point the finger at my house.’
Siriri’s plight comes amid an enfolding crisis that has seen fighting between government and rebel forces surge, fuelling the recruitment of child soldiers, displacing more than 240,000 civilians and sending one of the world’s most neglected humanitarian emergencies into a downward spiral.
Civilians are being subjected to a new wave of torture, assault, looting and sexual violence, say aid groups.
The fighting has halted the education for half of the country’s children, with more than 1,000 schools shut, occupied or damaged nationwide, according to the UN’s children’s agency, UNICEF.
‘It is a sad reminder of how we, as an international community, have failed to protect these young people [and] provide them with opportunities and hope for a better future,’ said David Manan of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), a humanitarian organisation that is assisting displaced families.
Shortly before presidential elections late last year, a new rebel coalition began attacking major towns, despite having signed a peace deal the previous year. Calling themselves the ‘Coalition of Patriots for Change’ (CPC), this rebel alliance uprooted vast numbers of civilians along the way and blockaded the main route into the capital, Bangui, disrupting the supply of aid and causing food prices to spike.
While federal troops backed by UN peacekeepers, Rwandan reinforcements and Russian paramilitaries have enjoyed battlefield victories in recent weeks, the turmoil continues, with civilians bearing the brunt of this alarming escalation.
The armed groups comprising the new CPC coalition are not new.
Some of them were part of the former ‘Seleka’ alliance of mainly Muslim rebels that stormed the capital in 2013, deposing then-President Francois Bozizé.
Other CPC elements belong to the once-rival ‘Anti-Balaka’ militias that sprung up from Christian and animist communities to challenge the Seleka’s atrocities.
That earlier, horrific chapter of the conflict saw devastating sectarian violence engulf the mineral-rich country, with thousands dead and both sides splintering into rival factions.
Clashes were eventually dampened by the deployment of international troops, followed by presidential elections in late 2015, which raised hopes of reconciliation.
Bozizé’s former prime minister, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, won the vote, having run on a ticket to unite the divided country.
However, despite his promise to disarm the rebels, the coming years saw him struggle to wrest back control – even with the backing of UN peacekeepers and the Russian military, which supplies Touadéra’s government with weapons and personnel.
Frequent outbursts of inter-communal violence continued.
In early 2019, fresh hopes were raised when government officials and leaders of 14 armed group met in Khartoum over the border in Sudan to sign a major peace deal.
Following that deal, President Touadéra tried to bring three of the country’s most powerful rebel commanders into the government’s fold, naming them as ‘special military advisers’ – a decision condemned by human rights groups, given the alleged involvement of these warlords in atrocities.
Later that year, meanwhile, former president Bozizé slipped back into CAR after years in exile following his ousting in 2013.
Despite facing UN sanctions and an international warrant for his arrest, he announced his presidential candidacy several months later – stirring fears that this contentious figure could inflame tensions amid CAR’s tentative peace.
It would turn out that such fears were not unfounded.
In December, the country’s top court barred Bozizé from running, given the sanctions against him for alleged war crimes. Soon afterwards, and shortly before the election, some of the country’s most powerful rebel groups announced their new alliance and launched the uprising – which, according to CAR’s government and the UN, has been orchestrated by Bozizé.
A former general who first seized power in a 2003 coup, Bozizé stands accused today of conspiring with armed groups to reclaim the presidency, which he denies.
There are two great twists in these tumultuous developments.
Firstly, the CPC rebel coalition brings together the sworn enemies of CAR’s last civil war – mostly Muslim former Seleka rebels on the one hand, and the predominantly Christian Anti-Balaka militants on the other.
Secondly, Bozizé has allegedly formed an alliance with some of the same rebels that deposed him years earlier.
The country is now more than two months into this latest insurrection, which has unleashed a terrible toll on civilians.
Obscured by limited access to beleaguered areas and by the government’s triumphant rhetoric, a picture is building of the horrific, indiscriminate reality of this war.
Last month, for example, evidence emerged of a massacre in Bambari, around 230 miles northeast of the capital.
Following clashes there, Amnesty International reported that as many as 14 bodies had been seen on the floor of a religious site damaged by an explosion.
‘On visible parts, these people were not wearing military clothes,’ said the rights group, which has called on the authorities to launch independent judicial investigations into violations allegedly committed both by armed groups and security forces.
‘The video also shows some of these bodies close up, including a woman and a child.’
The medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, said it had treated 36 patients wounded during the clashes, the majority of whom only arrived after fighting had subsided, allowing ambulances and the injured to access the hospital.
Among them were eight women and nine minors with bullet and shrapnel wounds – one of the injured was just 17 months old.
A medical centre supported by MSF was severely damaged by the fighting, forcing staff to flee and further limiting the population’s access to healthcare.
Bullet casings were seen littering the floor throughout the medical compound – which, under international humanitarian law, should have been protected as a neutral space by the warring sides.
‘The current humanitarian crisis in Bambari and across the country is dreadful, and violence affecting civilians has to stop,’ said Marcella Kraay, MSF’s deputy head of mission in CAR.
‘The population of the Central African Republic has already suffered so much.’
Amnesty insists that perpetrators be held accountable.
‘In a country where conflict has been raging for two decades, the authorities must now clearly prioritize the protection of human rights and the fight against impunity for those who violate them,’ said Abdoulaye Diarra, Amnesty’s Central Africa researcher.
‘Given the gravity of these acts, it is urgent that the authorities open an investigation to clarify the facts and identify those responsible.’
The latest unrest has uprooted some 240,000 people from their homes, either inside or outside of the country. Most are living in deplorable conditions – whether in impoverished host communities, smaller emergency sites under tarpaulin, or huge displacement camps plagued by armed gangs.
With 1.2 million people already displaced by earlier bouts of conflict, the new exodus means that nearly a third of CAR’s entire population has now been forced from their homes.
Among them is Anne Kobangue, who fled her village when armed groups attacked one morning in January as she was heading home from church.
‘They arrived marching in a straight line,’ she said, ‘I left immediately, without taking anything. I only grabbed what was around me. The door of my house remains open to this day.’
She and her community have found refuge in a site near the capital but, with international aid stretched perilously thin, they are surviving on handouts from locals.
‘We are suffering a lot and we have nothing to eat,’ added Kobangue.
‘The children have lost all their school supplies. They go to school without a bag, without a notebook, without a slate, without clothes.’
With the provinces rocked by violence, Bangui has long been held as an untouchable rock amid the storm. But recently rebels began deliberately attacking supply convoys, killing drivers during ambushes and obstructing the main highway from Cameroon.
By strangling the capital, the rebels hope to increase their leverage.
With hundreds of trucks stranded at the border, one of the knock-on effects has been serious food shortages, and a steep rise in the price of staple foods – some by more than 200 per cent. For a population already mired in poverty, and in a country where the pandemic had already pushed up prices, this added inflation is a serious worry.
For the most vulnerable, the impact is almost unbearable.
‘The price of cassava has risen and we are finding it difficult to eat,’ said Kobangue.
Compounding the problem, aid groups say the instability is preventing them from reaching communities most in need, in a country where armed groups control around two-thirds of the territory.
Rights groups say this blockage and accompanying abuses may violate international humanitarian law, which prohibits the deliberate disruption to aid.
Backed by Russian and Rwandan troops, CAR’s armed forces have taken town after town along this critical artery, culminating in their arrival at the Cameroonian border in mid-February, yet despite this success, aid workers say the road is far from secure and the risk of attack remains high.
The belief in Bangui’s immunity to a rebel assault was shaken in January when several hundred militants reached the capital’s outskirts and stormed outlying neighbourhoods on two fronts.
The security forces eventually pushed them back but the brazen assault raised serious questions about the readiness of both the government and the 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission.
The latter, known by its acronym MINUSCA, has since requested an additional 3,690 personnel in the hope of boosting its numbers by a quarter.
Its chief, Mankeur Ndiaye, has warned that CAR ‘is at serious risk of a setback in terms of security and peacebuilding’.
Advocacy groups have been calling for an increase in peacekeeper numbers for some time. ‘MINUSCA clearly needs more troops,’ said Viola Giuliano and Josh Jorgensen in a recent report by the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an NGO focused on civilian protection.
But this is not just a numbers game.
‘The value of additional uniformed capabilities will be limited if the mission’s integrated capabilities aren’t also strengthened,’ the researchers added.
‘Deploying more troops and police to MINUSCA will only help end the conflict if there is a commensurate focus on improved mission performance – from better threat planning to a revised political strategy that ‘prioritises the protection of civilians.’
Meanwhile, Bangui’s citizens aren’t even assured of safety under the state forces charged with defending them.
One evening in early January, according to Amnesty, a young man who had allegedly violated the wartime curfew was shot and killed by security personnel.
Following his death, protesters carried his body to the prime minister’s office – before they themselves were met with deadly force.
‘Presidential guards shot in the air as young people were arriving,’ said a witness. ‘As they were leaving the area, groups of young men met another security forces unit, which opened fire and fatally shot one of them in the head. His family buried him the following day.’
Six other young men were reportedly injured during this shocking yet widely unreported incident.
CAR’s latest descent into brutality and bloodshed began shortly before presidential elections in December, as armed opposition groups tried to stop the vote by attacking towns nationwide, intimidating voters and vandalising polling stations.
While they prevented the ballot from taking place in more than 40 per cent of electoral districts, the incumbent Touadéra was eventually confirmed as the winner, securing five more years in power.
Given that only about a third of the electorate was able to cast a ballot, the political opposition rejected Touadéra’s victory and, instead, demanded a re-run.
While the extraordinary circumstances around the vote make such a demand unsurprising, branding his win as illegitimate risks inadvertently lending a modicum of legitimacy to the armed rebellion against his administration.
To encourage the armed rebels to back off, observers have suggested that the international community could exert discreet behind-the-scenes pressure on the opposition to ultimately accept Touadéra’s victory, while Touadéra could in turn placate opponents with guarantees of reforms, official posts and perhaps a unity government.
‘Some sort of political olive branch would allow the opposition to confirm their endorsement of a peaceful political process without being seen to lose face,’ said Paul Melly, a consulting fellow at the Chatham House think-tank.
When looking at CAR’s vast, provincial badlands, in which rebels operate with impunity and governmental authority is absent, it can be tempting to regard this stateless zone as nothing more than an anarchic void.
In reality, however, these poorly understood territories are a complex mishmash of competing and overlapping non-state authorities – whether militant, dynastic, economic, religious, ethnic or a combination.
CAR’s tortured history stretches back to the 1880s, when the French arrived to prospect for ivory and rubber. Private companies were offered concessions in this new colony, in which brutalised locals were forced to work in abysmal conditions.
Within 50 years, about half of the population were dead – whether from disease, violence or starvation.
Colonial officials favoured the country’s southern, non-Muslim groups who went on to emerge as the Christian elite after independence in 1960.
The result was a divided country, in which the predominantly Islamic north faced systemic marginalisation.
The coming decades were marked by chronic dysfunction as CAR slid from one-party state to military rule, punctuated by the occasional coup, mutiny and riot.
True to the form of his power-hungry predecessors, Bozizé ousted the sitting president in 2003 before embarking on an authoritarian, 10-year rule until his own overthrowal in 2013 by mostly Muslim Seleka rebels – setting in motion the horrors that continue to unfold today.
One of the most dramatic moments of upheaval in recent weeks followed the rebel assault on Bangassou, a riverside town near the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
‘The situation was terrible,’ one resident recalled. ‘There was fire, scenes of looting, gunfire, explosion noises. The whole city emptied. People were unable to go to the fields or go fishing. They lost their cattle, which were systematically stolen.’
Tens of thousands fled across the border without basic necessities like food, water, medical assistance and shelter.
Desolate villages of makeshift shelters that offer little protection from rain, wind and the scorching sun sprung up.
Today, some families are taking refuge in abandoned houses, while others are left to sleep out in the open. The river is the sole source of water for drinking, washing and cooking, and diseases like malaria and diarrhoea are spreading.
In response to this emergency, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has launched a $164 million appeal to provide critical aid and protection to CAR’s displaced so that it can supply shelters, support vulnerable children, combat sexual violence and boost sanitation to halt the spread of disease.
‘Unless funding is swiftly made available, we will be forced to reduce or halt vital assistance, even as the needs are rising,’ said Boris Cheshirkov, a UNHCR spokesperson.
Among the refugees from Bangassou is a 74-year-old called Joseph, whose recent displacement marks the third time he has had to flee conflict in CAR – first in 2013, then again in 2018 after returning home, then again this January.
‘At my age, you can imagine that I am not only tired, but I feel despair and anguish,’ he said.
His nightmare is unlikely to end soon. Compared with 2013, today’s pro-government forces are probably robust enough to stop a total collapse of the state.
Certainly, the UN mission is determined to avoid this, having invested vast sums into rebuilding CAR as a semi-functioning country.
However, the push towards armed confrontation is eclipsing calls for dialogue.
Influential Russian officials stationed in Bangui have consistently ruled out peace talks with the rebels, instead championing a relentless counter-offensive.
Buoyed by their recent success on the battlefield, any political settlement is shunned in favour of pursuing a military solution – the fallout of which will continue to hit vulnerable civilians, and risks driving a wedge deeper into CAR’s fractured society.
Western powers have raised concerns. At a UN Security Council meeting last month, the US criticised Russian and Rwandan troops for apparently ‘operating with only minimal guidance’ from CAR’s authorities, and warned against deploying army units accused of ‘sexual exploitation and abuse’.
The UK’s representative expressed concern over ‘reported human rights violations’ by federal troops, urging the CAR government to investigate all allegations and to enter into an ‘inclusive national dialogue towards reconciliation’.
The fallout from the conflict risks damaging regional security and development.
Tens of thousands of refugees have fled over international frontiers into host communities facing their own challenges, while rebels exploit ties with Chadian and Sudanese armed groups, fuelling illicit transnational arms deals.
For now, amid the international hand-wringing and expressions of ‘concern’, those on the ground continue to endure CAR’s latest descent into violence.
Back in Kaga Bandoro, in the rebel-held north, the displaced are desperate for a reprieve from their protracted plight.
In one camp there, a young mother who had fled clashes three years ago, before deciding to return to Kaga Bandoro recently, said she hadn’t received any food assistance for four months.
‘The international community has forgotten us,’ said Dadji Gague, sitting with her newborn child.
‘We need help. We don’t have a school or a hospital. I’m afraid because we’re not safe, even in this camp. All over the country, when we sleep at night, we are afraid.’
Nearby, Siriri – the former child soldier who escaped from militants just weeks ago – remains trapped by forces beyond his control, much like the rest of his shattered country.
‘I just want to be forgiven so that we can live together,’ he said. ‘I want my life back.’