I arrived back in Bangui last Tuesday night after a fourteen-hour drive down the rutted dirt roads from Ndele. Thursday morning my cell phone's chirpy T-Mobile ring woke me: had I heard that Ndele was under siege? I immediately starting ringing up friends there to see if they were OK and find out more about what was happening. The Sisters sounded tired to the point of being unable to even talk – due, I surmised, not just to the attack itself but also to the fatigue of living twelve years in a place, hoping to see it progress, and being so often let down. The NGO workers were tensely waiting in their compounds and rightly jealous of their dwindling cell phone batteries. And Al-Habib, my fruit buyer/hustling-merchant/friend, was curious and headed out to see things up close.
The attack was over by the end of the day. The rebels – for it was members of the rebel group that controls the road north from Ndele who had attacked – left, carrying their 26 wounded and two prisoner gendarmes with them. Reinforcements from the Central African armed forces (FACA) arrived the following day. They abused a few people (and killed two wounded rebels) but avoided the large-scale exactions for which they have become notorious. Entry and exit to the town remains closely guarded, and the market stopped functioning for quite a few days as much of the population had fled into the bush.
Can I admit to a strange mix of feelings about hearing of all this from the safety of Bangui? My first reaction was relief that I had made it out before all this came to pass. My second approached guilt – I should be there experiencing it all, too, rather than ensconced in the comparative luxury of the capital, with its (occasional) hot water and cafes. After all, the danger was likely minimal for people who stayed in their homes, more or less out of harm's way. As an anthropologist, I'm supposed to live close to the population and and not erect a protective bubble between myself and the hardships they face. But studying an area home to violent conflict makes that more difficult because, quite frankly, when it comes down to it, I value my life more highly than my research. Unlike in the calculations of altruists like Zell Kravinsky, who argued that the risk of complications in his donation of a healthy kidney (which his wife opposed) was far outweighed by the benefit to the recipient, there would likely be little direct benefit to people in Ndele as a result of me “being there” alongside them as the bullets flew.
Tomorrow I head out again: to the far southeast, site of LRA attacks for the past couple of years, if all goes as planned (still awaiting final confirmation of our departure). We will go to Obo, the last town before the Sudanese border, where the president will alight on Thursday for the Journée Mondiale de l'Alimentation et de la Femme Rurale (World Food and Rural Women Day). Each year, the president picks some far-off, neglected corner of his realm to visit for World Food Day. The road is repaired for the occasion (the road to Ndele benefited from this treatment two years ago), and the president gives a speech reminding people of the state in which they live. I imagine that food is distributed as well. (Time and again here, people have illustrated avowals of the virtue of a leader through reference to the food he hands out. The World Food Programme, however, is generally seen as stingy – haven't quite figured that out yet.)
On the way, we will pass through Bangassou, Zemio, and Rafai, all formerly sites of sultanates who were employed by concessionary companies in the early 20th century. The majority of the population is Azande – I'm hoping I'll be able to thumb through my E.E. Evans-Pritchard as we bump along the roads.