National Geographic : 2017 May
72 national geographic • may 2017 of the country and the biggest in the territory controlled by former Seleka leaders. It takes a day to get there from Bangui by 4x4 along a route that cuts through thick forest and passes several villages the Seleka brutalized on its path to the capital. When the UN peacekeep- ers are patrolling, the road is generally safe. Other times bandits lie in wait. Some are former fighters from the Seleka, or from the Anti-Balaka, militias formed by Christians and animists to fight the Seleka, but it’s hard to tell. The nation is awash in desperate people and weapons. Kalashnikovs of varying makes and vintages are sold on the black market, but bandits are just as likely to brandish crude shotguns made from stolen water pipes. Much of the road is unpaved and pitted with deep ruts that require drivers to slow almost to a walking pace, offering opportunities to stage ambushes or, as we discovered, to sell things. As our driver navigated a particularly rough stretch, a man emerged from the forest waving two large turtles. He walked next to the vehicle calling out prices, slowly reducing them as we pulled away. Later another man held up a freshly butchered antelope shank. Then some giggling boys pre- sented two strings of still wriggling fish. When we paused to look at the fish, a girl dashed out carrying bottles filled with wild honey. The man Marcus and I wanted to meet in Bambari was Ali Darassa, a former Seleka gener- al who controls the town. Black husks of burned homes are all that remain of its largest Christian neighborhood, and tens of thousands of Chris- tians now live in a tent camp on the edge of town. The market district run by Muslim traders is still open but does a fraction of the business it did before the Crisis, when Christians frequented its shops, butcheries, and teahouses. Darassa’s fighters roar around in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns, brazenly ignoring the UN peacekeepers, who seem to do little more than flirt with young women. His fighters collect a $50 tax on every head of the hundreds of cows bound for Bangui markets each week. They also demand protection money from shop owners, collect tolls from vehicles, and tax the area’s coffee trade. But the crown jewel in Darassa’s portfolio is a gold mine about 40 miles away. I tried several times to interview Darassa, and his men always made excuses. But they said he didn’t have a problem with our visiting the gold mine, which is how, one morning, Marcus and I came to stand on the edge of a deep, terraced gorge that had been dug by a small army of men. One of the foremen, a fireplug of a man in his early 30s with hands as hard as anvils, told me he’d been working at the mine since it opened three years ago. Before the Crisis, a Canadian company had begun prospecting at the site, but when the violence erupted, it left, along with dozens of other foreign companies that had been exploring for oil, harvesting timber, working on roads and dams. Very few have returned. The gold is extracted from gravel found at the bottom of the mine, he explained. Some 300 lithe, muscled men and boys were organized in vertical lines stretching up terraced steps to the rim. I watched as the men at the bottom shoveled dirt over their shoulders to the men on the terrace above them. They in turn shoveled it up to the next level and so on, like an escalator of dirt. The men, singing, shouting, and scraping, tended to fall into a rhythm. Choof, thump, choof, thump, choof, thump. I watched several men pass a cigarette up their line, each taking a puff before returning to his labors. Each man, the foreman explained, earns about nine dollars a day. Some of Darassa’s fighters, shouldering Kalashnikovs, wandered by. The foreman stopped talking, but when they moved on, he estimated that the mine generates some four million dollars a year. He said Darassa collects 6 percent of the gold “for security.” The Crisis has shattered what was left of the decrepit court system and the public’s shaky confidence in the rule of law.