12 Jan 2014

Hanging laundry on helicopters as Chadians flee the Central African Republic

Violence between the religious communities has continued across the capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui. A number of mosques were burned to the ground overnight.

Even though French soldiers carefully intervened to prevent it, widespread looting continued.

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Yesterday the French Army spent a lot of time and effort dissuading determined looters, but today the pillaging was going on again.

We watched as six men carefully manhandled a car engine across the street under the eyes of Burundian peacekeepers, who were not minded to care.

They had good reason. They were here, in the Place de la Reconciliation – something of a flashpoint crossroads – to ensure safe passage of a 27-vehicle convoy.

It lumbered towards us. First, the escort of Chadian troops, all bandanas, scarves and shades. They have a reputation here for siding with the hated Muslim Seleka militia.

Giving escort to the convoy, they gave the distinct impression of being desperate to open fire on someone, somewhere.

And their escort? Hundreds of their own Chadian nationals, the entire moveable contents of their houses piled high on to dangerously overloaded lorries, belching smoke and churning dust for the long drive north to home and safety.

Yes, I really did see the kitchen sink amongst the vast piles of human accoutrements, lumbering northward in a country with little tarmac.

Their women and children take a different route. You’ll find them at the airport hangar, a surreal tableau, surely the world’s weirdest departure hall. Smoke from cooking fires hangs heavy in the air beneath the vast sign saying, in French: “Do Not Smoke.”

All around us, there are four Soviet-built helicopter gunships, currently being used to dry laundry. Is this the world’s most expensive washing line?

It’s cheery enough. These Chadian women and children are safe here. They know they’re going home soon, 300 at a time, and they appear to find this helicopter-bedecked waiting room just as bizarre as we do.

And of course, they know they are safe here, surrounded as they are by soldiers from their own national army: a safe island in a sea of malevolence, fear and hatred.

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