4 Dec 2013

Into the heart of Africa

True, it is one of those upside-down journeys which mark out the life of a roving correspondent.

Upside down because, despite the hush, plush normality of Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, most ‘normal’ people are not boarding this flight. They are coming the other way of course.

Instead the usual hugs and handshakes and intros for old friends and new, as journalists gather for the seven-hour flight south. Virtually only journalists.

One or two wealthy-looking Africans – but they’re quick to say they’re heading on to Cameroon and won’t be stopping at Bangui. No, definitely not.

A fighter from a self-defence militia known as anti-balaka wears charms for protection in Mbakate village

It’s clear, crisp, it’s -1 degrees Celsius and as we rise into the still air of December over Europe and it’s also clear that we’re in for something special.

Turning over toy-town Paris below with the Arc, Tour, Bois de Boulogne and off south, reminded at once of the sheer, huge rural emptiness of France compared to England.

Seven hours across the snowfields of the Massif Central with the Alps and Mont Blanc as eastern backdrop.

Over the Camargue and off over the emptiness. Yes the emptiness of the Mediterranean comes as no surprise. But the word for the unending sand-ocean of the Sahara has yet to be invented.

And then as night falls another vast ocean of green – the sub-Saharan divide of savannah then forest and the cloud again of a fading equatorial rainy season. Silent. Apparently without end and – after dark – almost without light.

Gaddafi’s hotel

On approach, the man-made, broken world of the Central African Republic jolts:

“Ladies and gentlemen,” comes the in-flight announcement, “all French and foreign visitors are advised to inform the French consular officials of a contact number in case of an emergency.”

Said official is there at passport control to offer further services. For there is an emergency – and a curfew.

Our three-vehicle convoy, the only cars out after dark in the ten-minute run to the sudden jarring brilliance of the Ledger Hotel, a stunning overlit, overblown pompous tomfoolery of a hotel built by – of course – Colonel Gaddafi.

Beyond the gates

It’s totally at odds with the ’emergency’ beyond the gates: darkness, bandits, gunmen, badmen, wannabes and has-beens all vying for control in an increasingly violent civil disorder.

Not quite war. Not quite. Twelve people killed up the road today. It’s not quite clear who by.

We check in where the reception clocks give the time in Beijing, Paris (the former colonial power), New York, London and, yes, Tripoli.

The colonel has left his mark upon the capital of the Central African Republic. But now it – like Libya – is sinking fast into bloody chaos.

Tomorrow we were to travel the road where those fifteen met their deaths today. We shall, I think, be flying up-country now.

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