7 Jan 2014

Nightly quest for safety at CAR’s Bangui airport

It is the small nuances that mark out a place – even from the air.

As the Air France noses down into the soupy mist of the Central African Republic (90F at dusk today), the pilot reminds passengers that it is forbidden by the authorities to film or take pictures from even inside the aircraft.

“The authorities in what?” you might ask. This, a country where the prime minister is holed up in the military camp we taxi past when landed, because if he tries to go into town he thinks he will be killed.

At ground level that soupy mist is actually smoke from the fires of the now 100,000 people gathered around the airport runway, according to Medecins sans Frontieres here.

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A few weeks ago people were just camped out. Now there are at least a few shacks. People put up flags to let each other know where their shack is, much as they do at outdoor festivals at home.

But this is a gathering of fear, and it has doubled in size since I last stood here in mid-December.

They’d said on the plane we should leave our details with French consular officials if we are away from the airport – just in case “something happens”.

The sense of “something happening” hangs over this place, where the pedantry of forbidden aerial photography jars with the lawlessness on the ground.

The parliament building remains forlorn, gates locked and seemingly abondoned. They wait for some meaningful government.

But dusk is coming on, and with it the urgency to get somewhere, anywhere, where you might at least feel more secure than on the streets.

There is a curfew in place in the capital – bit with this level of terror of the night-time machete and gun gangs, you hardly need it.

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