The two men lay still in the back of the pickup truck, staring up. Over them stood the uniformed rebels, rifles pointing out as the truck sped forward.
The rebels had just picked up two more citizens, caught reading fliers calling for a general strike, their friends said shortly after. Beaten as they were shoved into the truck, the men were unlikely to be heard from again, the friends feared. A similar seizure had occurred nearby the day before. Four had been shot dead and dozens wounded while protesting another abduction less than a week before that.
The rebels, known as Seleka, or “alliance” in the Sango language, make the law in the Central African Republic, where coups and violent seizures of power have outnumbered fair elections 4-to-1 since independence.
Even their handpicked prime minister calls the country’s condition “catastrophic.” The rebels have held unchecked sway since they swarmed into this bedraggled capital in March, looting, abducting, raping and killing — even breaking into an orphanage to steal whatever they could, according to Amnesty International.
With its suffering largely cut off from the outside world, this landlocked former French colony, population 5.1 million, has catapulted into place as one of Africa’s most troubled countries. It has a rebel leader occupying its presidential palace, an ousted president who fled for his life into exile and a constitution that minimally protected residents’ rights before it was suspended.
Nowadays, the rebels cruise conspicuously in their Toyota Hilux pickups in the sparse traffic, ragtag fighters from the lawless north, some of them Chadians, turbaned or wearing looted fatigues, guns bristling. Rifle-wielding boys as young as 12 have been spotted in the trucks. The men are accustomed to living in the bush, but in the capital there is not much left to steal. Many of the battered storefronts are shuttered or empty. The citizens keep their distance; everyone has an abduction story.
“I buried one back here,” Jean-Paul Befio said, pointing to underbrush at the edge of a semirural Bangui district he serves as mayor, adding that in recent weeks he had seen five other bodies floating “in the river.”
Even in a country with a long history of instability, the current unrest has set off alarms, with humanitarian groups warning of a looming disaster of widespread malnutrition and disease because the economy has shut down, aid has stopped, international aid workers have fled the countryside and violence outside the capital has prevented farmers from tending their crops.
“One meal a day,” Faustin Ouaya, who worked in the Ministry of Tourism, said of the circumstances many residents face. “Sometimes, not even that.”
Inside the battered 1970s government ministries, many of them deserted for long periods because the civil servants had not been paid in months, high officials spoke with despair about how, after the March ouster of the country’s despised president, Francois Bozize, the state had disappeared altogether. One minister has been going to work in a taxi because his car was stolen by the rebels. Another top functionary sits alone in a chair in an empty office looted of every machine, said a Western businessman who went to see him.
“It’s anarchy, a nonstate,” said Central African Republic Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye, a former human rights lawyer kept on by the rebel leadership as the emissary to an outside world that does not recognize it.