Werner, I was dreaming for the second time that crabs were invading the earth. Large orange crabs coming out of the sea. Nobody cared about them at first. But, in the end, there were so many that I became scared. They covered the whole world.
– Michael Goldsmith, journalist
Letter to Werner Herzog, director
When I told colleagues – human rights lawyers, international aid workers, journalists – that I wanted to go, people thought I was mad. They actually used that word – mad. The UN had said, ominously, that the country had experienced a total breakdown in law and order; it was a threat to the stability of the entire region; it risked spiralling into genocide.
When I told friends, the reaction was different. Few people even knew it existed. It is one of the greatest humanitarian crises on the planet, happening to, as Rana put it, all that human flesh, yet few of the people I spoke to even know the country exists. Those that do, don’t really understand what it is – a region, an area? And those who do know, the few that do, are filled with sadness and despair. It is what the UN has described as ‘the world’s most silent crisis’.
As Judith Léveillée, UNICEF’s Deputy Representative in the country told me, ‘I’ve never seen such destruction before. I’ve been stationed in Cambodia, Albania during the Kosovo crisis, Yemen, but nothing, nothing, like this. I’ve never seen such devastation.’
The site of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises is the Central African Republic. For reasons that will become clear, I needed to go. During my planning time, I would dream about the capital Bangui. The old French colonial city (pronounced ‘bahn-ghee’), established on the rive droite of a massive, brooding river, the city a former playground of the country’s European masters, known as Bangui la Coquette, a place of patisseries and boulangeries in the middle of Africa, but also a base for the notoriously cruel Compagnie forestière, which would ruthlessly exploit ‘native employees’ in rubber gathering in the dense tropical forests, where colonial administrators and private agents colluded to kidnap the workers’ wives and children to concentrate the minds of the men. Many of the hostages died in unspeakable conditions.
Its rainforests are one of the world’s few remaining great natural sanctuaries, described by the Pulitzer Center as ‘one of the last truly wild places’. National Geographic put it more starkly, it is ‘the last place on earth’. But now large areas of the country have been devastated and I needed to go. I checked the map of the Central African Republic – perhaps I could avoid the hotspots. At that point, such was my plan. I looked again at the map: the entire country was red. Every inch of it lurid red. I looked down through the FCO’s country summary:
British nationals should leave now if practical means are available, if it is safe to do so, and if a safe destination is available. Those who remain should take all precautions and maintain sufficient stocks of food and water. Those who remain or visit against our advice should be aware that the FCO is not able to provide consular services nor organise or assist your evacuation from the country.
The site was being constantly updated. I checked it for the latest advice. It was just as bleak:
There have been a number of kidnappings of government ministers and humanitarian and UN workers.
There’s a perverseness and pigheadedness in us. Something that bristles when we’re told no, no you don’t, don’t you dare. I became obsessed with my obsession to begin to know this unknowable place. What is such preoccupation for? It became my mission: to find another way to access this land of dereliction and cruelty, of lynchings and amputations, where people have been burnt alive and impaled; where churches and mosques have been incinerated, but which is also a place of unimaginable natural beauty, home of lowland gorillas, forest-dwelling elephants and almost extinct antelopes. That then was my mission: to reach the last place on earth.
This is an account of that other way.
Almost at the end, when Patrice and I met for the last time, the rubble-strewn truck stop had disintegrated into a muddy mess. I showed him a star chart app on my phone, that identified all the stars and lights of the African sky. I said it was amazing. Patrice, this son of Central Africa, a self-styled ‘man of business’, who would reveal to me one of the handful of most perilous human journeys in the underground history of our times, paused. He had told me how he had killed a man in the Central African Republic. He looked around. In that moment, no one was near us. Unnervingly, nothing moved and no one was watching, except birds in the trees, whose names I did not know. They stared disapprovingly. But otherwise on the fringes of a city teeming with 2 million souls, we were momentarily alone.
‘I will show you amazing,’ he said.
And he did.
About the Aggressor: here.
Where to get the book: here.