On tuesday 15th August we were supposed to leave for Bambari at 16.00. Unfortunately there were some problems at the bank (they had no cash), and it got later and later … In the end we left after 18.00 and had to drive to Sibut in the dark, which felt a bit unsafe. Driving in the dark, knowing there might be armed groups around ready to attack and loot the car, you start looking at the road differently. You find yourself watching the hands of people on the side of the road; are they carrying guns? Do they wear amulets (which they believe protects them from bullets)? Fortunately, other than that we killed a pig that was crossing the road, nothing happened.
The next day departure for Bambari at 5.30. The road was again very beautiful, and very bumpy. We stopped along the way so that I could do some interviews. One village chief explained to me that the children in his village could not go to school, because the school was in the neighboring village and the chiefs don’t get along. So the children are not allowed access.
We arrived in Bambari in the late afternoon. Bambari is the second most important city in the country, especially because of its diamond mines. The city is currently divided into two halves, one anti-balaka and one UPC (ex-Seleka) side. MINUSCA, the UN troops, guard the bridge in between. This is why we went for drinks in the bar next to the bridge, even if the music was too loud to be able to talk :-).
Wednesday morning I started by going to the IDP (“Internally Displaced Persons”, meaning people who fled their homes yet stayed in the country) site. There are several IDP sites in and around Bambari, however most of them do not have any schools, and children have not had education for years. I chose to visit a site where they do have an operational school. In addition to interviews, I got to follow a class (see video below). Strikingly, although this education is completely free and even school supplies are paid for by NGOs, in this class almost 20% of the students was absent.
In the afternoon, I did an interview with the Imam of the central Mosque, on the Muslim/UPC side of the city. He explained that at first, due to the fighting it was too unsafe for children to walk to the public school on the other side of the city. Therefore the armed group UPC decided to build its own school. These days, allegedly, they manage a public school, open to both Christian and Muslim children, paid for by the General Ali Darass.
What’s more, we walked over to the school and now that it’s the holidays, they are using the school for adult education. In a country with an extremely high percentage of illiteracy, stumbling across this adult education felt almost like a miracle. The Imam himself told us that he had never been to school and was now taking his first lessons (in yet another location than the one we saw). Word has it that even the General himself is taking lessons, learning how to read and write!
And this coming from an armed group that is normally know for committing human rights violations…Seeing the adults studying, and learning about their investment of money in quality, public education – something the CAR government (at least, the previous governments) does not always seem ready to do – totally blew my mind and especially confused my ideas about right and wrong.