Hi Reddit! Barnaby Phillips here, Al Jazeera's correspondent in the violence-plagued Central African Republic - AMA!
Hi everyone, Barnaby here. I've just got back to the Al Jazeera headquarters after spending three weeks reporting from Central African Republic, where ongoing fighting between rival militia has left hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
Picture proof - this is me!
I'm here to answer your questions on the conflict and the difficulties of reporting from warzones - I've been a journalist since 1991 - ask me (almost) anything!
EDIT: that's all for now, as I have to go. I've really enjoyed answering so many interesting questions, and I apologise that I wasn't able to answer as many as I would have liked to. Thanks so much for your interest in CAR, which we'll carry on covering on Al Jazeera English.
The Central African Republic has been badly governed for decades, with weak and corrupt governments. But things took a dramatic turn for the worse in March 2013 when the Seleka militia ousted President Francis Bozize. Their leaders came from the marginalised north-east, many were Muslims, and they brought mercenaries from Sudan and Chad. Once in 'power' the Seleka proved to be murderous and ill-disciplined, provoking a strong reaction from the majority (perhaps c80 per cent) Christian population. This cycle of violence has continued, and created its own momentum. Sorry- that's a crude summary but you might want to read this which goes in more detail into this issues
Hi Barnaby, thanks for doing this. I have two questions - one general, and one personal:
It looks like Samba-Panza has been pretty well accepted by both the ex-Seleka and the anti-balaka types. Is there any chance that we've turned the corner on this thing, or will she turn out to be no better than Djotodia?
If you had to choose one experience from your time in CAR as a metaphor for the whole situation, what would it be?
Catherine Samba-Panza is respected as a serious person who is trying to do the right thing. But her government has no power at all - it has no army/police force, it can't pay civil servants, it can't even run schools or hospitals. So she'll need outside help. Here's a piece I did on the chaos on Bangui. I would like to choose a positive metaphor- in the little town of Boali, some 80 kms north-west of Bangui, a very brave clergyman, Father Xavier, is hosting some 800 frightened Muslim refugees in his church. They are sheltering there after their homes were destroyed by the anti-Balaka, and he's risking his life by looking after them. His courage, and sense of common humanity, is shared by many in the CAR, even in these dark days. He's an example of why the outside world should do more to help.
How much of a difference do you think it would made if country lines has been drawn based on existing tribes and not just how the colonizers wanted them to be in the 1800's? I've studied a bit of African politics and we talk about how the cultural divide within countries is a huge catalyst for violence and unhappiness. Any thoughts?
That's a huge question! I think it's fair to say that many of the borders left by colonizers have been disastrous- but we will never know what would have happened if the Europeans had not arrived on African shores. There would have been other, different, conflicts, and a map that would look very different today. But we can't turn the clock back now.
Barnaby thanks so much for doing this. I just wanted to know how you feel about what has happened with other AJ journalists in Egypt and if you feel that out side of the usual conflict zone dangers, if there is political repercussions from the CAR or other foreign forces in the area for journalists.
My colleagues in Egypt are facing absurd charges and they should be released as soon as possible. Here's more on that In the CAR, for all the violence and chaos, I did not face direct political hostility. Generally, the majority Christian population believed I was on their side, because I am a white journalist (and they often thought I was French). The Muslim population, meanwhile, also believed I was on their side because I work for Al Jazeera, which they see as a Muslim network. In fact, both sides were wrong. I was neither pro-Christian or pro-Muslim, I was only trying to be as fair as possible, and understand what was driving people to violence and hatred.
Hi. I'm always enjoying a good book, and try to read a few pages at the end of the day, to get my mind focused on something completely different than what I might have seen/experienced during the day. And keeping in touch with loved ones is much easier for a reporter than it was even 5 or 10 years ago. In Bangui, CAR, I was able to text and call family.
Thanks for doing this! So, what are some of the biggest obstacles right now to having some level of cooperation between the sects in restoring peace?
Hi. What I found very frightening/depressing in the CAR was the level of sectarian hatred between Christians and Muslims. Restoring confidence between communities won't be easy. But the first, and most important stage, is dealing with security. There's a complete break down of law and order, and people are committing terrible crimes with impunity. So more peacekeepers (African and European), who are prepared to be tough, is an essential start.
Thank you for risking your own life to tell this story to the world. Who does your security? Any close calls?
We took a security consultant with us to CAR. He had no editorial input but worked as our extra 'eyes and ears'; watching what was happening around us when we were busy reporting and interviewing. eg seeing if somebody was approaching us with a weapon, or that a crowd was getting agitated. He also looked after a lot of the logistics- eg enough fuel in the car, driver happy with the road etc. Having somebody like that there take's some of the load off the journalists' mind.
Was he armed? How do I get a job like this? Is it a specific agency used?
Journalists don't usually work with armed security guards for a whole range of ethical reasons. I don't know for sure in this case, but I don't think that Al Jazeera would stray from this rule. Apart from the awkwardness of being potentially responsible for shooting somebody, having an armed person standing next to you while doing interviews with survivors of conflict just doesn't work that well. Also, weapons can get you into more trouble than they are worth, because in countries like CAR you aren't likely to have a working and respected legal framework establishing the rule of their employment.
My guess it that the "consultant" is probably somebody ex-military/security with local experience and language skills, likely making him French ec special forces - this is the profile of the guy I would hire to do the job, if I could be sure that he wouldn't interfere with my research.
That's right- he wasn't armed and I would have been very uncomfortable if he had been. He was ex-military, French speaking.
What is the most important thing we all should know about the conflicts in Africa?
Maybe the most important thing is that we should not make generalizations about them, or about Africa, a continent of 55 countries, (and most are peaceful).
Edit: Number of countries. It's not 54.
Hi Sir, Im intrested in the role of french army in CAR. I've recently read an article in Paris Match about their passive behaviour and indifference. Im a Pole, and we are sending 50 soldiers to CAR soon, and i just wonder if there is any point in it. What is armys job in CAR?
The French are in a difficult position, caught in the middle of a sectarian war. You might want to read my blog here on this subject . There are definitely occasions in recent days when I think the French could have been more proactive to stop looting and murder in Bangui.
What was the most dangerous story that you've covered?
Well, I've been in journalism for more than 20 years and I don't think of myself as a war reporter or conflict junkie. But I have been in some nasty situations- religious/ethnic conflicts in Nigeria (I lived there 1998-2001) were bad, and so were the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Although, strangely, I did not feel that I was a target of the rival militias. And the same applies to CAR- it was frightening at times but none of the militias seemed to have a particular animosity to journalists. So in that sense, my colleagues who've worked in countries like Syria or Egypt have been less fortunate.
Hi Barnaby, thanks for the AMA. Is the fighting between the rival militia affecting the majority of the citizens in CAR, or is it localized violence? Also, is there any information on who is funding the militia forces? Thanks again.
The fighting is going on in many parts of the country, unfortunately. In fact, I would say we barely touched the extent of it in our reporting. I fear that in the interior there are many destroyed villages and towns, and many massacres, that have not been reported on at all. Re the funding, the Muslim led-Seleka have had support from powerful people in Chad and Sudan, and the anti-Balaka militia appears to get at least some of its support from the ousted former-President, Francis Bozize, who is interested in staging a comeback. Tragically, the CAR does have wealthy natural resources- diamonds, even oil in the north-east, gold, and ivory- that rival groups would like to plunder.
Are you familiar with the documentary "The Ambassador"?
How are individual characters, buying themselves the freedom to cash grab under the umbrella of "diplomacy" in a failed state such as CAR, relevant to the main conflict in the region?
I have not seen the Ambassador, but it's firmly on my list!! And I did see an amazing cast of dodgy characters in the hotels of Bangui- mysterious foreign 'government advisers', mining executives, even American big game hunters. All trying to grab a share of the spoils amidst the chaos. If you're well-connected and ruthless, you can make money in the worst situations, unfortunately.
Are there any Christian and or Muslim leaders standing up for peace and reconciliation? Or is the situation too dangerous on the ground for such stances?
Does the situation remind you of Rwanda at all? Chad?
I mentioned the brave Catholic priest in the town of Boali. You may also have read about the archbishop of Bangui, who has been working closely with a leading Imam to bring about reconciliation...(there's been articles about them in the New York Times and several other newspapers). So some people are trying to do good things. There's a big difference with Rwanda- the 1994 genocide was organised by a strong state that had a fiendish master plan. There's no strong state in CAR, so I don't think we'll see 'industrial' (sorry for that ugly word) killing. But what we're seeing instead is many smaller massacres and murders, carried out by both the Seleka and the anti-Balaka.
Thank you for doing this AMA.
Do you think that more should be done by the US government & Europe in solving these serious political problems? Or do you think it is impractical to solve these issues from the outside?
I am very sceptical of the idea that Europeans or Americans can charge into Africa and solve problems. God knows, they've created enough in the past. However, I also think that there are specific situations where Western military strength can play a positive role in the short-term. I think most Sierra Leoneans, for example, welcomed the British intervention of 2000 that routed the RUF. I also think that a strong intervention in Rwanda in 1994 could have stopped, or at least, slowed down the genocide. And today, I do believe that more peacekeepers, from any part of the world, (including the rest of Africa) would be welcome in CAR. However, that's only a temporary solution. Somehow, this shattered country has to pull itself together, and the only lasting answers rest with the people of CAR.
I read your brief synopsis of what is going on. Is any of the conflict fueled by minerals or other resources like in the DRC? Is any of the conflict in the eastern DRC spill over, or related to, what is going on in CAR? Thanks for your work.
The CAR is rich in diamonds, gold, oil, other minerals, as well as ivory. Rival militias have all tried to exploit these resources, so it is a contributory factor, although it does not in itself explain the complete break down of law and order. The conflicts in eastern DRC are similar, but not directly related. The part of the DRC which borders CAR is actually relatively peaceful. But one of the reasons why there is concern about the CAR is the fact that it 's in the middle of a very strategic region of Africa- eg bordering Sudan, Cameroon, Chad, DRC, Congo Brazzaville and South Sudan. Problems from those countries can spill into the CAR, and vice versa. Eg the presence of Joseph Kony's Lords Resistance Army in the eastern CAR. Western intelligence services are concerned that extremist groups like Boko Haram (from Nigeria) could try and exploit the chaos in CAR- although there's no evidence that this has happened yet.
Thanks for covering this. Really with CAR got more attention in the US press.
How much of the violence is really divided along religious lines (as opposed to sectarian violence that happen to hold differing religions)?
Has French intervention made any difference outside Bangui? For that matter, how much difference has it actually prevented in that city?
I think the religious aspect has become progressively more important over time, unfortunately. It has an internal dynamic- people are frightened and looking for protection in a situation of lawlessness- so they look for group identities. As I writehere Re the French- you have to remember there are only 1,600 in the CAR, and it's a vast country. They've brought some stability to the northern town of Bossangoa, but otherwise I'm afraid their contribution outside Bangui has been minimal. In fairness to the French, they are lobbying for more European troops precisely for this reason. It seems that the EU will send an extra 500, but only by the end of February. Too few, and too late, I fear.
These African countries seem to be in a continuous state of war. Do you believe people care? I never see anything about these countries in Western news bulletins.
What is the main reason for you to basically risk your life whilst this news doesn't even reach most people in the west?
well, I care about these countries, and my job is to try and make others care as well. If I don't do that I have failed to some extent. We're united by our common humanity. When I was in CAR there were British, American, German and French tv news crews there, so some information is getting out. But Al Jazeera English has made an outstanding effort to bring information from there over a period of more than 1 year there, and we have an audience in the West as well.
Hi Barnaby, thank you for doing the AMA. You got into journalism since 1991, but what was your first focus of your work and how did you switch to reporting on conflicts such as the current one in CAR?
I came into journalism through my love of Africa. I was raised in Kenya, and have lived in Mozambique, Angola, Nigeria and South Africa. I am not a specialist conflict reporter, but it's sometimes an unavoidable part of my job. It can be very challenging and rewarding, but also harrowing. But, fortunately, there are plenty of positive developments to report on in Africa as well- economic growth, peaceful elections, culture-so we should see the whole picture.
What is Chad's role in the conflict? And how is Chad dealing with their own insurgent problem? Is N'Djamena in any danger because of the current strife in CAR?
Chad is a crucial player in the region. The Chadian president, Idriss Deby, has interfered in the affairs of his weak southern neighbour on many occasions. Chad supported the Seleka when they swept to power in 2013, and Chadian soldiers have been providing armed escorts to the many Muslims who have fled north from Bangui in recent days. These soldiers are distinct from the Chadian contingent which is in the African peacekeeping force (which itself is accused of bias in favour of the CAR's Muslim population). At some point, Deby must have decided that the Seleka leader whom he had helped install as president of the CAR, Michel Djotodia, was more trouble than he was worth, because Djotodia's removal from power was announced at a summit in N'Djamena. Many of the Muslims who are fleeing from the CAR are called 'Chadians' by the Christian majority, but were often born in the CAR and have never been to Chad in their lives, even if that is where their ancestors originate from. Now they are travelling 'back' to Chad- thousands on emergency flights provided by the International Organisation of Migration, and thousands more by road. So Deby is now suffering the blowback of his latest intervention in the CAR.
I really enjoyed reading Inside Fallujah: The Unembedded Story - by al-Jazeera reporter Ahmed Mansour
Do you plan to write a book of your own?
Yes, in fact my first book will be coming out later this year! It will be based on the award winning documentary 'Burma Boy', which I made for Al Jazeera in 2011. It tells the extraordinary story of a Nigerian soldier - Isaac Fadoyebo-who fought for the British in the Second World War, in the jungles of Burma, against the Japanese. You can watch it here. Isaac was injured in the jungle, but saved in extraordinary circumstances. A local family hid him from the Japanese for 9 months, risking execution themselves. My book, which will be called 'Another Man's War', will tell Isaac's story in more detail, and I hope it will make people think about the Second World War in new ways, as well as re-examine Britain's legacy in Nigeria and Burma (today Myanmar). Isaac passed away in 2012, but I hope this book will do justice to his memory, and the other 100,000 Africans who fought in Burma.
If I were to donate to a charity involved in helping the situation in the Central African Republic, who would you recommend?
I saw Save The Children, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and the International Red Cross (ICRC) all doing brave humanitarian work in the Central African Republic. I also saw researchers from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International taking great risks to travel across Bangui and the country to document human rights abuses.
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