It is hard to know when you have arrived, because you are greeted only by emptiness and silence. What has happened here?
Sitting amid the mud and dust and sorrow, I find Mahmoud, one of the 10 per cent of Birao's residents who have returned to the rubble. He is a thin-faced year-old farmer, and explains, in a low, slow voice, how his home town came to this. We were very frightened so we stayed in the house and hoped it would stop.
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But then in the early afternoon my brother's children came running to our house, screaming and crying. They wouldn't calm down and explain. So I ran there, and I saw my brother on the floor outside, dead. His wife explained they had forced their way in and rounded him up, along with three men who lived nearby. They took them out on to the street and shot them one by one in the head. Mahmoud's friend, Idris, lived nearby, and feared he, too, would be shot.
He says now: "We could see the villages burning and the children were screaming and really scared, so we ran two kilometres out into the jungle. From there we could see our whole city on fire. We fled along the river and stayed out there. We ate fish, but there weren't many. Some days we couldn't catch anything and we starved. The children were so terrified. Still, when they hear a loud noise, they think there are guns coming and they start shaking.
They each had six rockets that they fired.
The explosions were loud. We don't know what they were targeting, or why. Then the French soldiers arrived. As Mahmoud and Idris talk it gets dark, and a suffocating blackness and silence falls on the city.
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There is no electricity and no moonlight. They explain in this blackness that the French-backed troops began firing and the French military began bombing in March for one reason: the desperate locals had begun to rise up against President Bozize, because he had done nothing for them. People here were tired of the fact that "there are no schools, no hospitals, and no roads". We have nothing. All the rebels were asking was for government help. Even the bemused French soldiers and the Bozize lackeys sent to the area admit this privately.
Yet the French response was with bombs against the rebels' pick-up points. What is there here that they want? I look out towards the jungle and realise many of Birao's residents are still hiding out there, risking the wild beasts. In the similarly burned-out areas in the north-west, I drive out into the jungle with Unicef and find these clusters of starving families scattered everywhere.
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In one cleared patch, I find a group of four men with their wives and mothers, clearing an area of ground with their bare hands where they will try to plant peanuts. They are living in handmade huts and set traps to catch mice to eat. Ariette Nulguhom is cradling her eight-month-old grandson with his distended little belly and praying he will survive another night.
She tells me: "He's been sick for a long time. We tried to get him to a nurse but there aren't any. We think it is malaria but there is no medicine here. We don't know what will happen We are all weak and feverish. We're exhausted because we work all day, every day. I have not eaten for days now.
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When the Faca burned those homes, they burned away the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries for these families, too. This is a forgotten corner of a forgotten country. Birao lies and dies in the far north-east of the Central African Republic. CAR itself has a population of just 3. It is the least-reported country on earth. Even the fact that , people have been driven out of their homes in this war doesn't register on the global radar.
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In Birao, I realise I am too close to the immediate horror to find the deeper explanations for this war. I only begin to uncover the origins of this story when I stumble across a very rare find in the CAR — an old man. In the CAR, you have beaten the odds if you live to be There are times when this seems like a country of children, swarming around with guns and hardened laughs, without an adult in sight. So when I see Zolo Bartholemew limping past the wreckage of another burned-out town — this time in the distant north-west, outside the city of Paoua — he seems like a mirage.
He has no teeth and a creased face, and when I ask, he does not know his age. But he remembers.
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He remembers the tail-end of the first time the French were here — and why. It was constantly like this. The territory was swiftly divided up between French corporations, who were given the right effectively to enslave the people, like Zolo's parents, and force them to harvest its rubber. This rubber was processed into car tyres for sale in Paris and London and New York.
A French missionary called Father Daigre described what he saw: " It is common to meet long files of prisoners, naked and in a pitiful state, being dragged along by a rope round their necks. They are famished, sick, and fall down like flies. The really ill and the little children are left in the villages to die of starvation. The people least affected often killed the dying, for food. Zolo nods when I mention this. We were slaves. One horrified French administrator wrote in the s that the locals reacted to being enslaved by the corporations by becoming "a troglodyte, subsisting wretchedly on roots until he starves to death, rather than accept these terrible burdens".
Areas that had "only a few months ago been rich, populous and firmly established in large villages" became, he wrote, "wasteland, sown with dilapidated villages and deserted plantations". But in the s, men like Zolo rose and refused to be enslaved. He rose steadily through the Catholic priesthood, married a French woman, and, quite suddenly, became the leader of the CAR's pro-democracy movement. He would begin his speeches to the French by introducing himself as the son of a polygamous cannibal, and then lecture them on the values of the French Revolution with a fluency that left them stunned and shamed.
He crafted a vision of a democratic Africa beyond tribe, beyond race and beyond colonialism.