The sadness behind the Central African Republic's mango trees
- 6 April 2014
- From the section Magazine
The Central African Republic, a country of little strategic importance to the wider world, has been torn apart by inter-ethnic violence in the last 12 months. The conflict has left its mark on the landscape in many ways.
You can always tell where there used to be a village by the sudden profusion of mango trees in the middle of nowhere.
They are my favourite tree - their leaves so much glossier, more deeply emerald, than those of any other; their shape, at a distance, more satisfyingly round.
At this time of the year, most of the fruit is still small, hard and green. It's hard to imagine how, by June, the ground below will be covered in a rotting yellow squelch, the aroma more sickly than sweet.
But it passes the time to try to imagine it, as you bump and jolt for hour after hour down the rutted ribbons of red dirt that pass for highways in the Central African Republic - and try to guess where those who once lived under the mangoes have moved on to.
There has always been plenty of movement in the wide belt of Africa where the savannah of the Sahel gives way to ever-denser forest.
In Sango, the national language, the word kpetene means, roughly, "stay out of trouble".
I'm told that's what they sometimes called new settlements founded by families who suddenly decided to get up and leave their home villages to escape disputes with fractious neighbours.
But there are bigger migrations too.
A century ago when they ruled the region, the French encouraged some of the semi-nomadic Peul people - known in English-speaking countries as the Fulani - to move south from Niger and Chad, to provide a better supply of livestock in Central Africa.
The Peul are herders. They're also Muslim. So with the cattle came the Koran - part of a slow southward spread of Islam that's continued ever since.
The farmer and the cowboy should be friends, but in practice they have clashed all over the world, throughout history, from the Bible's Cain and Abel to Broadway's Oklahoma!
And in the latest clash, in the Central African Republic, it is the cowboys - the Peul - who've lost.
Today, along those red roads, you don't need mango trees to tell you where people once lived.
The empty shells of their houses and mosques are still standing, blackened and roofless.
And you do not have to guess where the owners have gone. Many have been murdered, others forced to flee, by a savage militia claiming to represent the country's Christian majority.
It is ethnic and religious "cleansing" on a massive scale - revenge on all Muslims, the militia says, for atrocities committed last year by some during a Muslim-led rebellion.
This tragedy, little noticed by the outside world, is about many things.
The cauldron of hatred has been stirred by failed politicians who want to stage a comeback, and by the country's northern neighbour, Chad, covetous of Central Africa's resources.
But it is partly about jealousy between those who had political power but were poor - the Christian majority - and those excluded from politics who seemed slightly richer - the Muslims, Central Africa's main traders and herders.
For days and days on the road, I see no cows.
Then, suddenly, scores emerge from the bush - massive, dewlapped, lyre-horned.
But they're not driven by the Peul who must once have owned them.
Instead we are greeted by a group of scary young men waving machetes, bows and arrows, and home-made hunting rifles. Their chests are swathed in the strings of little leather pockets containing magic bark and other charms they believe protect them from bullets.
We've killed the Peul, they say - these are our cows now. They've also stolen some Peul women I glimpse huddled behind the herd and a tiny baby in a sling.
The young men are part of a militia, the "anti-balaka" you see everywhere along the roads - a force once raised, it is said, to fight highwaymen.
Now they kill and burn under the slogan of Central Africa for the Central Africans.
Suddenly all Muslims are foreigners - even if they've been here for generations.
Hundreds of thousands of them are now sheltering in refugee camps across the border, in Chad and Cameroon. But what about their cattle?
Everyone worries now there'll be a meat shortage in Central Africa. The farmers needed the cowboys - no-one else can look after or slaughter livestock properly.
In Bozoum, a town which had thousands of Muslims until earlier this year, I'm told there are just two left.
One's a madman. The other's a butcher - a tall, quiet man in a pink cap and gown who's been allowed (or maybe forced) to stay, because his skills are needed.
I sit with him in his courtyard under the mango tree - everyone has one - but he's too scared to tell me much about what's happened.
He's very lonely, but he won't leave.
"This is where I belong," he insists.
I look up at his mangoes. Maybe he will still be here to enjoy them in June. But the fruit of many, many other mango trees in the Central African Republic will go unpicked.
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