I was thinking again about that local official in Paoua. He has another constraint – he can’t even get to see the area he administers. It's quite in contrast with my own role - I am traveling right across this region to make sure our relief efforts are working and to see what can be improved. Yet, as a fellow civil servant, he cannot go beyond the dusty edge of town, where a laconic policeman with an automatic rifle sits next to a barrier. Over the barrier, the rebels are in control.
There is stability, of sorts. An uneasy ceasefire persists between government and rebels. But other armed groups complicate the picture, and security is fragile. Across the bush, there is a delicate mosaic of areas of control, their boundaries shifting as the different groups flex their muscles.
Under a tree in the bush, we stopped to talk to the softly spoken local leader of the rebels. Important to talk to these guys - I wanted to be sure humanitarian workers can get on with the job of providing vital relief to villages in the area, whether it's supplying food or supporting education projects. We were well outside Paoua on the dusty track that leads to Cameroon. Yes, he said, the relationship with the humanitarian workers was fine, as long as they stay neutral. We left him then, surrounded by his soldiers – just ordinary young men in trainers and jeans, bandanas, shades. Some of their homemade weapons were held together with brass wire.
Beyond collecting “taxes” from the locals to sustain themselves, the rebels present a decreasing threat to the surrounding population. The roaming bandits are scarier, as they are only intent on pillage – in the Central African Republic it is estimated that half of all displacement is caused by their activities as they come through and burn everything in their path. Around Paoua, because the rebels exert a degree of control, the bandits are less active than they were, although the threat remains. And accordingly, some of the villages further south have set up their own self-defence groups, a sort of home-guard.
Not far from here last week, the rebels clashed again with the government; apparently some dispute involving Peuhl tribesmen, and a few herd of cattle. In the ensuing spat, 49 houses were burnt, and another several thousand people were added to the total of those living rough in the bush. Even though there is a tentative political process underway, and much talk of the rebels handing in their arms, it seems to me that there is going to be the need for relief interventions for some time to come.