Central African Republic: Where rumours can kill in seconds

French Sangaris troops patrol in an armoured personnel carrier (APC) as a schoolboy passes by, in Bangui, the Central African capital, on 13 July 2014.

The French soldier nearly tripped over the old man.

"I thought he was dead," he said, moments later, bending down to examine the skeleton-thin body lying naked in the dark debris of what the French patrol had assumed was an abandoned building on the outskirts of Bambari.

The old man, groaned softly and opened his eyes, unable to talk.

"Get a medic in here," said the French soldier, and within a few minutes the man was sipping gingerly from a cup of water.

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There is, at some level, a pettiness to the conflict here now. Score-settling, opportunistic attacks, gossip-fuelled rages”

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We'd arranged a day earlier to accompany the French on one of their patrols through Bambari.

Their base, on a hilltop overlooking the town and the rolling hills to the west, is now surrounded by thousands of Christian families, camped out in straw shelters, hoping for protection from the violence that erupted here last month.

Burning villages

Major Frederick Duprez, a tall thickset figure, commands a mixture of about 200 regular French troops and Foreign Legionnaires.

"The situation is quite difficult," he quickly conceded, and swallowed a chuckle when I asked him if the ceasefire declared this week meant anything would change in Bambari.

"We don't see that here. Each day we have attacks. This is a big place. It's difficult to reach everywhere. Sometimes we have information about burning villages. But too late. Some villages are impossible to reach."

I asked him if he needed more men to do the job. "It's easier when we have a lot of soldiers," he replied.

A man holds up a knife during a protest against French peacekeeping troops in Bambari on 23 May 2014. French troops have faced protests and resistance from Muslim rebels in Bambari

A day earlier, two men had been killed - their throats slit - on the road just outside the French camp. I wrote about the incident briefly here, and have since found out more about what happened.

One of the men was the "chef de quartier" of the Akbe neighbourhood - a Christian area on the edge of Bambari.

Bartholeme and his brother Philippe Bingounindji had stayed behind when everyone else fled last month.

Someone appears to have accused them of sympathising with the Muslims and that was enough for them to be targeted and murdered as they walked up the hill to visit their relatives in the camp.

A rumour can kill you in seconds here in Bambari.

As I sit writing this at sunset in a crowded UN compound, our driver has rushed in to tell us of another killing - he's taken photos on his phone.

It seems a Muslim woman pointed at two men walking through town and declared that she recognised them as Christian anti-Balaka fighters. A crowd promptly hacked one man to death with a machete. The other was apparently detained.

Held hostage

It's clear the presence of French and African Union troops is making some difference to the security situation here. But only up to a point.

The French patrol we followed avoided the Muslim quarter. A crowd threw stones at them there a day earlier. The French are widely viewed as pro-Christian - a perception that Major Duprez is anxious to change, but it's not proving easy.

At one point the patrol deliberately passed in front of a senior Muslim general's home.

Seleka fighters stand in a village between Bambari and Grimari on 31 May 2014. Seleka rebels have rejected a ceasefire deal to end the violence in Central African Republic

Armed men from the ex-Seleka rebel alliance rushed out and a heated exchange took place in French.

The general's aide complained that the French were behaving "brusquely" - a word that sounds oddly pedantic in translation. The French officer smiled and remarked that his forces could, and would, patrol where they pleased in Bambari.

There is, at some level, a pettiness to the conflict here now. Score-settling, opportunistic attacks, gossip-fuelled rages. It's not a regular war by any means. A handful of hardliners are, in a sense, holding the civilian population hostage.

But that's what happens in a failed state. There is simply no government here to fill the void. And so a few men with guns set the tone for everyday life.

We spoke to the hospital a short while ago to check on the old man the French had found. He's alive and able to say a few words.

His name is Jean-Bernard Angolaka. He's 76, and wants to get his clothes back. His relatives fled when the fighting started last month and never came back.

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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