Ex-CAR president's 'personal prisoner' revisits grisly past
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When rebels stormed the capital of the Central African Republic ousting President François Bozizé last Sunday, they freed a number of prisoners from Bozizé’s jails. But though the former prisoners are now free, the past still entraps them.
Nearly a week after he was released from prison when rebels stormed the capital of the Central African Republic, Mackpayen finds it hard to revisit the site of his brutal, inhuman incarceration.
“There were six of us in this cell,” Le Centrafricain Mackpayen [his real name] told FRANCE 24, pausing as he surveyed the filthy, cramped room still littered with plastic cups and rusting tin cans. “Locked up 24 hours a day,” he continued. “We were allowed one meal a day. But the food was inedible.”
Mackpayen was thrown into jail six months ago, under the reign of ousted President François Bozizé, for having “violated state security”.
On March 24, Mackpayen and his cell mates were released after fighters from the Seleka rebel alliance stormed the presidential palace in the capital of Bangui and seized power in the impoverished, but mineral-rich nation.
The “Camp de Roux” prison is situated in the compound of the army headquarters in Bangui and was filled with the former president's “personal prisoners” - all of whom were detained outside the legal system.
The prisoners thought they’d never get out of jail and they wrote their names on the dirty cell walls, like tombstone engravings. The names still stand on the walls, testimony to the hopelessness that gripped Bozizé’s “personal prisoners”.
Mackpayen makes his way to a fetid Turkish toilet in the cell and picked up a spliced plastic bottle to explain how the prisoners collected toilet water to fill a bucket so they could wash themselves. “That was all the water there was,” he explained.
Ravaged by coups, rebellions and now international isolation
One of the world’s least developed and worst managed nations, the Central African Republic (CAR) has a history of military coups, political instability, rampant human rights violations and unchecked trafficking along its porous borders.
The northern region, bordering eastern Chad and war-ravaged Dafur in Sudan, has long been ravaged by rebellions – many of them aided and abetted by neighbouring states. The latest Seleka rebellion also began in the north before pushing south to Bangui.
By the time the rebels stormed the presidential palace, Bozizé – who came to power in a 2003 rebellion – had fled to neighbouring Cameroon, largely abandoned by an international community grown weary of his mismanagement, corruption and failure to implement a January peace deal.
But the country’s new leader, Michel Djotodia, faces international isolation after the
African Union suspended CAR and imposed sanctions on Seleka leaders, including Djotodia, last week.
France – the former colonial power - and the US say the rebels should adhere to the January 2013 power-sharing deal signed in Gabon's capital Libreville, which mapped out a transition to elections in 2016 in which Bozizé was forbidden from running.
Djotodia has pledged to step down in 2016, but Washington maintains that Nicolas Tiangaye, named prime minister under the Libreville agreement, is now the only legal head of government.
‘With Bozizé around, we weren't getting out’
As the landlocked nation struggles to cope with the latest twist in its political destiny, men like Mackpayen display no sympathy for their recently ousted former president.
“We knew that with Bozizé around, we weren't getting out,” said Mackpayen, who maintained he was jailed for writing a letter to the authorities to get back his confiscated stock of diamonds.
“We prayed in our cells that the rebels would come to Bangui. And they did - they broke the door and released us,” he said referring to the 30-odd prisoners at Camp de Roux. “When we got outside our cells, the men were running around everywhere because there were some who hadn't seen daylight for nearly two years.”
But suddenly, the memories become too brutal to bear. “I can't stay here, forgive me…” mutters Mackpayen, quickly making his way out of the squalid cell and out into the sunshine beating down on the army compound.
For some people in the CAR, the past is still a prison that can snatch them in its snares.