Abandoned in Bangui ghost hospital

According to a well-placed source working in humanitarian activities in the city, South African soldiers injured in weekend fighting with Seleka rebels – who had taken control of Bangui by Sunday – were being taken to the Hôpital de l'Amitié, situated about 10km away from the city centre.

The Mail & Guardian has established that, as of March 26, the hospital has not been functional, with neither doctors nor nurses on duty and patients left to their own devices.

South African National Defence Force spokesperson Captain Prince Tshabalala confirmed on Wednesday that "seven critically wounded" soldiers had been flown back to South Africa where they were receiving treatment at 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. Tshabalala said the "slightly wounded" were being treated "in a field hospital in the operational area", but he would divulge neither the location of the wounded, nor their numbers – to protect the defence force's military operations in the Central African Republic.

Read more CAR coverage

Tshabalala said the defence force "did not have information regarding the capacity of the field hospital", but that he would "never lie to the nation about the hospital".  

However, Tshabalala's statement about the army's "casualty evacuation plan" was contradicted by defence force spokesperson Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga, who, in a separate interview, declined to comment on information the M&G had received that some South African soldiers had been captured by Seleka troops.

Mabanga told the M&G that "all our injured soldiers have been evacuated, and are receiving medical attention". He also dismissed as "nonsense" reports that badly injured and maimed soldiers were still in the country.

The contradictory statements increase the murkiness of information, whether intentional or due to inefficiency, emanating from the army and government about what exactly was happening in the Central African Republic, where the government maintains 13 South African soldiers have died so far following fighting over the weekend.

Militant atmosphere
What is apparent, though, is that things are falling apart in the country. According to Serge St Louis, Médecins Sans Frontières's head of mission in Bangiu, medical services in Bangui ground to a halt over the weekend after humanitarian agencies' vehicles were stolen and electricity and water provision ceased.

St Louis said medical services were slowly being rolled out again and that about 150 injured people had been admitted to the city's single working hospital, the Hôpital Communautaire, since the weekend. He confirmed that electricity to the hospital had returned on Wednesday morning, but that it was still without running water, making medical attention almost impossible.

According to St Louis, of those admitted since fighting broke out on the weekend, five had since died. About 70% were civilians, the rest soldiers loyal to ousted President François Bozizé.

St Louis said that the injuries were mainly bullet wounds to the legs. The M&G understands that these sorts of injuries in these sorts of urban-strife situations usually indicate people shot while looting.

The International Red Cross's Genève Marie-Servane Desjonquères said the Central African Red Cross had started collecting corpses on the streets of Bangui only on Wednesday morning because of the militant atmosphere in the city and the lack of transportation.

They both called on all parties involved in the civil war to ensure that their medical staff were allowed to conduct humanitarian operations. – Additional reporting by Glynnis Underhill

Soldiers in SA 'prepared to defend' comrades

A parabat soldier who was about to fly out from South Africa on Wednesday to the Central African Republic told the Mail & Guardian that he was "going to defend my fellow soldiers".

"I used to work and live with them for four years in Bloemfontein," he said. "I know those guys well. I am well prepared to go and defend them."

The 13 soldiers killed in fighting in the country were all members of 1 Parachute Battalion (parabats) from Bloemfontein, according to the defence corporate communications spokesperson, Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga.

The parabat, who cannot be named for security reasons, said that he did not have any doubts about his mission.

"I am prepared to do everything to defend them," he said. "I am quite ready and just waiting for the command."

The parabat said he was saddened by the deaths of his fellow soldiers in the Central African Republic. "I feel very sorry for their families," he said. "Many of these soldiers brought bread to the table [for their families] and it will be difficult to accept their deaths."

Though there are reports of looting and chaos in the capital, Bangui, the soldier said he had no doubt he would adapt.

"We are used to working in such places," he said.

Last Sunday, Mabanga announced that the South African National Defence Force was ­sending in more support to ­protect its personnel and equipment, as the "security situation had deteriorated".

Some of the troops have faced unusual hurdles on arriving in the country. Pikkie Greeff, national secretary of the South African National Defence Union, said he had heard from some soldiers that, once they landed in Bangui, they were stranded at the airport because there was no transport for them. – Glynnis Underhill

Fog of war leaves truth in doubt

Truth and its sibling, fact, suffer in war, the cliché goes. South Africa's mission in the Central Africa Republic is no different.

First the dates, where the facts are somewhat blurry. What is clear is that our army has been in the country since 2007. But the exact deployment date is unclear. A government communiqué states that "the actual deployment of the South African National Defence Force was operationalised following a Cabinet decision on 29 August 2007". It's not clear whether the deployment began immediately after the signing of this agreement with François Bozizé's now deposed government, or later that year.

The reasons for deployment are twofold: the first was "to provide VIP protection to President Bozizé". The second mission was dubbed Operation Vimbesela, which involved the army "in the refurbishment of the military bases and the ­training of the military personnel [of] that country".

Now to the numbers: thirteen ­soldiers were killed and 27 were injured in a battle at a South African army base 27km north of the capital, Bangui.

President Jacob Zuma this week said: "We are truly proud of our soldiers – about 200 of our men fought a force of more than 1000 bandits for

nine hours."

Later, defence force chief General Solly Shoke said the battle had in fact lasted for 13 hours. In the heat of battle, you might lose track of time. The confusion might arise from information suggesting that the battle started at 9am and lasted for 13 hours.

Some reports suggest that in fact it wasn't 1 000 "bandits", but 3 000. Other reports suggest that our soldiers weren't killed by Seleka fighters but by mutinous government troops – the very people they were training in a morbid case of the student turning on his teacher. Even more ironic is the possibility that South African-issued weapons could have been used against our ­soldiers. – Percy Zvomuya

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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