/ 5 April 2013

CAR: Army death toll ‘could be much higher’

The bodies of two soldiers are handed over to family members during a ceremony at Air Force Base Waterkloof near Pretoria on March 28.
The bodies of two soldiers are handed over to family members during a ceremony at Air Force Base Waterkloof near Pretoria on March 28.

Allegations of a death toll considerably higher than the official figure of 13 first surfaced on Radio France Internationale (RFI), the most listened-to news service in Francophone Africa. The higher death toll claim has been flatly denied by South African authorities.

RFI's Bangui correspondent, Cyril Bensimon, says his source claims to have seen 50 body bags loaded on to a plane bound for Pretoria. Bensimon also quotes a Seleka officer claiming to have personally seen 36 dead South African Defence Force soldiers, and another 22 wounded.

A local journalist in Bangui, though not able to confirm the RFI number, believes the number of casualties is higher than 13. A number of the soldiers allegedly lost their lives far from Bangui, in the towns of Bangassou to the east and Boali in the northwest. A teacher in Bangassou claims to have seen the bodies of at least five South African soldiers.

If the casualty figures have been under-reported, a number of questions must be raised, including where the families of these alleged victims are and why, if they exist, have they remained quiet.

The question of the defence force's bravery is not challenged. What is being questioned here is why the soldiers bothered to fight with as much courage as they did for a cause that is so unclear. One local minister is now claiming that part of their motivation came from top-up payments made directly to the soldiers by deposed president François Bozizé.

Some of the answers to the South African presence in the CAR probably lie in a better understanding of South African interests in the country. What is known is that there certainly are South Africans involved in business and mining here. Allegations of who those South Africans are and who they have links to in the ANC are numerous.

What is also clear after only a brief period on the ground in the CAR is that finding answers to some of these questions is likely to be easier here than in the halls of ANC headquarters, Luthuli House.

Most of the seats on the flight to Bangui were empty. That's a bit of a surprise given that there is only one flight a week from Paris and most other options haven't been operating since the coup.

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The cast of characters on the passenger list was, however, to be expected – humanitarian aid workers, Catholic nuns and lots of people with business cards describing themselves as consultants, importers and experts in "resources".

The first sign of life even before the plane had come to a stop were French soldiers guarding the runway, waving at us like excited children. I was on an Air France flight and the French, who have been guarding the airport since Seleka took control of Bangui, must have felt that a piece of home had come to visit them.

The second sign of life was South African. Menzies Aviation, a South African company, has the contract for managing flight logistics at Bangui's airport. So mobile staircases and baggage vehicles are the first of the South African assets visible to all who care to see them that need ­protecting. And that's what the French army is doing.

A red line has been drawn around the airport that members of no other military are allowed to cross. Seleka rebels may approach but not enter the airport precinct. Outside the checkpoint, fragments of what was Bozizé's national army lounge under trees, alongside members of the regional peace force.

The city hasn't changed much since I lived here 15 years ago. The road from the airport to the city is still crowded with pedestrians on their way to or from the numerous neighbourhood markets. As was the case then, the United Nations and its ­various humanitarian agencies are the biggest game in town.


As I was heading towards the centre of town, Bozizé was giving his first radio interview since the regional summit on the CAR was held in N'Djamena, Chad, on Wednesday. He told RFI that his former allies, the Chadians, were responsible for his downfall. He said Seleka did not have the means to enter Bangui with the speed and ease it was able to muster without the support of the Chadians.

Speaking from his temporary home in Cameroon, Bozizé defended his decision not to expel the South African Defence Force despite having signed a peace accord in which all parties agreed that the soldiers must go. His interpretation of the agreement is that the South Africans would only leave once the security situation had returned to normal.

It's rather unlikely that this interpretation would have been accepted by all parties signing the document in January, simply because there has never been what most countries would describe as a normal security situation during the 10 years Bozizé was in power.