“Finally in Bangui, and without incident,” said Evelin Bokassa, a truck driver from the Central African Republic (CAR) who has just arrived in the landlocked capital city after completing a treacherous five-day journey from the west coast of Cameroon.
He has driven along what’s known as “the corridor” – winding, dangerous roads, full of bandits and thieves, that act as the main supply route to Bangui, on the southeastern side of the country.
Years of neglect have left many of the roads in ruins and outbreaks of inter-communal violence between different ethnic and religious communities have made the route even more perilous.
“You arrive at a checkpoint, you need 2 000 to 3 000 CFA francs ($3.60 to $5.40) Why? We do not understand. It is harassment!” said Bokassa, whose surname he shares with Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a military dictator who ruthlessly ruled CAR for 13 years.
Evelin started this most recent journey in the coastal city of Douala, the commercial and economic capital of Cameroon. Transporting 30 tonnes of goods, including palm oil, sacks of grain and five goats along the 1 500km route, he slaloms between potholes and past the hulks of overturned, rusting trucks, long since abandoned.
With no bus service, about 20 passengers have also paid 5 000 francs for the privilege of travelling on top of the goods in the truck to reach Bangui – their T-shirts and hats reddened by dust kicked up from the road.
Two UN vehicles – one at the front, the other at the back – guard a convoy of vehicles as the trucks make their way along unkept, bendy roads.
For years now, UN peacekeepers in military vehicles have been escorting convoys transporting vital aid and food into CAR, as many drivers are reluctant to cross the border due to the instability. Only trucks carrying UN goods will be guarded if they break down, but most of the dozens of trucks making the journey are carrying a mix of commercial goods.
The drivers know that if they get into problems, they are on their own.
“I’m stuck,” said Idriss, a 27-year-old Cameroonian driver, whose truck broke down close to the town of Bossembele, on the main road between Cameroon and Bangui. “I’m afraid that villagers will arrive with weapons and threaten me,” he said while leaning against his vehicle, complaining that even if UN forces see him, they might not stop.
It is 6:00 pm and soon night will fall – meaning the risk of robbers grows.
After some time UN peacekeepers from the Bangladeshi contingent of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission (MINUSCA) arrive in an armoured vehicle and assess the broken-down truck.
Idriss is lucky because his trailer is stamped “UN”, so they will guard him overnight until a tow arrives – albeit in silence, as they don’t share a common language to communicate.
Further along the route, in a ditch on the side of the road, villagers armed with shotguns and machetes have surrounded another broken-down truck. “They are there to offer to protect the vehicle,” said Evelin as he drove past the truck.
“But the same villagers will return to steal his goods if the driver refuses to pay them 10 000 to 15 000 francs.”
The truck drivers often complain about having to pay bribes.
In Beloko, in CAR next to the Cameroon border, an armed group called the FDPC (the Democratic Front of the Central African People) has blocked the road with a barricade and demands a “tax” from each truck driver while UN peacekeepers look on.
The FDPC is one of a number of armed groups that has fought the Central African Republic government and also other rebel groups in the former French colony over the last decade.
“It’s 2,000 francs or they kill you,” said Thierry, a CAR driver.
In another town, Binenge, local villagers have also constructed a small wooden barrier to block the road, demanding drivers pay 1,000 francs to pass.
Locals also help rebuild the road with earth that loosens when rain falls.
“We don’t want an accident,” smiled one of the workers, who knows that keeping the road intact is good for business.
As Evelin travels towards the CAR capital, one section of the journey is particularly bumpy and the most painful. For 60km, the road is unpaved and some trucks get stuck in the mud – causing the rest of the traffic to slow down. As his truck arrives in Bangui, Evelin explains that “we are lucky” as heavy rainfall can lead to trucks not moving for days.
“I’ve been doing this for 12 years. I want to do something else,” he said. In a few days time, he will embark on the same journey again, back to Cameroon, only this time the trip could last longer than five days. “Why don’t I go to work in Europe?” he pondered.
“It seems the roads are all beautiful there, right?” – AFP