Boy Scouts in a war zone
There are more boy scouts than peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Even in the midst of a civil war, the scouts are arguably more effective
Editor’s note: A condensed version of this story was first published here on October 29 2018
Simon Allison in Bangui — It is early August, and the humanitarian aid community in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), is fearing the worst.
The Ebola outbreak in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo is intensifying and there is a chance the epidemic may jump the border into a remote area of the eastern CAR.
The area is under the control of armed groups.
One Thursday morning, some jumbled information from there reaches the capital. There are people bleeding. Haemorrhaging. It might be Ebola.
The information needs to be verified. Is it true? And if so, is it Ebola?
As in most of the rest of the country, there is no government presence in the CAR’s far east. Periodic violence means there are no international organisations either. There is no health system, no reliable communications network, no way to know whether the information is accurate without dispatching a helicopter, loaded with heavily armed peacekeepers, at much expense and great risk.
Actually, there is one other option. It’s time to send in the boy scouts.
An ‘experiment in anarchy’
These days, five years into the civil war, calling the CAR a country is a bit of a stretch. There is a flag, sure, and a national anthem and borders, but what happens inside those borders is not regulated by anything resembling a traditional state.
The government, propped up in Bangui by a phalanx of United Nations peacekeepers, controls only small swathes of territory around the capital and to the west. The rest of the country is divided between more than a dozen armed groups, whose identities, allegiances and territories are constantly shifting — so much so that, by the time peace talks are organised, some of the groups represented no longer exist and new ones have emerged that are not represented.
Sometimes it seems as if the armed groups themselves are not entirely sure what they are fighting about. Often the violence is cloaked in the language of religion — the good Christian soldiers waging war against the terrorists, or the persecuted Muslims protecting their ravaged minority — but more often than not the fighting is about the control of increasingly scant resources, such as food and cattle.
Last year, I visited one of the areas under the control of the armed groups. Before the war, Batangafo, north of Bangui towards the Chadian border, was a small, cosmopolitan town, and relatively prosperous by Central African standards. But now, most of its original population has fled; the handful of residents that remember what it was like before the war remember how, on balmy weekend evenings, there was dancing in the streets and people would laugh and eat together, regardless of their faith or ethnicity.
Fighting destroyed this fragile harmony. The town is now divided into areas controlled by various local militias, and is almost entirely deserted except for the thousands of internally displaced persons huddling in makeshift refugee camps, protected by heavily-armed peacekeeping patrols. Only after midnight will farmers dare to return to their villages, if at all. They tend their crops by moonlight, and return well before dawn.
My report from Batangafo, based on interviews with religious leaders, traditional leaders, rebel leaders, peacekeepers, internally displaced persons, and humanitarian actors, painted a bleak picture; an almost post-apocalyptic vision of a state in total collapse, and a population living day-to-day in near constant fear. An experiment in anarchy, I called it.
While not inaccurate, there was something missing from my reporting. Yes, the situation was dire - but also, amidst the violence and the multiple humanitarian crises, ordinary people were going to extraordinary lengths to look after themselves and their communities. My story failed to capture the resilience of these people and of these communities.
So when I returned this year, it was with a mandate to look for stories that showed how, even in the most extreme circumstances imaginable, Central Africans are resisting this descent into anarchy. How, in the absence of the state, ordinary people are coming up with new ways of looking after themselves; and how existing skills and institutions are evolving to cope with radical new challenges.
Once I started looking, I found such stories everywhere.
There is the psychologist, Flora Pasquereau, who as far as she knows is the only practising clinical psychologist in the country. She rarely sees patients one-on-one: such is the scale of the need that individual therapy is just not an efficient use of her time. Instead, she organises group sessions for suburbs on the outskirts of Bangui where she teaches breathing exercises and simple stretches to groups of 30 or more. It is, she knows, a hopelessly inadequate response to the post-traumatic stress that almost everyone suffers from, but it’s better than nothing. “If I can give people five minutes of not thinking about their problems, then I have given them something,” she says.
There is the museum director, Abel Kotton, who sits at a big desk in front of a leopard print wall and single-handedly pieces together the remains of the Central African Republic’s cultural heritage. He is in charge of the National Museum, which was entirely dismantled in late 2013 as the Muslim Seleka rebels advanced on the capital. Curators panicked, thinking that the rebels might destroy their priceless collection of indigenous artefacts, and dumped everything into wooden, coffin-like boxes. Today, the curators are long gone, and the labels have been jumbled up, so no one really knows what is in the boxes any more. Kotton is so embarrassed by the shambolic state of the museum that he won’t let anyone take pictures, but he is determined to get the displays back up, even if he has to unpack and catalogue the contents of each box himself.
There is the small goods trader, Sylvestre Dothe, whose brand new motorcycle was stolen one evening in PK5, Bangui’s Muslim Quarter. Dothe is Christian. Dothe’s friends were hellbent on revenge, and immediately found five motorcycles from Muslim owners to steal as compensation. Dothe, knowing that this would spark a series of tit-for-tat attacks that could only end in bloodshed, insisted that his friends return the bikes to their owners. He is still waiting for justice - a justice that will never come - but decided that if blood was to be spilled, it would not be spilled in his name, regardless of the financial consequences.
But of all the stories of resilience that we came across, that of the Boy Scouts was the most remarkable.
Bangui is full of men in uniform. Peacekeepers in their distinctive light-blue helmets, soldiers in threadbare fatigues and red berets, the navy-clad gendarmerie. The rebels in the city, holed up mostly in PK5, tend to keep a lower profile.
Also in uniform are members of the various branches of the Central African Boy Scouts movement. They look familiar, with their short-sleeve khaki shirts and shorts, long socks and neatly tied neckerchiefs, and can often be spotted strolling in small groups along the capital’s leafy streets. Look carefully and you can see the merit badges on their sleeves: for woodwork, for cooking, for navigating.
There are a lot of scouts in the CAR — about 20 000, according to scout leaders, but the conflict makes it difficult to be precise about this or any other statistic. By way of comparison, there are 14 787 UN peacekeepers.
The scouts are represented in all 16 provinces and in almost every church diocese. This makes the scout movement larger in both size and national footprint than any single armed group. Because of its rigid hierarchical structure, it has survived the onslaught of the civil war and is one of only a handful of national institutions — the Catholic Church is another — about which it is reasonable to assume that a decision made in Bangui can be implemented elsewhere in the country. The same cannot be said for any government ministry.
The resilience of the country’s scouts may be traced back to the movement’s long — albeit controversial — history in the region. After Sir Robert Baden-Powell founded the movement in 1908, imperial powers were quick to appreciate how influential it could be as a mechanism of control in their colonial outposts. Central Africa was a testing ground.
According to historian Timothy Parsons, in his study of scouting in Central Africa: “In the 1920s, Baptist missionaries at Yakusu in the Belgian Congo tried to substitute scouting for secret male initiation ceremonies, which they considered morally unacceptable, while Roman Catholic missionary educators sought to use the movement to train ‘Christian knights’, who would assist them in converting the wider African population in the colony. Across the Congo River in Brazzaville, French authorities similarly expected scouting to train a moral African elite that would exert a positive influence on the rest of colonial society.”
Since the independence era, however, the scout movement in the region has evolved into something more reflective of local values. This is especially true in the CAR.
“At the national level we have contributed to the development of our country. We are warriors of peace,” says Rony Yannick Bengai, the secretary general of the Catholic Scouts Association, by far the largest of the various scout groups. Like so much else here, the movement is divided along religious lines: there are also the Evangelical Scouts, known as Les Flambeaux, and a dwindling group of Muslim Scouts.
Bengai became a scout at the age of seven and has been involved with the scouts in some form or another for 22 years. He’s now 29. For him it has been a lifeline.
“Scouts taught me how to live in a community, to develop moral, intellectual and physical capacity,” he says.
Crucially, it kept him off the streets, out of the clutches of the armed groups and the drug dealers who prey on the CAR’s large numbers of boys and young men, most of whom are jobless and unskilled. They have few other options.
Bengai, on the other hand, stands tall. Being a scout has given him a place in society, a duty to discharge, and it is one that he takes seriously. “We are here to mediate between the belligerents, to make our country liveable, to stop the violence.”
He and his peers rattle off a list of accomplishments that makes it clear that the scout movement in this country is not just a recreational activity.
Some representative examples: when UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, wanted to roll out a nationwide immunisation programme for polio, it was the boy scouts who knocked on village doors to tell sceptical citizens that the doctors were coming and that they could be trusted. When nervous villagers need to go to hospital in a distant town, they can request a scout to accompany them along unfamiliar roads and territory. When a Muslim community was trapped in the forest near Boda, in 2017, it was the scouts who mediated with the armed groups holding them hostage to secure their release. When the Pope came to visit in 2015, it was the scouts who managed the delirious crowds that lined his route from the airport.
“Thanks to their countrywide presence, the Scouts are a very good asset in conducting social mobilization campaigns financed by UNICEF,” said Donaig Le Du, a UNICEF spokesperson in Bangui.
“They are the most structured youth group in the country and can be rapidly operational in all regions.”
And, this year, when humanitarian aid workers received those jumbled reports about a potential Ebola outbreak in a remote, treacherous part of the country, it was the scouts who were consulted as the first line of inquiry, despatched to assessed whether those reports were accurate and if an emergency response was necessary. Scouts were already in the area, of course. Fortunately for all concerned, there was no sign of the deadly virus.
Abdelwadid Gakara, a leader in the Muslim Scouts Association, invokes Baden-Powell’s famous maxim to explain the outsized contribution of the CAR’s scout movement. “Our saying is: Toujours Prêt! [Be prepared!]. Anything can happen.”
He adds: “Everything we do is to transmit the message of peace. A good scout is someone who is on good terms with everyone.”
If only it were that simple.
‘No choice but to fight’
Ngoaporo Ghislain-Oxwold (17) and Boy-Fini Mikael (18) are friends. At first they were not sure about this scouts business — it looked like hard work and not especially cool. But slowly they came around as more and more of their friends joined, and everyone seemed to be having a great time.
“We used to stay in the neighbourhood and do nothing. Then our friends who were scouts were going every Saturday. They said it was really interesting, really fun. They did activities. Singing, dancing. Sometimes there were shows,” says Ghislain-Oxwold, speaking in the rain falling outside the Bangui basketball stadium, where his troop is involved in a youth talent show organised by a humanitarian organisation.
Ghislain-Oxwold, a student at Bangui’s only functional university, found that his academic career turned around after he became a scout. He is not sure whether that is because of the discipline he learnt from the group, or whether it is simply because God was pleased with his decision. “Since I became a new member, I saw the blessing of God. It’s thanks to the grace of the scouts that I passed my last exam.”
In the scout movement’s rigid, pseudo-military hierarchy, the pair of friends are “explorers”, the entry-level rank, but have set their sights on moving up the ladder soon. They have already attended the mandatory two-week initiation camp, at which they learned basic survival skills, such as how to find shelter in the rainforest and how start a fire.
They are also taught several skills traditionally considered to be “girls’ work”: laundry, dishwashing and cooking. Judging by Ghislain-Oxwold’s familiarity with the clothesline, which he displays later when we visit him at his family home, it seems to be working.
Not all their friends are scouts. Others have joined armed groups — and the attraction is much the same. Like scouts, armed groups provide a powerful sense of purpose and belonging. Even their training camps are not dissimilar in terms of the type of skills taught to new recruits. With one major exception: the scouts don’t teach their members how to handle weapons.
For all its militaristic trappings, the scout movement both in the CAR and around the world is explicitly pacifist — a legacy of the disgust Baden-Powell felt towards the atrocities committed during World War I.
In the context of a civil war, however, preaching pacifism can be a revolutionary act — and it’s not always popular.
Ali Ousman is the co-ordinator of Bangui’s main Muslim civil society coalition. He lives, as all the Muslims in the city do, in an area called Point Kilometre Cinq, or PK5, so named because it is exactly 5km from the city centre. Most of the country’s Muslim population has been squeezed into the boundaries of what is effectively a ghetto.
PK5 is a dangerous place. Several armed groups operate inside it, and there are periodic clashes between them and the supposedly Christian militias. UN peacekeepers warily watch the roads leading in and out, but rarely dare to venture in. Most PK5 residents believe that the only reason the Muslim population has not already been wiped out is because they are protected by armed groups.
The numbers are not on the Muslim community’s side, says Ousman, who is seated in a plastic chair outside his office on one of the neighbourhood’s main thoroughfares. “If we don’t defend ourselves, we will be eliminated. They are a majority. They have more weapons than we do.”
Since the beginning of the civil war, thousands of Muslims have been killed, many in targeted killings. Many more have fled to neighbouring countries.
From Ousman’s perspective, the boys who join the local armed groups are the real heroes. “Some youth are taking guns to defend PK5, the only place where Muslims are allowed to live in Bangui. The reason that pushed them to take weapons has not changed. If they didn’t, they would be killed, their parents would be killed, the old people would be killed. They had no choice.”
In contrast, the boy scouts, in their faintly ridiculous shorts and long socks, are choosing not to defend their community. “In reality, the Muslim Scouts don’t do anything.” Ousman doesn’t use the word coward, but he doesn’t have to. He’s made his point.
The Boys’ club
Several years ago, the boy scouts of the CAR were suspended from the World Organisation of the Scout Movement. They had not paid their fees. Negotiations are ongoing to rejoin the global body, which has been mightily impressed by the efforts of their Central African chapter.
“Scouts are playing an important role in the Central African Republic by providing essential non-formal education for youth affected by the conflict,” said Frederic Tutu Kama-Kama, World Scouts’ Regional Director for Africa. It is something he has seen elsewhere on the continent. “Like in Central African Republic, Scouts are involved in peace-building processes in Burundi, D.R. Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Colombia and Iraq.”
There are obstacles to overcome before CAR’s scouts are returned to the fold. The fees are still a problem. So too is the fractured nature of the CAR’s scout movement: the Catholic Scouts, the Muslim Scouts and Les Flambeaux should fall under a single umbrella. More serious still is that the scout movement in the CAR has, until recently, treated scouting as a boys-only endeavour. To participate internationally, the CAR needs girl scouts too.
“We are trying to tell people our movement is not for boys only,” says Bengai.
He doesn’t sound all that convinced himself. Nonetheless, a girl scout troop has been founded in Bangui, and about 50 young women have joined. Many of them are performing in the talent show.
This is a welcome development, given that girls in Bangui — and even more so in the rest of the country — have fewer options for both employment and recreation.
“Young girls don’t have the options that boys do,” says Mounira Aliman, a young woman who represents the Islamic Youth Centre. “Especially for Muslim girls, we can’t really leave our neighbourhood. It’s very important if they could include girl members in Scouts. Seeing all the girls today [at the talent show] is a sign of hope.”
An army for peace
To really understand the value of the scout movement in the CAR — and despite what critics like Ousman might say — imagine for a moment that it did not exist. Imagine that those 20 000 boys were not going on camps and earning merit badges and telling remote villages about vaccination drives. What would they be doing? What groups would they join instead?
Imagine that those boys were wearing different uniforms - the kind of uniforms that strike fear into the hearts of people. Imagine that it was weapons slung around their young shoulders instead of neckerchiefs.
Bengai puts it best. “The armed groups do war. The scouts are an army for peace,” he says.
In the context of the CAR’s collapsed state and ongoing civil war, the scouts might just be the most effective army of them all.
- Additional reporting from Amy Niang, Will Baxter and Moussa Abdoulaye
- This feature was produced as part of Uncovering Security, a media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Stanley Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung. Photos by Will Baxter commissioned by the Stanley Foundation.