The two men lay still in the back of the pickup truck, staring up. Over them stood the uniformed rebels, rifles pointing out as the truck sped forward.
The rebels had just picked up two more citizens, caught reading fliers calling for a general strike, their friends said shortly after. Beaten as they were shoved into the truck, the men were unlikely to be heard from again, the friends feared. A similar seizure had occurred nearby the day before. Four had been shot dead and dozens wounded protesting another abduction less than a week before that.
The rebels, known as Seleka, or “alliance” in the Sango language, make the law in the Central African Republic, where coups and violent seizures of power have outnumbered fair elections four to one since independence.
Now, even their handpicked prime minister calls the country’s condition “catastrophic.” The rebels have held unchecked sway since they swarmed into this bedraggled capital in March, looting, abducting, raping and killing — even breaking into an orphanage to steal whatever they could, according to Amnesty International.
With its suffering largely cut off from the outside world, this landlocked former French colony, population 5.1 million, has catapulted into place as one of Africa’s most troubled countries. It has a rebel leader occupying its presidential palace, an ousted president who fled for his life into exile and a Constitution that protected residents’ rights minimally before being suspended.
Nowadays, the rebels cruise conspicuously in their Toyota Hilux pickups in the sparse traffic here, ragtag fighters from the lawless north, some of them Chadians, turbaned or wearing looted fatigues, guns bristling. Rifle-wielding boys as young as 12 have been spotted in the trucks. The men are accustomed to living in the bush, but in the capital there is not much left to steal. Many of the battered storefronts are shuttered or empty. The citizens keep their distance; everyone has an abduction story.
“I buried one back here,” said Jean-Paul Befio, pointing to underbrush at the edge of a semirural Bangui district he serves as mayor, adding that in recent weeks he saw five other bodies floating “in the river.”
Even in a country with a long history of instability, the current unrest has set off alarms, with humanitarian groups warning of a looming disaster of widespread malnutrition and disease because the economy has shut down, aid has stopped, international aid workers have fled the countryside and violence outside the capital has prevented farmers from tending their crops.
“One meal a day,” Faustin Ouaya, who worked in the Ministry of Tourism, said of the circumstances many residents face. “Sometimes, not even that.”
Inside the battered 1970s government ministries, many of them deserted for long periods because the civil servants had not been paid in months, high officials spoke with despair about how, after the March ouster of the country’s despised president, François Bozizé, the state had disappeared altogether. One minister has been going to work in a taxi because his car was stolen by the rebels. Another top functionary sits alone in a chair in an empty office looted of every machine, said a Western businessman who went to see him.
“It’s anarchy, a nonstate,” said the prime minister, Nicolas Tiangaye, a former human rights lawyer kept on by the rebel leadership as the emissary to an outside world that does not recognize it. “Looting, arson, rape, massacres of the civilian population — they are sowing terrorism,” he said, staring at the floor in his darkened office.
Local residents have accused Seleka rebels of killing 15 people last month because the minibus in which they were riding contained T-shirts supporting the deposed president; the bodies of seven, recovered from the Ubangi River, showed signs of torture. The International Federation for Human Rights, a French group that sent a delegation here, said the rebels had killed more than 400 people since they took power.
In the dirt alleyways of mud-brick houses, residents speak of being picked up at random, beaten and held for ransom by the Seleka, and sometimes of lucky escapes.
“The feeling is one of terror: this is what haunts the population,” said Faustin Yandergo, a textile worker.
His neighbor, a building contractor named Henri Bosco, had just spoken of being beaten until blood came from his ears, then being bound to a coconut tree by the rebels and having water forced down his throat to extort money. “Everybody here has felt the harm of the Seleka,” said Mr. Bosco, adding that he had to go to Cameroon for medical treatment.
“I’ve seen them get down from their truck, stop traffic and beat people up,” said Carlos Mobealla, the mayor of a portion of the capital.
“They took two people away; they didn’t come back,” said Aimée Wilfried Mahoroka, a construction worker in Bangui, who was among five people picked up by cruising fighters on a recent Saturday downtown. The five had been shut up in a house requisitioned by the rebels; two were removed from the room, and when the Seleka returned, they were carrying buckets with blood in them, said Mr. Mahoroka, adding that he later managed to leap from the rebels’ pickup truck.
The United States abandoned its embassy here months ago. “Now we are in a phantom state,” said a Western diplomat who has stayed on here. “It’s extremely dangerous. People are afraid for the future, and they are right.”
The crisis has been a long time in the making. Isolated in the middle of the continent, with few roads out or natural resources, the Central African Republic became independent in 1960 after a brutal six-decade colonial reign by France. But the former colonial power would continue to meddle in the cycles of coups, rebellions and violent transitions that have marked the country’s history ever since, though it is taking a back seat now. “Weariness” has overtaken Western officials faced with the turmoil, the diplomat here said.
The state had already nearly disappeared under the corrupt rule of Mr. Bozizé, who was president for 10 years before being chased out by the rebels. He had led a previous rebellion himself and is now in hiding, probably in the region, though even the government says that is not certain.
The rebels emerged from the barren, more-Muslim north, angered at the neglect of a region inaccessible from the capital for half of the year because of heavy rains and poor roads, accusing the president of reneging on an agreement to integrate some of their fighters into the army.
“No schools, no roads, really — it’s chaos,” said Abdel Kadir Kalil, a Seleka commander, explaining why he had taken up arms. Carrying an elaborately carved ceremonial cane on the terrace of the Libyan-built five-star hotel where he lives here, he added, “We wanted to develop the country, but the ex-president, Bozizé, he ignored our projects.”
High above the city, in a marbled presidential residence looking out over the Ubangi River, the rebel leader and self-proclaimed president, Michel Djotodia, brushed away accounts of recent Seleka abuses and pleaded for outside aid. “Peace has already returned to Bangui,” he said, adding: “When we came, it was like a miracle. It was God that willed it.” Mr. Bozizé, the ousted president, had “gone mad,” he said.
But when Mr. Djotodia’s high-speed motorcade barreled down the calamitous roads to a military training center 40 miles from the capital, the crowds that came to watch stood silent and stony-faced by the roadside. The Seleka leader waved and said, “Thank you, thank you” through a car window, but there was no response.
At a base in the capital, the president came to inspect illicit weapons that he said had been seized from the city’s streets. Silently, swarms of motley-clad fighters followed him about the base, some of them young boys. An aide said they were hoping the president would give them money.
There have been some signs that the population is fed up and starting to push back.
“Really, it’s too much,” said Edwige Noudjoujoto, a homemaker in the Gobongo neighborhood. “Every day, there’s looting.”
Residents simultaneously banged pots in their neighborhoods for three nights in a row during a recent week, a “concert des casseroles” meant to show the people’s displeasure, they said.
When a student was abducted from one of his classes — “I went to see his corpse at the morgue; he had been tortured,” said a friend, Miguel Nabana — the youth of Gobongo erected barricades, only to face rebels who “opened fire,” he added.
When the mayor of an outlying district found five bodies floating in the M’Poko River, he went to the independent radio station to protest. “We all went down to the river to see,” said a constituent, Alphonse Yoyo. “Deplorable. Inhuman.”