Page last updated at 12:39 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Massacre haunts CAR villagers


Inside the village attacked by bandits

By Mike Thomson
BBC News, Central African Republic

Before the bandits came it was called Gouromo, but since that night it has become better known by a new name: "The Widows' Village".

It is an eerie feeling walking around the deserted huts that formed what was once a thriving farming community.

Grave of a massacre victim in Gouromo, CAR
All the massacre graves in Gouromo are marked with bottles
On the village square, 13 bottles are spaced out across the open ground where you imagine people used to stop and chat to their neighbours.

Each bottle is a marker for a simple grave: Thirteen men and boys slaughtered in a massacre for which the survivors are still struggling to find a motive.

It happened on a Sunday as the villagers were eating their evening meal outside their huts. The bandits had the element of surprise and quickly rounded up every man and boy they could find.

'Sure I would die'

One man saved his life by hiding behind the front door of his home. But the only other male survivor, 16-year-old Yamssa Ruben, was not so fortunate.

The bandits chained him together with the rest of the group which included his younger brother and five other relatives.

Sixteen-year-old Yamssa Ruben, Gouromo, CAR
Bandits left Yamssa Ruben, 16, for dead under a pile of bodies

Ruben remembers that as the chain gang was marched into the bush the women of the village implored the gunmen to tell them what would happen to their menfolk.

But the bandits' only response was to beat them back with rifle butts and tree branches.

"When we got to a clearing there the bandits asked one man whether he belonged to the Perl, a tribe they didn't like," Ruben remembers.

"He denied this but they said he was lying. Suddenly one of them shot him dead right there in front of us. From then on I was sure I would die. We were all really shocked and several of us cried out 'Oh Lord, Oh Lord'.

"They ignored our cries and told us all to lie on the ground. Even before many of us had got on our knees they began to shoot. Shot after shot after shot. I thought I was dead."

"When the firing finally stopped and it was quiet I opened my eyes. The bandits were gone. They had killed everyone. All the men were dead.

"They certainly intended to kill all of us and they clearly believed that they had. But because they started shooting before we'd all had time to lie on the groundůsome people fell on top of me and I was hidden by other mens bodies."

Too frightened to return

Ruben had been left for dead by the bandits under the corpses of his male relatives. But although he had survived he was critically injured. A bullet had ricocheted off his arm into his leg. Rebel leaderAwash with gunsWarlordAbandoned villageWidow villageHumanitarian disaster Read Mike Thomson's reports from Central African Republic

Women from the village rushed him to hospital.

"The doctors there tried to make my foot better but that failed and they had to amputate it," says Ruben.

"They did their best and even though I'm crippled. I am still alive. I try to keep this thought in my heart."

Ruben, like the other survivors, now lives at another village several miles away.

They are too frightened to return to live at Goroumo as those who attacked them have never been caught.

Humanitarian crisis

In the last couple of years, tens of thousands of people in the CAR's countryside have fled their homes in terror at bandit raids.

It has created a humanitarian crisis as many are too frightened to tend their crops.

Aid agencies have also struggled to provide supplies to families who are not only hiding from the bandits but also fear attack by government troops and rebel groups.

Unnamed bandit in CAR
Many bandits are veteran fighters from CAR's many coups

I met one man who has been robbed and beaten in turn by the bandits, then the rebels who drove them away and finally in turn by soldiers.

So who are these bandits that plague the CAR? Many are veteran fighters from the many coups there have been in this country.

Others are fugitives from neighbouring countries like Chad and Sudan.

They have been able to operate freely here as the government of President Francois Bozize has little control over much of the countryside which is divided between a number of rebel groups.

Often the bandits are better organised and equipped than any of these other forces.

But current peace talks between rebels and Mr Bozize offer up a slim hope of creating the stability that might allow the bandits to be defeated.


For the time being, however, Gouromo will remain deserted. And for some the memories may always be too painful to bear.

Jeanette Sarabiro with one of her nine children, Gouromo, CAR
Widow Jeanette Sarabiro now has to raise nine children alone

Jeanette Sarabiro was brave enough to go back to show me the grave of her husband Yalla Andre.

Since his murder she is now bringing up nine children alone. On her back she carries the baby boy who she was pregnant with at the time of the attack.

"They killed my husband and my two sisters' husbands. Even my youngest brother," she says.

"I only come back here now to work in the fields. What else I can do? If I did not come my children would die of hunger. But I could never live here again."

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