Hundreds of Dead Bodies Rot in Bangui Wells
Where are their heads?
In early August, workers from the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action exhumed three piles of bones from a drinking well in Bangui’s Kilometer-5 district, indicating that at least three people, and possibly more, were deposited there.
The remains were missing their skulls.
It’s a common discovery in Central African Republic. Nearly 18 months after violence between militant Seleka and Anti-Balaka groups has subsided in the capital, hundreds of unidentified corpses remain rotting in watery graves.
Dead bodies stuffed into neighborhood wells by militants poison the water table and confuse the United Nations body count as the Transitional Government Council pushes reconciliation between militants across the country.
The U.N. currently estimates that 3,000 to 6,000 people died during the country’s conflict, which erupted in 2013. Hidden bodies and mass graves in remote areas of the countryside account for the imprecise figures, U.N. spokesperson Hamadoun Toure said.
The foundation, known by its Swiss acronym FSD and for its demining work in Sudan, reconfigured its operations to dredge the wells, which are about three feet wide and average about 40 feet deep.
Security for NGOs is still a concern throughout CAR, especially in areas such as Kilometer-5, where militants continue to wage a battle for territory. On Aug. 2, a day before FSD completed exhuming the human remains, a Kilometer-5 Seleka group exchanged fire with U.N. forces, killing one Rwandan peacekeeper.
Based on reports from locals in Bangui’s 3rd and 5th districts alone, an estimated 500 bodies or more could be exhumed from wells or from within destroyed homes in those areas, according to FSD program manager Eugenio Balsini.
The actual number could be much higher. “We work in the 3rd and the 5th but now we are realizing we can dig something up almost anywhere,” Balsini said.
Just north in the suburb of Begoa, residents reported that 17 of their drinking wells were contaminated with three to 10 corpses each.
Lucienne Kanede watched Seleka militants bind and shoot her son, Hilaire Gounoudi, during an early morning raid in December 2013. That was shortly after Anti-Balaka militants stormed Bangui from the countryside.
She then watched the militants stuff her son’s body into a narrow well just a few meters away — along with the bodies of five to 10 of her neighbors, she said. Other women and children nearby watched the assault from behind curtains and through the cracks in-between the red mud bricks that comprise their homes.
“We all know where our people were thrown,” resident Josephine Zoun’gapo said, pointing to various wells, naming cousins and nephews.
Central African Republic continues to live in the shadow of the violence that took place in late 2013 through spring of 2014 following the ouster of former president Françoise Bozize by Michel Djotodia.
With the government in chaos, the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels and the predominantly Christian Anti-Balaka groups ran amok. Both sides targeted civilian families for tribal, sectarian and financial reasons, birthing a war of reprisal.
Today’s CAR is country of survivors. International forces have disarmed many militant groups. Others have hidden their weapons from plain view. Most fighters are in casual dress now, looking for jobs, many struggling for a meal, sticking close to their part of town.
Begoa lies just over twelve kilometers from Bangui’s city center, just outside the reach of the non-governmental organizations that have removed most of the dead from the city over the past few months of political reconciliation.
Germain Mwehu, an official from the International Red Cross in Bangui, said the organization lacked facilities there.
The township sits in the rolling hills north of the capital. Palm fronds and high grass obscure most of the houses from the main road. When the war erupted there, its Christian residents were on their own.
The presence of high-level police taking notes at the exhumation implied that some kind of inquiry into circumstances of the hidden victims’ deaths was underway.
In Begoa, the solution is exclusion, said local policeman Achille Guitembi.
“We don’t want to see Muslims here anymore,” he said.
When the bodies began to stink, people living near the well at Kilometer-5 found it easier to seal the smell in with dirt and stones — not realizing all the wells draw from the same water source.
Their real fear was that ghosts of the dead could come and go from the well freely, attaching themselves to the living, possessing them or haunting their homes.
Thomas Longue, the district chief who lives by the well, said that on the day his community decided to seal the bodies in, the community enacted rituals known as Gris-Gris (pronounced “gree-gree”) to protect the living from disease, hauntings and bad luck.
As FSD engineers set up a system of ropes to lower a worker and spade into the well, they didn’t notice the chicken blood at their feet.
At sunrise, hours before the exhumation began, local witch doctor Renault Mocpat oversaw four elderly women as they sacrificed a hen. According to Mocpat, the hen’s blood will keep the spirits of the well happy and dancing — happy enough to prevent more people from falling in, and so busy dancing they won’t follow anyone home.
During nearly five full days of excavation, car parts, garden tools, concrete blocks and hundreds of buckets of dirt came out of the well with the three piles of bones. The engineers washed the bones and neatly packaged them inside a set of child-size coffins.
A question began to circulate among the crowd of locals who came to watch the dig, and among the workers themselves: “Where are the heads?”
Some speculated the killers took them as trophies. Others said they were stored so eyes and teeth could be plucked out now and again as ingredients for malicious Gris-Gris spells.
Balsini drew hard on an Italian cigar and exhaled. Residents near the well said a few of the people in the crowd were part of the militant group that put the bodies in the well in the first place.
“We are here to solve the environmental problem,” he said, “but we are digging into something very complicated indeed.”