Big Story 10

Film shows art of survival in Central Africa airport's 'tent city'

YAOUNDE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tens of thousands of people who fled murderous gangs and set up their own “tent city” inside Central African Republic’s main airport are the unlikely stars of an award-winning new film.

A family standing outside the ruins of their old house, while living in a tent they brought over from the M'Poko airport displaced persons' camp on May 4, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Inna Lazareva

“Zone III” - selected as the best short documentary at the African Film Festival in the United States in July and now being screened at European film festivals - is named after the busiest of the camp’s 13 areas.

“We’re used to talking about my country only when there’s conflict or war,” said the film’s director, Pascale Serra, 36.

“But we don’t talk about the people who are doing their best to move on and get over the trauma,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from the capital, Bangui.

Central African Republic has been riven by sectarian conflict since 2013 when Muslim-majority Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize, triggering a vicious backlash by predominantly Christian and animist fighters.

Almost half the population of Bangui was forced to shelter in informal camps as gangs armed with guns, knives and machetes went on a rampage through the city.

The airport hosted the city’s biggest camp, deemed a safe haven because of the U.N. and French soldiers based there.

Set up in December 2013, it was home to more than 100,000 people at its peak. Many lived in hangars, others in ramshackle tents just meters (yards) from the runway as planes rumbled past, and some slept inside disused aircraft.

Yet, contrary to the usual picture of misery, squalor and helplessness, the film depicts residents setting up community businesses and initiatives that rendered life more bearable.

The documentary shows carpentry and mechanics’ workshops, butcher stalls, shoe-makers, a motor-taxi outfit, a pig farm, an alcohol-brewing group and restaurants selling grilled meat.

For entertainment, the displaced community organizes dance classes, football matches and wrestling tournaments.

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“People created their own society within the camp – they were trying their best to survive while awaiting an improvement in their lives,” Serra said, adding it was “like a new city”.


Despite this buzz of activity, life in the camp - plagued by crime, filth, poisonous green-mamba snakes and malarial mosquitoes - was hard.

Locals built tents from tarpaulin sacks and scavenged wood, only to watch them fall apart in bad weather.

A makeshift school had more than double the number of pupils it was intended for, and its meager facilities were regularly pillaged by criminals, Serra said.

In 2017, the government dismantled the camp over safety concerns.

Many former residents have since returned to their neighborhoods and rebuilt their homes, said Kenneth Chulley, a reintegration officer with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

Working with charities, the UNHCR has reconstructed more than 4,000 homes since 2017. “But it’s nothing compared to how many houses have been rebuilt by the people themselves,” Chulley added.


Serra, who is using the proceeds from film screenings to help those most in need, said several of the entrepreneurs she filmed still had no proper home.

They include Alpha Bedan, who ran a cinema tent in the camp, screening movies and football matches at $0.15 per entry.

After leaving, he set up his tent next to the ruins of his house in Bangui.

In May 2017, Bedan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he intended to raise cash to rebuild his home by running a stall selling soap, oil and stock cubes in his neighborhood, and restarting film screenings in his tent.

Yet more than a year later, Serra said Bedan had fled his rebuilt home after armed gangsters killed one of his friends.

“He told me: ‘I now have to destroy my own house’,” Serra said, describing Bedan’s district as a “ghost town” where the threat of violence is so high most residents have left.

Crime rates in Bangui are “very high”, said the UNHCR’s Chulley, although the situation has improved since 2016. Tens of thousands are still living in camps around the country.

According to the United Nations, over half Central African Republic’s population is in need of aid, while nearly 1.2 million have been unable to return home. About half of those are living as refugees in neighboring countries.

Relations between different religious groups in Bangui are improving, said Chulley.

But peace will remain elusive until security is re-established and those behind the violence are held to account, said Serra.

“We’re talking about reconciliation, getting along together – but people don’t know how we can speak about this without justice,” she added. “The criminals are still out there.”