From Nairobi it took me three flights and what felt like an eternity before I touched down in Bangui the capital of the Central African Republic.
As I moved through the airport with the other strange assortment of passangers I was greeted with the familiar sense of official chaos I know well. Despite my time spent poring over as much writing as I could find about the country I realised very quickly how little I knew as I looked around the airport. I stood in line for my visa actively perspiring as I looked on perplexed at the soldiers in a vast assortment of army uniforms all whom were unarmed. What I didn’t initially realise is that these soldiers were members of the FOMAC force working alongside the French forces to protect key sites around the capital including the airport and French embassy.
A short intro for those who don’t know much about the place commonly known as C.A.R. The Central African Republic is a landlocked country bordering Chad in the north, Sudan in the northeast, South Sudan in the east, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo in the south and Cameroon in the west. Colonised by the French in the 1880s, C.A.R. became independent in 1960 but after a number of leaders and coups it wasn’t until 1993 when multi-party democratic elections were held for the first time. Earlier this year on March 24 a coup led by the Seleka leader Michel Djotodia took the capital and seized power from President Bozize who fled the country. According to the International Crisis Group it is estimated that there are about 400,000 internally displaced people, 64,000 refugees.
Eventually after close to two sweaty hours of waiting, Sylvester from the SOS Children’s Village national office successfully managed to arrange permission for me to leave the airport without a visa. For the record, the visa was something I literally had stamped in my passport hours before I left the country a week later, first time for everything. As we left the airport I was surprised to look around and see the heavily armed French soldiers stationed at the entrance. Bumping along a road with minimal paving that led us into downtown Bangui I tried to suck in as much as I could from the darkness but all I could catch was the whir of street sellers standing over their glowing coals that slowly cooked corn and meat. Inside the taxi, Sylvester apologised repeatedly for the mode of transport. He told me how the Children’s Village cars were stolen a few months pripr when the Seleka rebels took over the village and demanded money, computers, vehicles and anything else of value which they said they had earnt as unpaid fighters in Seleka force.
The Seleka who seized power earlier in 2013 is a rebel force made up of fighters from the north of the country as well as large contingents from neighbouring Chad and Darfur. While the conflict wasn’t waged along sectarian lines, in recent months it has become evident that animosity is growing between the largely Christian population and the Muslims from the north.
We stopped outside a rather nice hotel and was told that it was is too dangerous to reach the children’s village at night time. Sylvester told me that since the Seleka rebels came to power it is very rare to drive at night unless part of a French convoy or moving with the Seleka rebels. I checked into the hotel and unsurprisingly was the only guest.In the morning we continued on to the SOS children’s village where I was based from my week in the country. Unfortunately due to security issues we weren’t able to leave the capital and at all times I was accompanied by the writer and a member of the country office.
Visiting the local area surrounding the Childrens Village it was evident that many people were still living in an active state of fear since the invasion by the rebels in March. Bangui is only divided from the Democratic Republic of Congo by the wide and fast running Congo River. As word grew of the impending invasion of the capital thousands of young men fled into neighbouring Congo as they feared being attacked by the rebels. A number of people we interviewed had lost a family members, most males, at the hands of the rebels. In addition to murdering the Seleka also looted from countless homes Non Government Organisations and government offices.
The health clinic at the Childrens Village is headed up by the charismatic Dr Placide Bassenge. Dr Placide leads a team of overworked health carers who have struggled to respond to the growing need and minimal resources available since the Seleka invasion. Medical supply routes from neighbouring Cameroon have been closed since March. This means acquiring medical supplies such as sterilising equipment, pain relief and antiretroviral drugs has become almost impossible. For Julian Valida a lab assistant who functions as the centre’s pharmacist, work has become incredibly stressful with the growing power cuts which means he must now keep drugs cold with only a few hours of power each day.
Dr Placide Bassenge spoke of the rising number of health issues since the rebels came to power in March. One of Dr Placide Bassenge’s greatest frustrations is his clinics limited resources, this means all serious cases must be referred to a hospital in Bangui. The problem with referring patients onwards is twofold. Firstly most patients coming to the clinic cant afford health care and secondly since the crisis many government departments including hospitals have been unable to pay their employees.
The road ahead for the Central African Republic will not be easy. The rise of self-defense militias and clashes between Christian and Muslim communities are now said to be part of daily life in parts of the mineral-rich country. In the last few days there has been serious calls for United Nations peacekeepers to be dispatched urgently to intervene with Christian-Muslim fighting which is at risk of spiralling into genocide.
I have worked on assignment for SOS Children’s Village throughout the world and during these trips have been warmly welcomed into communities in places as diverse as Haiti and Bangladesh. In the Central African Republic my experience was no exception and the hospitality I experienced first hand was deeply humbling. On my final night at the Children’s Village in Bangui, I sat with Jennifer the journalist I was working with and a number of the SOS Mothers lit only by a full moon. We talked for hours and covered a range of topics from the nightmarish days when the Seleka arrived and looted the Children’s Village to a collection of funny memories since living inside the village. I flew out early the next morning after saying goodbye to the national office staff and the community development workers. Aboard my flight to Cameroon as we banked over a wide river that snaked through the landscape I bid farewell to the troubled country. While the nations future is uncertain, I was confident that the children who call the village home will always know the same love and care that exists during peace or turmoil.
To finish off a busy month shooting on the Indian sub-continent, I slotted in a week in Calcutta to observe the Durga Puja Festival. The Durga Puja is something I have heard much about (you can read more about the festival here). While it is celebrated in a number of eastern states across India, the celebrations found in Calcutta are unrivalled in size and budgets. My Bengali friends have shared many stories of the annual Durga Puja celebration. Finally, 2013 was the year I would be there too.
Ever since I first spent three months in Calcutta at the age of 18, I have held a deep affection for the city. Throughout my number of visits to Calcutta, I have been blessed to walk the streets most days with my friend and fellow ‘chobi wallah’, Siddhartha Hajra. I would strongly urge people to check out Sid’s work here. When I was 18 and just starting to dabble with photography, Sid was the first person I met who showed a serious interest in the craft. I still vividly remember Sid and I talking about photography as we walked along the banks of the Hooghly River. I owe a great deal to Sid for what he taught me in those first few years and every meeting thereafter.
To best describe Sid’s eye for photographic moments, the words classic, considered and poetic pop to mind instantly. In recent years, Sid has started to use a digital system for his photography. Sid still shoots is as if he has two rolls over the whole day. Of this, I am truly envious!
During the festival period, I got excited more than a kid in a candy store and dragged Sid through the city to absorb the festive buzz everywhere we went. To many of these moments Sid would sigh ‘cliche‘. A month later as I edited these picture, I understand why. Sid has spent his entire life calling Calcutta home and the hum of the city even during Durga Puja is too familiar. Reflecting on this, I realised that I would similarly struggle to muster much excitement at the prospect of photographing a family Christmas in Australia. In closing, this summer as I spend the warm months in Australia I am going to ask of myself to find pictures in the most ordinary and familiar.
I am happy to announce that in the coming months I will be working on a short film from my time spent documenting the Durga Puja Festival. For now here are some pictures from my time in Calcutta.