As Captain Victor leads a team of Spanish special forces on a night patrol in the capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui, one thing worries him most: Chinese-made hand grenades that sell for less than a soft drink.
“Locals use hand grenades because they are very cheap, they are cheaper than a can of Coke,” Victor, 29, said as he adjusted his helmet and night-vision goggles. He and other troops spoke on condition that their last names weren’t used because their military’s policy prohibited it.
Victor, who also served in Afghanistan, routinely leads a patrol of 13 Spanish special forces soldiers that are part of the 750 troops the European Union Force, known as EUFOR, deployed in April to protect the people of Bangui. The Central African Republic has been gripped by lawlessness since a mainly Muslim alliance of anti-government rebel militias known as Seleka overthrew Christian President Francois Bozize in March 2013. The takeover was marked by the widespread killing of civilians.
The Seleka government led by interim President Michel Djotodia resigned in January 2014 after a wave of international criticism that he failed to stop the violence between his forces and the mostly Christian militia known as anti-balaka. A transitional authority led by Catherine Samba-Panza took over and is supposed to organize elections by August. So far, it has failed to extend its authority beyond Bangui.
The country is divided between the anti-balaka militias, which describe themselves as village self-defense groups and whose name means anti-machete, in the west, and Seleka rebels that control the east, according to the United Nations. The conflict has disrupted gold and uranium exploration in the country, which is the world’s 12th-biggest diamond producer, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
In Bangui, security remains a challenge. Anti-balaka elements last month kidnapped Sports Minister Armel Sayo, as well as UN staff member and a French aid worker, who was later freed.
Before they move out after dusk into the pitch-black streets because there’s no electricity, the Spanish troops equip themselves with infrared scopes, thermal imaging goggles and sound intensifying listening equipment.
“The main problem is criminality,” Victor said. “We can not say there are big organized groups, just small criminal groups, and they just try to steal because this is what they know.”
The Spanish carry out daily and nightly foot patrols along the border of two neighborhoods, known as “the 3rd” and “the 5th,” that have been wracked by violence and human rights abuses.
“When Seleka came here they destroyed the area, when the anti-balaka came here they also destroyed the area,” Victor said. “So this is a no man’s land where criminals have come. There is no electricity here so it is pitch black.”
A patrol last week didn’t encounter any serious incidents and only heard a few gunshots in the distance that the soldiers described as “happy shooting.”
“A few days ago, we had a fire fight, but just a few shots and a few grenades. None of us was wounded,” Victor said. “Three of four of the locals were wounded, minor stuff, but probably because of their own hand grenades.”
Special forces Lieutenant Sergio said on previous missions in the Middle East, improvised explosive devices were the main concern, while in Bangui, the worry is from locals throwing hand grenades. People often carry the bombs as nonchalantly as Europeans hold mobile phones.
“There are a lot of Chinese grenades here you can buy easily,” he said. “A little boy will get one for you in a few hours from the market. People get drunk and become brave, beer is cheap. It’s an explosive mix.”
In Bangui, one anti-balaka member said in an interview that a Chinese-made grenade would sell for as little as $1. At the meeting, the man, wearing a Christian cross around his neck, casually pulled one of the small black explosive balls from his leather satchel. It was for his defense, he said. As a safety measure, he’d wrapped sticky tape around the pin.
Chinese, Sudanese and European arms and ammunition have poured into Central African Republic from neighboring countries, the Brussels-based Conflict Armament Research consultancy said in a report last month.
Its investigators found vast quantities of cheap Chinese-made grenades throughout Central African Republic, some that were originally supplied to the Nepalese army, according to the group’s director of operations, Jonah Leff.
“It is not yet clear why the grenades are in such wide circulation and precisely how they were transferred to CAR,” he said in an e-mail. Hand grenades often sell for less than bullets for AK-47 assault rifles, he said.
“The cheap price of the grenades most likely derives from the fact that the grenades were donated or at some point looted rather than delivered along a formal supply chain,” he said.
EUFOR officials say their patrols and the presence of French and UN troops have brought relative peace to Bangui. As evidence, they cite the reduction in the number of people sheltering them at a camp at the M’Poko airport for those who have fled their homes to 20,000 from 100,000.
France, the former colonial power, plans to reduce its force in Central African Republic to 800 from about of 2,000, President Francois Hollande announced on Jan. 14. Greater security responsibility will be handed over to the UN force, known by its acronym Minusca, that has about 10,000 soldiers and 2,000 police, according to its website.
In March, EUFOR intends to end its mission in Bangui and hand over responsibility to Minusca. The reduced French force will also have to shoulder the responsibility.
“We have done our job, in March it is up to the UN to continue it,” Victor said.