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I first heard whispers of this war in March, when newspapers reported in passing that the French military was bombing the remote city of Birao, in the far north-east of the CAR. Why were French soldiers fighting there, thousands of miles from home?
Why had they been intervening in Central Africa this way for so many decades? I could find no answers here — so I decided to travel there, into the belly of France's forgotten war.
I am standing now on its latest battlefield, looking out over abandoned mud streets streaked with ash. The city of Birao is empty and echoing, for the first time in years. All around are miles of burned and abandoned homes, with the odd starved child scampering through the wreckage. What were all these buildings? On one faded green sign it says Ministry of Justice, on a structure reduced to a charcoal husk. In the market square, the people who have returned are selling a few scarce supplies — rice and manioc, the local yeasty staple food — and talking quietly.
At the edges of the town, there are African soldiers armed and trained by the French, lolling behind sandbags, with machine guns jutting nervously at passers-by.
They are singing weary nationalist anthems and dreaming of home. To get here, you have to travel for eight hours on a weekly UN flight that carries eight passengers at most, and then ride on the back of a rusting flat-top truck for an hour along ravaged and broken roads.