DOSSEYE REFUGEE CAMP, Chad — Bouba Jafoul wore threadbare clothes and beat-up sandals, and his family rarely had enough to eat. But he owned 35 head of cattle, and deep in the central African jungle that made him, if not a wealthy man, then certainly a man of means.
One steamy night last year, a mob of men with guns stormed into Jafoul's village and snatched his 7-year-old son, Karimou. One of them grabbed Jafoul by the neck and said, "We're keeping your boy, until you pay," he recalled.
The kidnappers set the boy's ransom at 3 million Central African francs, about $7,500 — an almost incomprehensible sum for a villager in one of the poorest countries in the world. But they knew he'd find the money.
As many like him had done before, Jafoul sold his prized cattle and secured his son's release after 25 days.
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In this lawless, all-but-forgotten country in the heart of Africa, a vicious crime wave is plunging poor families deeper into destitution and driving tens of thousands from their homes: Bandits, roaming freely through thick forests and tropical plains, are abducting villagers young and old and extracting huge ransoms, usually from the sale of cattle, for their return.
The phenomenon is little understood, even by the few international aid agencies that are based in the region. But experts think that over the past several years, thousands of ransom kidnappings have occurred in the northern Central African Republic, a war-racked nation whose government is too weak, corrupt and outgunned by rebels to protect its people.
"The people are forced to choose between their cows and their children," said Vladimir Mijovic of the U.N. refugee agency in southern Chad, where more than 57,000 people from the Central African Republic have sought shelter in refugee camps such as Dosseye.
"There is absolutely no government presence, and no security."
With sparse resources and little geopolitical significance, the Central African Republic, though nearly the size of Texas, barely registers on the world radar. While the crises in neighboring Sudan and Chad garner more headlines and far more aid dollars, the United Nations estimates that fighting and banditry imperil 1 million people in the northern Central African Republic.
The north, the region that's farthest from government control, is among the most chaotic zones in Africa. Since President Francois Bozize took power in a coup five years ago, government forces have waged a low-level war with rebels there, leaving bandits known as "zaraguina," or highwaymen, free to prey on villages of hand-to-mouth farmers and cattle herders.
The bandits are classic opportunists, experts say, coming from as far away as Niger and eastern Nigeria to feed off the anarchy. The herders, with their bony but still valuable cattle, are kidnappers' prime targets.
In other regional conflicts — the byzantine war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, or the long-running insurgency in northern Uganda — untold thousands of civilians, often children, were abducted and forced into armed groups. What makes the Central African Republic kidnappers different, experts say, is their barefaced, brutal capitalism. They beat, shackle, starve and sometimes rape their captives, but nearly always return them when the ransom is paid.
"This is clearly for monetary gain," said Godfrey Byaruhanga, who's researched central Africa for two decades for the advocacy group Amnesty International. "There is no pretense that it's for any other purpose. It's something quite unique."
The bandits' identities remain a mystery. Refugees described gangsters who spoke different languages, their faces hidden behind camouflage scarves.
Because kidnappers often target families that have the most cattle, experts think that some come from the local cattle-keeping tribe, the Peuhl. Others may be defectors from ill-paid government or rebel armies.
The other great mystery is where the money goes. The kidnappers show little obvious wealth, occupying simple bush hideouts and wielding rusted AK-47 rifles, refugees said. Byaruhanga said they could be merely foot soldiers for a larger syndicate based in some west or central African capital.
"Absolutely, there are people who are getting extremely rich out of this," he said.
In June, Bozize signed a truce with the three major northern rebel groups, but refugees continue to stream into Chad, fleeing attacks by bandits. About 2,600 European peacekeepers arrived in the northeastern Central African Republic this year, but they're positioned near the Sudanese border, far from the worst attacks.
In a recent report, the International Crisis Group research agency described the Central African Republic, which has lacked a functioning government for three decades, as "worse than a failed state: it has become virtually a phantom state."
"In the villages, the zaraguina have all control. The government does nothing to help us," said Youssoufa Biousman, a middle-aged herder in Dosseye.
His sister, Zenabou Ousman, was kidnapped from their village last year and held for two months until the family paid about $4,000. In a hushed voice, she described how kidnappers chained her by her feet to three other young women to keep them from escaping.
"I could never sleep," the diminutive 20-year-old said. "I cried all the time. They hit us and they left us outside in the dirt until we had things crawling on our skin, backs and arms."
There was a sign of perhaps greater abuse: a smiling, round-faced baby girl whom the young mother balanced on her knee. Eight months old, the child would have been conceived around the time that Ousman was abducted, but in the deeply conservative Peuhl society, which frowns on men and women even sitting together in public, being raped is extremely shameful and almost never discussed.
Ousman, when asked about the baby's father, would say only: "He's not here."
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