Bangui - Small bands of youths have taken up stations on the roads into their home districts of the violence-ridden Central African Republic capital Bangui, ready to warn residents of the arrival of looters and armed gangs.
The young men are unarmed and accept the authority of community leaders in a city largely devoid of functioning security forces. Looting has long been an almost daily plague, along with brutal ethno-religious killings that have driven scores of thousands to flee.
The latest "self-defence groups" drawn from the population itself have spread rapidly from one district to the next, each consisting of volunteers, mostly unemployed and ready to do any odd jobs in exchange for their next meal.
Each member receives a little pay and is ordered to alert their part of town to a range of threats, including armed bandits, thieves and the mainly Christian "anti-balaka" militia that emerged to wreak revenge for attacks by the mostly Muslim fighters of the Seleka alliance that seized power for 10 months in March last year.
Foreign soldiers deployed to the perennially unstable Central African Republic are seeking to disarm the rival forces, but numerous weapons are still at large in Bangui, including assault rifles and hand grenades as well as knives and machetes.
The watchmen choose hiding places to keep a lookout for danger and seek to do their job by dissuasive tactics if trouble arrives. They have strong support from district chiefs, the mayors of the city's different precincts and prominent local figures.
"I must tell you that those these youngsters, who have only their wits and their courage for weapons, have saved lives and property, enabling international forces or Central African ones to take over. I narrowly escaped a hold-up thanks to them. They confronted a group of robbers who wanted to take my motorbike," said Hugues Siapa, who works in information technology in the 8th precinct.
Recently, a gendarmerie policeman in the Petevo district was less fortunate when he refused to surrender his motorcycle at gunpoint. Armed men shot him dead and made off with the bike.
'Our bare hands'
"We have no weapons," said Germain Kossi, a member of a lookout team in the 5th precinct. "We organise ourselves into small groups of between five and 10 people. Hidden by the corners of houses or behind tree trunks, we survey all the ways in and out of the district. As soon as we see suspects, we cautiously advance to isolate them as much as we can."
"Even if some of them enjoy getting drunk, which is dangerous for their safety, in any event many of them feel the need for very little. Sometimes they're happy just to eat breakfast or share a meal together," trader Gertrude Monyado said in the Miskine district.
"We take care to keep in touch by telephone, to warn others when the suspects are armed. Sometimes it happens that we call for help from the international forces," said Aaron Nguenza of the 8th precinct, referring to French and African Union troops deployed in the crisis-wracked country. "But they rarely come at night, so we're obliged to defend ourselves with our bare hands."
"By night, members of the self-defence group in the Gremboutou district arrested two individuals who were probably on their way back from a hold-up and led them to the chief. After checking them out, they were handed over to the paramilitary police," local resident Serge Wazo said.
"If everybody could give these children whatever they can, it's for a good cause. They at least take the risk of watching over our districts at night - while the international forces are on the broad avenues searching for streetwalkers," said Alain Pangha, who sells cellphone chargers.
Until now, the transitional government formed by interim President Catherine Panza-Samba has regarded the district watch with benevolent eyes, yet no arrests have been made for countless crimes and atrocities committed in recent months.
"The defence of people and property is a matter for the competence of the defence and security forces," Public Security Minister Denis Wangao Kizimale told AFP. "But given the current state of affairs and while we wait for order to be restored, we make do with what we have."
"However," the minister warned, "this is no way suggests that the government would recommend self-defence committees as a solution. The French forces of Operation Sangaris, the (AU mission) MISCA, gendarmerie units and the police are working on restoring security and peace. It is still hard, but we're heading in the right direction."
On Saturday, Samba Panza herself estimated that security in the capital was getting better "gradually and significantly", though murders and aggression that she blamed on "agitators" remained rife.
But two days later, the head of a new UN team in the country tasked with probing human rights abuses, Bernard Acho Muno, sounded a more cautionary note, stating that the situation "is unique, it is characterised by the collapse of public order, a power vacuum, the absence of police and judicial authorities."
"We must put an end to impunity and be sure that those who cross the red line are made to account for themselves," Acho Muno stressed.