In the years we’ve worked in Africa, TIME contract photographer Dominic Nahr and I have been to some pretty out-of-the-way places: Sudan, Somalia, the Ethiopian mountains, Congo. But I doubt we’ll ever again go somewhere as off the map as Obo in southeastern Central African Republic. To reach Obo, you fly to CAR’s capital Bangui, then for four more hours east over unbroken jungle, with almost no sign of life below. Once in Obo you find a town with no power, one road, one church, one hospital with one doctor, several thousand refugees, who have fled from as far away as the Democratic Republic of Congo to escape Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—and one U.S. Special Operations base built out of palm thatch and grass.
Access to the Special Forces: nil, as expected. Access to the Ugandan army, who the Special Ops are assisting in their hunt for the LRA: nil, which was disappointing. But with close to 100 of its people abducted by the LRA and forced to become fighters, only to escape and return home years later, Obo turned out to be a treasure trove of information on one of the most mysterious and notorious rebel groups in the world.
It was also a revelation on another count. Hundreds of miles from anywhere, with nothing to eat but what they grew or caught, Obo was one of the most welcoming, most charming and—now that they had U.S. base on the edge of town to discourage attackers—the most peaceful places we’ve ever visited, proof, if ever it was needed, that a rich life can be measured in many more ways than mere money. In the evenings, Dominic would complain that he’d come to shoot a war and had ended up shooting a bucolic paradise. I think his beautiful pictures capture the place perfectly.
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Alex Perry is TIME’s Africa bureau chief.