I’m just back from a visit to the Central African Republic (CAR) – where there is a sense of emergency again. Security has dramatically deteriorated across the country: President Faustin-Archange Touadéra has failed to establish his authority beyond the capital, Bangui, 18 months after his election. To my surprise, I saw gunmen at a crossroads, in broad daylight, in a neighbourhood near the international airport.
In the capital, businesses and schools are working fairly well. In one of the epicentres of the violence, PK5, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood (CAR is 76% nominally Christian, 14% nominally Muslim), markets and shops have re-opened.
But when I left the main road and went through a narrow path among houses, residents were nervous at the presence of strangers in their neighbourhood. As I tried to take some pictures of an abandoned church, a man claiming to be a local community leader walked towards our car. In a firm voice at odds with his small stature, he told me I could not take pictures in his residential area without permission.
My local companion later explained that he hadn’t driven that road for months. People reported that at the height of the crisis, many who accidentally took it never came back – it became known as the ‘corridor of death’.
Later on that night, gunshots were reported in PK5, a reminder that the situation is still fragile, even in the capital.
Security remains the key issue; the vast majority of the country is controlled by armed groups. The national army was disbanded in 2013 when the Séléka rebels took power. So far, the process of re-formation and training of the new army has been slow. This power vacuum has opened the way to all sorts of human rights violations, including rape and extortion. One militiaman told me that he would not lay down his weapon until the new army is able to ensure security in his town; there are only three unarmed policemen in his local police station.
The Head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Joseph Inganji, told me that CAR is becoming a forgotten emergency: more than half of the population (2.4 out of 4.6 million) are in need of humanitarian assistance. The country has OCHA’s highest per capita case-load in the world, but its funding is the lowest: only 30% of the US$500 million needed has been covered. The violence has reached an unprecedented level this year, affecting 14 out of 16 regions, including some considered safe havens, in the east and south. Civilians, including children and women, are paying the highest price. He pointed out that 20% of the population is displaced either internally or externally.
Aid workers have also been targeted and NGOs forced to withdraw their staff, leaving behind people in great need of assistance. Inganji blamed the activities of numerous armed groups, particularly the Anti-Balaka (‘anti-machete’). But this view is not shared by all.
In the western town of Bozoum, one of the rare ones to enjoy a sense of normality despite the absence of state government, Anti-Balaka militiamen are considered as protectors and widely praised for their bravery. A local community leader told me that the arrest and killing of a young hunter in early 2013 by Séléka was a turning point in Bozoum and surrounding areas. As an illustration, he points to the presence of more than 3,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) who fled their neighbouring town of Bocaranga by an ex-Séléka group, 3R. The rebels have also attacked the neighbouring town of Niem, raising fears that Bozoum could be their next target.
Peacekeepers not wanted
There is a strong feeling of anger towards the UN’s peacekeeping mission in CAR, MINUSCA. Many IDPs blame UN troops for their misfortune, accusing them of not doing enough to protect them. Moreover, many accuse some UN military contingents of complicity in recent attacks – in the south-eastern towns of Gambo and Zemio, among others. Some community leaders now call for the withdrawal of some contingents; in other cases, local communities have tried to prevent the UN troops from entering their towns.
When I met one of the three key religious leaders in CAR, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, he told me that he condemns the ongoing violence. He recalled that he and his two fellow leaders of CAR’s interfaith platform advocated for the deployment of UN peacekeepers, but he now says “regrettably, we noticed their failures and limitations on the ground. On various occasions, they have failed to protect those in need of assistance, and many have come to ask questions about their role or mandate in CAR”.
Earlier in March, following deadly clashes in the northern town of Kaga Bandoro (350km north of the capital), he spoke about the same issue.
Strong sense of resilience
Exactly two years ago, Nicolas Guérékoyamé, President of the Evangelical Alliance, escaped death as a mob of Muslim youths left Bangui’s 3rd district and poured into the neighbouring 5th district, brandishing automatic weapons, machetes, and raiding and destroying properties. They entered his Elim Church compound, where his house was as well, asking for him. He had left shortly before. The angry mob looted all valuable items, before setting fire to the house. They also ransacked other buildings in the compound, setting fire to them, and shooting randomly. Two people were killed.
A brand new building has now emerged from the ruins of his previous residence. Other buildings have also been rebuilt, ready to host classrooms. The main compound entrance is now protected by security forces.
But about 100 meters away on the same street are the ruins of a Catholic Church. The whole compound offers a spectacle of sorrow; the church’s main building and what seemed to be classrooms were all devastated by fire. Wild plants grow all around. Even the remains of a car, set ablaze, have not been removed, as if life just stopped.
As I continued along the street, I saw more ruins, one house after another. The violence may have ceased in Bangui, but it has left a profound impact, not only on buildings but also among people who used to live together peacefully, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.
A trader who lost his property, and goods worth thousands of dollars, is also looking for a fresh start. He used to be a wealthy car dealer. He recalled how his business was raided randomly by various Séléka groups. On various occasions he tried to confront them, explaining he was a fellow Muslim, but in vain. “They don’t care who you are. They don’t believe in Allah. They are just mercenaries and predators,” he said.
When Séléka lost power and withdrew from Bangui, other looters followed, some just mobs of local youths, he says. Others were later identified as former soldiers profiting from the power vacuum.
“I lost everything, but there is hope since there’s life,” the trader told me. He said the crisis has enabled him to see life with a new perspective: he has become a farmer. A springboard for a new start, he said. His moto: ‘Sababou’ (‘by God’s grace’).
And despite the hardships faced by the vast majority, there is a strong desire to move on. Locals want their government, and the international community, to put an end to the ongoing violence. But they haven’t lost their sense of joy and happiness: at a Sunday service at the same Elim Church, more than a thousand people sang, danced and worshipped in a joyful atmosphere. They prayed for God’s healing over their country and a prompt return of peace.