At the market in Boda, a mining town in the southwest of the Central African Republic, Christians and Muslims come together to purchase goods set on wooden tables along the dusty roadside.
It’s a picture of peaceful coexistence that would be unthinkable in some parts of a country that has been ripped apart by inter-religious clashes that have claimed thousands of lives since 2012.
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Massacre waiting to happen
For generations Muslims and Christians have lived side by side in Boda, a town of approximately 16,000 people. Muslims mainly work in the gold and diamond mines and live in the centre of the town, where two large mosques call them to prayer five times a day. The Christians mostly live on the outskirts of town, where those not working in the mines are farmers.
But their harmonious coexistence has been put to the test in recent years, since the arrival in 2012 of Séléka, a mostly Muslim rebel group, which took over large swathes of the country, ousting the president, François Bozizé. A number of the Muslims in Boda joined them, hoping to turn the CAR into an Islamic country.
They attacked the areas where Christians and Animists lived, murdering, plundering and destroying homes, forcing thousands to flee. Those who had joined the Muslim militias tried to make life in Boda impossible for the Christians in the hope that they would leave forever.
Meanwhile predominantly Animist ‘Anti-Balaka’ militias rose up across the country to protect the population against the Séléka attacks that were carried out with impunity. Yet they soon became guilty of the same brutality the Séléka groups had unleashed on their communities.
International forces arrived in 2014 and pushed Séléka back. In Boda, the Muslim community sheltered behind them, fearful of a backlash. At the same time, Anti-Balaka members in the town, among them local Christians and Animists, were waiting for the international forces to leave so that they could hit back against the Muslims who had done them so much harm. It was a massacre waiting to happen.
In 2014, two local pastors, Jean and Pierre, attended a seminar about reconciliation organised by the international charity Open Doors, where the pastors decided they needed to forgive their Muslim neighbours for what they had done to their community.
The next day was a Sunday and the two agreed to pray together before strolling into “enemy territory”.
There is a road near the centre of Boda known as the “red line”. During the troubles, it separated the Muslims from the Christians and “you risked your life crossing that line”, Jean says. “People would shoot on sight or they would arrest you and take you to their headquarters”.
The two pastors, although afraid, decided to cross the line.
“We saw people stare, not knowing what to do,” Jean recalls of the moment the two men crossed the divide.
Some of the Muslim leaders watched them. They knew them well from before the violence and walked towards them. They met in the middle of the road, where they shook hands and embraced.
Jean recalls: “We said that we had forgiven them and asked them to accept our offer of peace, which they did, eagerly. It’s not that every Muslim was out there to kill Christians. We were friends before.”
Together they continued their stroll through the Muslim quarter until they came to the “red line” on the other side. That’s where they said their goodbyes, as bewildered Christians watched them safely exit the Muslim area.
The story of what the two pastors had done spread like wildfire. “Everybody just asked us if it was true that we had crossed through enemy territory,” recalls Pierre. “We explained that we had forgiven the Muslims and that some of their leaders had accepted our offer of peace.”
But not everyone was so happy to hear the news. Anti-Balaka leaders had been preparing for an onslaught as soon as the international peacekeepers left, and many angry Christians were willing to join their ranks.
The pastors came up with a plan to try to change their minds. “The Muslims had money but no food,” explains Pierre. “The Christians had farm products and firewood and other commodities, but no money. So we encouraged people to buy and sell food in a small market we started right on the ‘red line’.”
The pastors also created a platform for Christian and Muslim leaders to meet and exchange ideas on how to establish peace. Together they convinced a large majority of the population to reconcile completely.
Sheikh Ali Bouba, the secretary of the Muslim community in Boda, says Pierre and Jean’s actions offered them “the opportunity to reconcile”.
“Peace has been good for both sides,” he says. “Many families were separated for years because of the war. Now we can meet anew and weep together for joy about all the sadness that has now passed.”
Yet promoting peace hasn’t been easy. Locals opposed to the peace process threatened to kill Pierre and there are still those among the Christians and Animists who want to expel the Muslims from Boda.
UN troops left Boda in June this year, and the situation in the town has remained mostly peaceful. A reporter for the UK’s Guardian newspaper visited recently and reported on the role women had played in restoring peace to the town.
Boda’s mayor, Boniface Katta, whose brother was decapitated during the fighting, has also played his part. “Our main objective was to make sure people are morally disarmed because, even if you have a weapon, unless you use it, it cannot kill anyone,” he told the Guardian.