'Allowed to Hope'?: Stark choices confront the Central African Republic
Green doors and green porch trim mark the small shops that are—or were—owned by Muslims in the Point Kilometer 5 quarter of Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic. Many of them are open this morning in early May—more as you cruise closer to the city’s central mosque—and foot traffic seems strong at these small, roadside shops. But just as many doors are shuttered, and many green-trimmed shops are damaged or completely demolished. And closer to the informal border watched over by twitchy anti-balaka “militia,” the shops and the streets are sullen and empty. The Muslims who have taken refuge behind the mosque’s high walls since December know that to go down these empty side streets risks a sudden and brutal death.
On April 30 a young man, his mother a Christian and his father a Muslim—such intermarriage had been common in Central Africa—was intercepted on his way home into “PK5,” beaten and beheaded. One of his arms and his genitals were hacked off, his heart cut out, and what remained of his corpse was paraded through PK5’s dusty streets. Acts of cannibalism have been alleged and several documented as the crisis in Central Africa accelerated over the last year. A Muslim member of parliament suggests that is likely in this case. “Why else take his heart, his head?” he asks. That evening, local media reported that reprisal attacks claimed the lives of two people in a Christian quarter of Bangui.
This has been the tit-for-tat violence that has plagued the capital since Seleka rebels were driven out of power in March 2013. It is a grim, daily trudge of brutality that each day threatens to teeter into something far worse. Some leaders of Bangui’s decimated Muslim community freely describe the haphazard campaign against the few remaining Muslims in Central Africa as genocide. As many as 100,000 Muslims once lived in Bangui; now perhaps as few as 3,000 remain.
In Sango, the republic’s official language, Seleka loosely means “alliance”; this alliance of militarized political resistance groups was formed in opposition to Central Africa’s President François Bozizé in 2012. Storming down to the capital from the Muslim-dominated north, the Seleka drove Bozizé from office and into exile. Some, including many Christians, hoped the alliance might prove an improvement over the republic’s litany of incompetent and corrupt rulers, but those hopes were quickly dashed during an orgy of Seleka violence and lawlessness in Bangui and across the country.
The extent of the Seleka looting of the city—one relief official called it a sacking—cannot be exaggerated. Hundreds were killed and sexually assaulted. In the countryside villagers were herded into thatched-roof huts that were then put to the torch. In Bangui most government offices were cleaned out of whatever computers and other equipment they contained. Years of paperwork and documentation, the lifeblood of government bureaucracy, have been lost.
Now the situation in the capital has stalemated into a broad civic state of anxiety. Some communities maintain a surface normalcy, or what passes for normalcy in this deeply impoverished nation. Schools and markets have reopened finally; pedestrians and taxis and motorbike traffic and the choking red dust they turn up have returned to Bangui’s mostly unpaved streets. But in a number of arrondissements, violence persists, and in the countryside government control has broken down completely. In the north many villages and towns are controlled by Seleka units that periodically raid nearby, mostly defenseless villages, checked only by occasional intervention by French troops or by counterattacks by anti-balaka forces. The French peacekeeping force, the Sangaris, named for a local species of butterfly, have flitted too lightly for many during this crisis. Both sides complain that the Sangaris did far too little to disarm combatants. Now Bangui’s Muslims have largely concluded that the French cannot be trusted to protect them, and graffiti throughout PK5 declares, “No to France” and “The Sangaris only want our diamonds.”
In May at a leadership conference convened in N’Délé, the Seleka movement began regrouping and re-evaluating its political and military options. A short window of opportunity to negotiate with its leaders toward a peaceful resolution of the crisis may be closing. The movement selected General Joseph Ndeko to lead its military wing, and Ndeko promptly declared it his mission to reconsolidate Seleka’s scattered rebel units.
The anti-balaka (the name appears to derive from both the Sango word for machete and slang for AK-47 bullets) is presumed to include remnants of Central Africa’s military and police forces, but it is largely composed of unemployed, uneducated and now mostly homeless youth from the republic’s countryside. That is especially true of the “faux anti-balaka,” marauding gangs with little to no connection to the “official” anti-balaka militia, which rose up to defend Christian communities. Despite the viciousness of their street attacks—and the fact that these days, the unfortunates they target may just as often be Christian as Muslim—the anti-balaka enjoy the support of many of the city’s Christians.
The View From the Streets
On Bangui’s streets, gangs of youths, huffing whatever they can get their hands on or high on adulterated pharmaceuticals, have become such a menace that even local anti-balaka leaders are advocating their removal from the streets by the government. If only the government were up to the job. Catherine Samba-Panza, the one-time mayor of Bangui, was declared the nation’s interim president in January, but the new government has severely limited capacity. Although government institutions were weak long before Seleka rebels swept into power last year, they were diminished further by the looting and carnage that soon followed the Seleka takeover. It has been months since the Seleka rebels withdrew from Bangui, and a terrible price for the violence they perpetrated against Christians was exacted from the city’s defenseless Muslims by the anti-balaka, who blamed Muslims for Seleka outrages. But there is little to suggest that the central government is ready to assume responsibility for the everyday safety of Central Africans.
“The general security situation in this country is awful,” says Bishop Nestor-Désiré Nongo-Aziagbia of Bossangoa in the Central African Republic. The bishop has had first-hand experience with just how awful the security situation in Central Africa can be. In April he survived a kidnapping attempt that appeared to be a preliminary to his summary execution. Bishop Aziagbia considers himself fortunate to have “national or international” status. “Many people in this country wouldn’t have the same chance,” he says, “and their deaths would have passed unknown to everybody.”
Like other religious leaders, Bishop Aziagbia denies that the conflict is ultimately a religious one, while acknowledging that it clearly has religious “undertones.” For him the violence has erupted out of a complex of competing economic and political interests—pastoralists, newly armed with AK-47s, against subsistence farmers; a brewing fight over the water resources of the Ubangi River; competition over Central Africa’s still untapped oil and mineral wealth and more.
Who Are the Anti-Balaka?
A camp for internally displaced persons at Centre John 23 in Bangui still holds about 1,500 people. It is one of as many as 40 or so sites scattered around the city where Christian or Muslim families remain, united by a fear of returning to their homes. Many of the women in Centre John 23 report that there has been no word from their husbands since the women fled with their children just ahead of marauding Seleka rebels, who had been searching door-to-door for Christian men. Hanging over that short conversation is the likelihood that these husbands and fathers are now dead, victims of the waves of violence that have swept over Bangui.
“Who are the ‘anti-balaka’?” one camp resident asks. “I never heard this word, ‘anti-balaka’ before [Westerners arrived here].” These are our friends, our neighbors, our family members, she says, the only ones who came to the defense of the communities under constant assault by Seleka. They are only people seeking revenge for the wrongs done to them, she says with cool assurance.
Other women at the center wish to talk about how hard the months of isolation here have been. The price of food has skyrocketed; their children are hungry; they suffer from parasites and malaria, sleeping on thin mats over the hard, copper-colored earth. What do they need to survive? “Clothing for the children,” the mothers say, “and shoes. The children don’t go to school now.” They need an education. “A little money to start a business,” one adds.
How will the country emerge from this crisis? “It’s hard to imagine the future,” one mother says. They all worry that men with guns will return one day to kill them if they return to their Bangui neighborhoods. Most of the women here say they cannot welcome the Muslims, perhaps among them even many mothers much like themselves, now widows with children, back to Bangui—ever. “There are too many bad memories,” they say.
Some of the young men in the camp, however, even one whose wife and child and another whose parents were all killed by the Seleka, are ready to forgive and welcome “our Muslim brothers” back to Central Africa if they are willing to denounce the Seleka and put down their weapons. They appear sincere in their desire to return to the way things were before, “living ensemble,” together, with the nation’s Muslims. That is also the position of the chief of operations of the anti-balaka, Commander Maxime Makom. “We fought the mercenaries from Chad and Sudan; they have left,” says Makom. “If we continue to do this [fighting], we are only going to further traumatize our children, our families, our parents.
“We are all tired,” he says. The nation needs a “disarmament of the heart…. I want peace in my country, I want my country to prosper, to progress. We cannot stay like this. We want Muslims to come back; we want our country and our economy to pick up.” He adds, “We know that we cannot rule this country without the ‘foreigners,’ and the Muslims cannot rule this country without the rest of Central Africans.
“Everybody got angry; everybody lost reason and there was damage and hurt on both sides, but now we must reconcile and move forward.” But Commander Makom’s use of “foreigner” perhaps betrays the gulf that remains to be overcome in “disarming hearts.” To many Christians in the republic and those who practice traditional African rites, the Muslim population, many of whom have lived in the republic since independence, if not for generations before, remain outsiders.
Commander Makom’s counterpart, Gen. Mohamed-Moussa Dhaffane, acting chief of the Seleka, likewise claims to desire reconciliation and peace. “The situation is difficult,” he says, “but we are allowed to hope.
“We can fix the problem quickly with the engagement of all religious leaders,” he says. “Let’s separate religions from the movements. Let’s put religions aside and have Seleka and anti-balaka talk together because in reality Islam does not encourage people to go and kill civilians and Islam does not encourage people to loot houses—it’s not in the Koran or in the words of the prophet. And in reality the Bible and the life of Jesus do not encourage people to eat the flesh of others and to kill others. When Jesus took the wine and said, ‘This is my blood,’ it was a symbol meant to unify people.... What anti-balaka has done is not in the Christian religion, and what Seleka has done is not in Islam.”
While many Christians here insist that Christians and Muslims in the republic lived together in relative harmony before the arrival of the Seleka, blaming the movement for putting the flame to this powder keg of communal violence, General Dhaffane offers a mild corrective. It was just not so. Muslims in Central Africa, he says, have always had a second-class status to “our Christian brothers.” In general, Muslims in the republic “are not considered equal; they are treated as an inferior class.”
“This is what led the Muslims to rebel,” he says, “to ask for the same status as the Christians and the same rights.”
He adds that the Seleka came together because of “the marginalization of the northeast. The region is entirely underdeveloped,” he complains, noting the irony that most of the nation’s natural resources can be found in these ignored prefectures. “There is no infrastructure for the development and the well-being of the people. There are no schools for the children, no hospitals.
“The Northeast is completely isolated during the rainy season,” he says, pointing out that the road system is such that the region is much better connected with neighboring states than it is with the rest of the Central African Republic; “therefore the people have come much closer to Chad and Sudan in commerce, in cultural exchanges, in everything.”
All the same, General Dhaffane argues that “it is not too late” for reconciliation, to turn the exodus of Central Africa’s Muslims around. He thinks a concrete gesture like rebuilding some of Bangui’s many destroyed mosques would encourage many to return. “The Islamic community in Central Africa has paid a very high price for this crisis,” but “the future is in people living in diversity and people accepting diversity,” he says.
Deeper Breakdown Threatens
It is hard to overestimate the need and the complexity of the problems challenging the Central African Republic. Even before the current crisis, the republic was essentially a failed state. The landlocked nation ranks 180 out of 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index, and Transparency International scores it as among the world’s most corrupt nations. These dismal assessments will likely become even worse next year as the disorder and violence continue. Now the nation’s transitional government is threatened not only by a potential resurgence of the Seleka but by the continuing interest of the ousted Bozizé in a return to power.
The Central African Republic has become a nation of people in flight. The United Nations reports that 570,000 are internally displaced and another 356,000 have fled as refugees into neighboring countries. Altogether somewhere in the vicinity of 2.6 million people in the republic are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. These are remarkable figures for a nation of no more than 4.6 million people.
Worse yet, that humanitarian aid will have to be delivered in the coming weeks during the rainy season—when bush trails to the most vulnerable hamlets will become largely impassable—and during a time when the once-routed Seleka rebels seem ready to launch a new bid for power. The nation’s social and political fragility has become part of the focus of aid workers from Catholic Relief Services. Even as the relief and development agency struggles to deliver emergency food, medical and agricultural supplies around the country, it has diverted considerable effort to “social cohesion” campaigns for the purpose of restoring lines of communication between the nation’s Muslims and Christians. C.R.S. staff from Rwanda, painfully experienced in outreach efforts toward reconciliation, have been brought in to manage the project.
Driss Moumane, the director of what will be a multiyear effort by C.R.S. in Bangui called Secure, Empowered, Connected Communities, cannot stress enough how critical this specific moment has become. An international surge for dialogue and reconciliation now, he argues, could prove to be the deciding factor between the resolution of Central Africa’s crisis or an ever deeper civic and communal breakdown everyone fears.
With many Muslims displaced to the north, some have seized on the idea of partition as the easiest way to end the violence. General Dhaffane is not a supporter. “We’ve already lost plenty of lives. Do you think partition is going to save the lives of those who are living now?
“Many of my [Seleka] comrades believe [partition] will solve the problem, but I think there would still be a lot of gold and diamond and oil on the other side [of the proposed partition line], and then there is Sudan and there is Chad and there is the international community.” He is smiling softly, running though a list of forces competing for influence in the Central African Republic. “How are we going to manage all of that?” General Dhaffane sees partition only as a foundation for more violence and instability in the future. “If we partition the country,” he asks, “are we not going to have another war just like they had in Sudan?”
The general says that the United States can contribute to the end of the crisis by standing “with us as a neutral party and not take sides.” He suggests that the American and the international community could help by training a professional governing class in Central Africa that will be able to see beyond religious or tribal loyalties. “With good governance, with justice, we can have an equal distribution of [resource] wealth and equal opportunity for everyone,” he says.
. . .
Down the hard-packed red earth road from the hotel lobby where General Dhaffane has been holding forth, the Ubangi River flows quietly, hosting mosquitos and crocodiles and oarsmen in dugout canoes crossing to the other side, a soft border between the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In that benighted neighboring state, local warlords and adjoining nations took advantage of a weak central government to pillage communities and extract precious metals that have made their way into computers and cellphones around the world. Millions died while the international community watched the carnage on broadband Internet backboned by Congo’s mineral wealth. With a lesson like that lurking just a few hundred feet away, it is perhaps credible that this rebel leader is sincere about dialogue and resource sharing and finding an equitable end to the violence. With its vast wealth still under the earth and many minds bent on finding the means of uncovering it, it would not take much for Central Africa to discover itself sharing its neighbor’s terrible fate.