Farewell to Arms in Central Africa?: A leader of anti-balaka militia says he's ready for a ceasefire

A new recruit? Commander Makom says the anti-balaka are attracting more young people every day, but can this impromptu militia be controlled?

If Maxime Makom has his way, all the remaining anti-balaka fighters in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui will gather in one long line before government officials and representatives from the international community and drop their weapons into a giant pile for all to see. Makom, who describes himself as the head of operations for Central African Republic’s anti-balaka militia, says the people of the Central African Republic are tired of the fighting and desperately want to return to normal.

What “normal” may look like now that the majority of the nation’s Muslims have been driven from the country or into refuge within Seleka-controlled areas of the north remains to be seen.

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“We fought the mercenaries from Chad and Sudan; they have left,” says Commander Makom. “Even if there are small problems [that remain], we want to be engaged fully in peace discussions. If we continue to do this [fighting], we are only going to further traumatize our children, our families, our parents.

“We are all tired,” Makom says, speaking in French through a translator. We want this conflict to end, he says.

“The population of Central Africa have suffered a lot. What happened, we have never lived through anything like it before and we have never seen anything like it before,” Commander Makom says, referring to the chaos and carnage that enveloped the nation in the aftermath of a Seleka-driven coup in March 2013. When Seleka foot soldiers turned on the population in a rampage of looting, rape and death, self-defense corps formed among the Christian and animist villages and remnants of the C.A.R. army “because we could not take it anymore and no one was coming to help us. We said, ‘Enough is enough! We need to find a way to defend ourselves.’”

What became known as the anti-balaka, a term which is said to mean “anti-machete” (it could also refer to invincibility to "AK," for AK47, the preferred weapon of the region) eventually pushed the Seleka out of the capital and out of power, but its members have been responsible for their own abuses against the nation’s Muslims in the aftermath of that success. Blaming the nation’s Muslims for the excesses of the Seleka, members of the anti-balaka have in turn terrorized the nation's Muslims. More than 630,000 have been displaced altogether in the various spasms of violence since last year.

The conflict drew in people from all walks of life, from teens fleeing from subsistence farming communities torched by the Seleka to people like Makom, a business owner and a church pastor. He says he wants only to return to his normal life now and to his church, feeling a call not to politics, but to religious life. But after the rupture of weeks of violence and recrimination, with unspeakable brutality exhibited by both sides of the conflict, how the Central African Republic returns to the way it was before the violence began is not easy to discern.

Commander Makom has a plan. “We need first of all to prepare the population in workshops or seminars on social cohesion,” he says. Makom has been favorably impressed by such workshops offered through Catholic Relief Services/Caritas in Bangui. He says to promote reconciliation “in the churches and mosques, the men of God need to preach and speak and teach people how to forgive and how to forget some of the past.”

Makom says he is focusing his energies now on negotiating a “containment." What the government is calling D.R.R., “Demobilization, Reintegration and Reinsertion,” a policy to disarm the self-appointed militias and begin a process of social restoration. He hopes the government and international community will work with him to move the anti-balaka fighters into camps, “give them something to eat” and help them go back to their villages, a process that has already begun with Seleka fighters.

“What we want the government to do is to treat the Seleka and anti-balaka equally, get them into camps, disarm them, help them with reintegration and reinsertion, get them to talk to one another. …. There must be a dialogue, the two sides need to talk to each other.” For his part, Commander Makom insists he is ready for such a dialogue. He called for a ceasefire and the beginning of negotiations in two communiques. He is disappointed that the transition government has so far not taken up his offer and helped organize talks between the two sides.

In the meantime, according to the commander, the leadership of the anti-balaka has been going out “into the field, and we talk to the anti-balaka [many of whom are still manning menacing roadblocks around the country], and say, ‘Listen, you achieved your goals, there is no reason to continue.’” He tells them there is no more reason to fight, but that they should continue to keep their villages secure and “keep an eye on what’s going on and let no one do any harm in the name of the anti-balaka.”

Commander Makom says all the right things and he seems absolutely sincere in his insistence that the conflict in Central African Republic is not religious at its core, that now he wants peace and social restoration. But outside on the streets of Bangui each day brings more reports of sometimes horrific communal violence. Makom says four Christian men have been killed just this afternoon in the capital. The day beofre two Muslim men were murdered. The intensity and persistence of the violence still seems a surprise to many.

“We have always lived in harmony, in a symbiotic way, with the Muslims,” says Makom. "We never had a problem with the Muslims.” He said in March 2013 “there was a patriotic movement called the Seleka who came to address an injustice.

“When the Seleka came we thought they were going to do a good job managing [the country] when all of a sudden it was brutality. They continued to kill people, rape women, looting, 

“They were hunting people down whenever they heard that person had money or goods or whatever.”

“Today we hear the conflict is inter-religious in the Central African Republic, I am flatly telling you it’s not true. If this were an inter-religious conflict, how could Muslims go and hide in churches and be protected in churches?” Commander Makom says Muslims even participate with his anti-balaka militia in resistance to the Seleka and continue to despite the violence which had broken out between the two religious communities.

“I cannot think of a Central African who cannot say he has a Muslim friend. We grew up together; we went to school together. I built my house with the help of Muslims in PK5.” A Muslim friend, who remains besieged in PK5, saved his life, Makom adds, by refusing to point out his home to Seleka rebels who demanded to know where they could find him.

The Muslims trapped in Bangui’s Grand Mosque or within neighborhoods like PK5, a descriptive that identifies the quarter as a community 5 kilometers from downtown Bangui (or ‘PK0’), Commander Makom describes as “poor people who don’t have resources to leave the country.” He considers them victims of those Seleka who remain active in Bangui. These “Central African” Muslims, including close friends of his, have been taken hostage “by the mercenaries,” he says, hired guns from Sudan or Chad. “Those are the people who don’t speak French; they don’t speak Sango,” he points out, using a distinction offered by many here in Bangui, “they speak Arabic….Those are our enemies. The others are not our enemies. The Central African Muslims are also their victims.”

The population of anti-balaka grows larger each day, he says, especially in those communities where the threat of Seleka attack remains strong. How many can be counted in the ranks of the anti-balaka? He shrugs softly. “If anyone tells you he knows the number of the anti-balaka, that person is a liar.”

Commander Makom acknowledges there have been problems with the behavior of some anti-balaka. Just the other day “true anti-balaka,” he says, had to intervene to free two Muslims kidnapped by young people “disguised as anti-balaka.” Some neighborhoods of the city are menaced by gangs of teens who maintain impromptu roadblocks and wait for opportunities to rob Muslims or shake down taxi drivers—or to do much worse. Makom suggests these street thugs do not represent his movement. Many are young people from the countryside without jobs and now completely deprived of resources because of Seleka looting, he says. Many have seen loved ones slain before their eyes and merely seek opportunities for vengeance.

“This is why it is important to disarm hearts so people can find it inside them to forgive and we can go back to the life we lived before where we lived in harmony with Muslims,” Commander Makom says. He calls that a practical as much as a spiritual necessity. The Muslims of Central African Republic represented the economy’s trading class, its merchants, he explains. The community markets throughout the country are already beginning to demonstrate the impact of the loss of the Muslims’ know-how and commercial networks. Few imported commercial or household goods of any sort can be found in the still-bustling markets and locally produced food options are becoming starker each day.

He is quick to acknowledge the suffering of the Muslim community but cautions that in the republic these days, suffering has been a well-distributed commodity. “Soon after the Seleka was defeated, Muslims were treated all the same, as if they were Seleka, and people were afraid for their lives and started leaving and the same thing happened when the Seleka arrived. A lot of Christians are still living in Brazza, they are still living in Congo and living in other places and since that time they have not returned back because they are afraid they are going to be killed.

Commander Makom insists that he wants Muslims in PK5 and elsewhere to stay. “Why would they want to leave? They are in their country. You leave this country and go and they put you under plastic sheeting? To leave, what kind of life is that? There is no reason to.”

“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. Let’s take the roads for instance [which are mostly unpaved and notoriously treacherous]. Are those the roads we want for our country? We see other countries on television and we see how developed they are and we, ourselves, when we go to other countries [and see what they are like], we don’t even want to come back to Central Africa. We want our country to develop.”

His own heart, he suggests, is ready for disarmament, despite the personal suffering he has endured during these last chaotic months. His name had been on a Seleka hit-list. And Makom, a biological father of three, says he now has to father nine more orphaned children, among them the children left behind by two brothers murdered by Seleka. “When you are a person of faith, you must reconcile, you must find it in you to forget. But for practical reasons, we must reconcile and work together. … We need each other.

“We know that we cannot rule this country without the foreigners, and the Muslims cannot rule this country without the rest of Central Africans,” he says. “Everybody got angry; everybody lost reason and there was damage and hurt on both sides, but now we must reconcile and move forward.” But 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.

More coverage of the crisis in the Central Africa republic, included podcasts and photos, available here.

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