M’Poko, a sprawling displaced people’s camp, pushed up against the international airport on the outskirts of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). Children played on the runway while incoming passengers gawked at the squalor. Walking to a meeting with the camp’s peace committees, we passed shacks of scrounged rusty sheeting or tarps held up with crooked sticks, rising white and gray from the red earth. Past scattered green shrubs, the occasional mango tree, a few rows of beans and a communal well where girls in torn dresses filled yellow jerry cans. A blue and gold print fabric hung in a doorway. A red dress laid out to dry. A small girl with stick-out braids sat in the dust beside a naked baby. A woman on a stool smiled warmly while another watched us dubiously.
Our team gathered with the peace-makers under a beige tarpaulin held up by a rickety frame. Everyone dressed as smart as possible and everyone was hot. Some had small towels to wipe their faces. Sweat trickled down my body. “Imagine when we first came,” one woman said. “There was no protection from the sun or the rain. But we thought we would go home in a day or so.”
Rebels, called Séléka, had swept brutally across the country before reaching Bangui on CAR’s southern border, where the kilometre wide Oubangui River marks the boundary with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mostly Muslim rebels and mercenary allies overthrew the government early in 2013 and embarked on a spree of raping, looting, and killing.
Self-defence militias, called the anti-Balaka, organized in response. Mostly from the Christian majority, they soon began terrorizing the minority Muslims. Angered by Séléka’s abuses, influenced by anti-Muslim propaganda, and believing that all Muslims were Séléka supporters, their call was “kill them all.”
Christians and Muslims, fleeing different militias, sought shelter at M’Poko. All had seen death and fled in terror with nothing. They claimed separate areas of the camp; their trauma continued the tensions between them.
Marie’s eight-year-old daughter had been captured. Although they were reunited, “many things were done to her during those three weeks. She is changed. When she sees a soldier she screams and runs.”
And yet, Marie joined a peace committee. As did Katrine, who carried so much anger that she thought she could kill. Marie, Katrine and the others realized that if they did not challenge the divisions between them they would perpetuate hatred and violence.
Speaking their truth gave them hope and the courage to create their own solutions. They set up committees for women, youth, the disabled and elders. They included Muslims, Christians and animists, and reached out to former militia members who were also living in the camp. They encouraged social cohesion and worked together on water, sanitation, hygiene and other problems.
They went to destroyed neighbourhoods in the city to clean up rubble and talk to people. This initially surprised me, given the great need in the camp, but as I listened I realized they were claiming their identity as citizens, refusing to be statistics. They were preparing for the day they could go home.
When the violence began, Reverend Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou, the head of the Protestant church in CAR, was devastated by the suffering. He told us, “Since independence in 1960, true justice has never been done to appease the hearts and comfort those who have suffered injustice in this country.” He added, “Impunity has fuelled a cycle of violence.”
First exploited by North African slave traders, CAR was colonized by the French, who used forced labour to extract CAR’s rich natural resources. Colonization and Catholicism came up the river from the south, while the northern savannahs stayed Muslim.
After independence governing became increasingly associated with amassing power and wealth. Leaders sowed divisions by favouring family and tribe, leading to regional disparities. Violence and military force—in place of elections—became the means of maintaining or gaining power.
Although the people suffered everywhere, ongoing neglect of the regions far from Bangui built festering resentments and, beginning in 2003, a series of rebellions that resulted in a devastated landscape, a fearful people, and the rise of Séléka.
The Reverend, disturbed by how religion was exploited to justify violence, initiated contact with Muslim and Catholic leaders. Within a month the CAR Interfaith Peace-building Partnership (CIPP) was formed. “When we first met there was no kind of link between us,” he said. “We came to understand the suffering of each of our communities. We had a common interest to save lives.”
Imam Oumar Kobine Layama hosted our interview team in his modest home. A red velvet curtain blocked the sun. “Our conversations helped us discover the values of other faiths,” he said. “We learned that God doesn’t consider the limitations of tribes, cultures and individuals but (values) all of us as human beings.”
At the compound of the Catholic leader, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga (then an Archbishop) we gathered on his bricked patio, surrounded by banana trees, cacti, and a spreading acacia. The Oubangui River flowed below and a shimmering green hillside rose on the other side. The peaceful setting made it difficult to imagine an armed militia at the gate, the Cardinal stepping outside to talk with them, closing the door behind him to protect those sheltering within.
He told the intruders, “I am here to talk about peace.” He saw that they were wearing juju, animist protective charms (animism being strong in the country with many holding both animistic and Christian beliefs).
He took out his rosary. “This is my juju, maybe it’s stronger than yours. I don’t know.”
The charismatic Cardinal showed no fear and eventually the militia left.
The three leaders’ vision of unity made them a target. Séléka burned the Reverend’s house and would have killed him had he been there. The Imam fled to the Cardinal’s home and stayed for six months, with his family.
The Cardinal and the Imam went on a dangerous road trip into the countryside, to ask people to spare lives. “When confronted with pain and suffering you are either with the people or against the people,” said Cardinal Nzapailanga.
Imam Layama had told us, “We wanted people to release their hearts. If one is not disarmed in the heart, one cannot put down arms.”
From national leaders to the poorest villagers, people organized. Women leaders from the different confessions came together, asking themselves, “How can we best help our sisters who are suffering?” They delivered interfaith peace trainings, spoke on the radio, talked with militia members and organized aid for women in need.The Christian leader of a mixed traders association in a large Bangui market was kidnapped for refusing to take sides when Muslim vendors were viciously targeted. The association members, scattered by violence and haunted by their experiences, felt that it was the depth of their connection before the crisis that enabled them to get back together. “We were like a family,” Solange said.
They toured us through the market. It seemed crowded and abundant to me; everywhere bowls of beans and spices, sacks of grain, slabs of fly covered meat, heaps of cassava and stacked dried fish. Vendors who could not afford a stall spilled into the pathways. But the traders found it quiet with little for sale.
Pointing to the empty stalls they were reserving for Muslims for when they felt safe to return, Solange commented that she and others did not wear headscarves in the market, in order to not be identified as Muslim. I suddenly realized their courage in returning to the market. Their safety was precarious.
In Boda, to the west of Bangui, a women’s association had been working on health concerns. Christian and Muslim, they shifted to peace activities, finding solace in their deepening friendships. Florence expressed a common sentiment when she said, “The joy and love we share allows us to forget the grief in our hearts.”
Their solidarity enabled some to move towards forgiveness. For Clementine, whose son was murdered, the support of the group soothed her heart and released anger. “When I met one of the killers,”, she said, “he took my hand and he wept. He said he regretted his act. If I can forgive him, cannot others also forgive? Forgiveness overcomes sorrow, and allows one to live.”
I had asked Imam Layama about forgiveness.
“Was it necessary for the perpetrator to seek forgiveness in order to find healing? Was it possible?”
“The heart is never stable,” he replied. “It is faith, family, education and background that determine how people can change. And if they sincerely ask for God’s forgiveness, God can forgive.”
“What about forgiveness from the victim?” I asked.
“In a seminar I attended with perpetrators and victims, the victims forgave, but they also want compensation and an end to impunity.”
The Imam was referring to the 2015 Bangui Forum, a remarkable gathering in which over 600 people from civil society, religious groups, government and armed groups discussed the path to peace. The Forum made detailed recommendations for disarmament and re-integration of militias, the return of the displaced, fair elections, an end to impunity, resource management, and the rebuilding of infrastructure.
It was a hopeful time. The violence had subsided. The appointed transitional government passed a law to create a Special Criminal Court to prosecute human rights violations, as the Bangui Forum had recommended. Peaceful elections took place at the beginning of 2016.
But hope has diminished over the past year. The government lacks the financial, infrastructure and military resources that would enable it to control the vast territory of CAR. Even in Bangui, peace is eroding. Séléka and anti-Balaka militias have split into multiple groups, fighting each other for control of resources and extorting from villagers and nomadic herders. Civilians, UN peacekeepers and international NGOs are murderously targeted.
Hunger and malnutrition are increasing as crops cannot be planted due to lack of security. One in four people are currently internally displaced or a refugee in a neighbouring country. Half the population of five million needs humanitarian assistance. Only 9% of the $516 million the UN needs this year for humanitarian programs in CAR has been raised.
Despite the lack of secure housing, M’Poko Camp closed in December 2016, perhaps because of its proximity to the airport. The residents went where they could. Our team spoke to two who were continuing their peace-making activities in their districts, adapting what they had learned to new circumstances .
Alicia said, “I highlight my mixed (Christian/Muslim) heritage. We use music to attract people and then talk about social cohesion. People join us.” Patrick described working with a mixed group on local security initiatives and advocating on behalf of returnees.
Their work can be dangerous. In May of this year assailants targeted a Catholic church during mass, murdering the priest and many congregants. According to an online Catholic magazine, Father Toungoumale-Baba had been “a fervent supporter of interfaith relations and had good relations with the local Muslim community.”
The peace makers I met made their stories public because of their love for their country and their desire to encourage others. They know that peace requires truth, justice, and an end to impunity. They support the evolving criminal court.
They taught me to never forget that even in the most desperate of places, one can refuse to be a passive bystander. They remind me that hearing the stories of others often brings empathy and that inclusive communities are resilient. They light up my heart with possibility and love.
The words of M’poko youth, delivered to a humanitarian summit in Istanbul, speak to the motivation of all the peace builders.
“We are not from nowhere, we have solid roots…We know the impacts, risks, and inherent consequences of our situation. Our minds are full of our past and of our hopes and wishes for the future…Our work gives meaning to our lives and hope to our futures. It allows us to regain a certain dignity, comfort and consciousness for the inhabitants of the camp. Our voices matter.” — Comité des Jeunes du Site de Refugiés M’Poko, Bangui
Write to your MP and the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Chrystia Freeland) encouraging support to CAR. Canada still has 350 UN committed but unassigned troops. Canada could also make a significant contribution to the current UNHCR humanitarian appeal for CAR.
Maggie Ziegler and her husband, Phil Vernon, recently worked with the Central African Republic Interfaith Peace Program and Aegis Trust to create a travelling exhibition (officially launched in January 2018) which profiles the history of the country and highlights stories of rescuers and peacemakers.