Dispatch

‘We Cannot Go Back. We Cannot Trust Them Again.’

After more than two years of vicious civil war and horrific war crimes, is there any hope for peace in the Central African Republic?

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ZONGO, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Ngouagbengie Levy, a soft-spoken man of 35, is one of nearly 4,000 refugees who now live a mile outside Bili, a small town in the remote north of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) accessible only by a bumpy dirt road. Before last March, the town of a few thousand was largely unremarkable but for a large red brick Catholic church, which stands alone, dwarfing the rest of the community’s low buildings. But when the town became the site of a United Nations camp for refugees fleeing violence in the Central African Republic (CAR), however — the fifth such camp established in northern DRC in the last two yearsit became one of a growing number of outposts in the war that has torn its neighbor apart.

On this day, rations are being distributed and refugees restlessly queue and await their quotas of soap, rice, beans, and palm oil. Many complain that the supplies are insufficient. “They don’t give us manioc,” the root vegetable that forms the base of the central African diet, protests Thierry, a 41-year-old man standing on a mound overlooking Bili’s distribution center. Avoiding the fray Levy sits quietly at a makeshift table, sheltered from the equatorial sun.

On Feb. 13, 2014 Levy fled his village when it was attacked by fighters loyal to Seleka, a mainly Muslim coalition, which at the time was involved in murderous sectarian fighting with predominantly Christian militias. He has nothing left. “They burnt my home, they killed my wife, and they killed my children.” Such stories are not difficult to find in the camps of the northern DRC. Seleka militants have launched surprise assaults on villages across the country, setting fire to houses, slaughtering livestock, and looting people’s possessions. Many of the refugees in Bili lost family members; others do not know their whereabouts.

Civil war exploded in the CAR in December 2012 when several rebel groups that had previously fought the government formed an alliance — Seleka means “alliance” in Sango, one of the CAR’s two national languages — and trained their sights on Bangui, the country’s capital. Since then, more than 5,000 people have been killed in the violence and up to 1 million people more displaced, either within the country or across the CAR’s porous borders. Nearly 100,000 of these have ended up in the DRC, most of them in U.N. camps.

In May, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon hailed a peace and reconciliation agreement signed earlier that month at a forum attended by the CAR’s interim government, representatives of the main militia groups, civil society representatives, and religious leaders. Ban praised the delegates for reflecting “the aspirations of the people of the CAR to put conflict behind them once and for all and to build a more peaceful and democratic country.” Though this accord represents a concrete step towards lasting peace, meaningful reconciliation is a long way off for the divided country. Hundreds of thousands of Central Africans are still displaced and many of them are stuck in camps in neighboring countries. And as the conflict wore on, it took on an increasingly sectarian character, embedding resentments between Christians and Muslims. Any road to coexistence will be long and arduous.

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In late 2012, the Seleka, a largely Muslim group bolstered by recruits from Chad and Sudan, rebelled against the government of President Francois Bozize. Fuelled by years of marginalization and persecution against the country’s Muslim minority, the Seleka was formed from anti-government factions that claimed Bozize had reneged on previous peace agreements. The militias swept across the country, and in late March 2013 chased the president from power and seized the capital.

The Seleka’s ascent cleaved CAR’s population along increasingly sectarian lines, especially once the armed retaliation had gained momentum. Most Central Africans — Christian and Muslim — have been bystanders rather than combatants, yet the butchery has left indelible marks; many became convinced that their enemies are capable of any depravity. This is perhaps particularly true for those languishing beyond CAR’s borders, who feel abandoned by the interim government and excluded from the nascent reconciliation process. Allegations of cannibalism — levied by both sides — are the starkest illustration of the dehumanization that has taken place. And they’re not unfounded: Reporters have documented incidences of militants eating the freshly slain. Though the precise point where fact stops and fiction starts is often unclear, the hatred and fear behind the stories are real. 

The Seleka had no intention of ruling the CAR in an inclusive manner. After ousting Bozize, its rule was brutal — and hugely unpopular in a country where about 80 percent of the population is Christian and only between 10 and 15 percent Muslim.

Angazika Louis Brice is a former mayor in the town of Kouango, a town of under 10,000 on the DRC-CAR border. He is now a senior figure at Inke, another refugee camp in northern DRC which is home to nearly 18,000 Central Africans, and describes the day in February 2013 when the Seleka arrived at his home. “I fled into the forest with nothing and spent 40 days there.” He recalls how the fighters first sought out the houses of “businessmen, dignitaries, nuns, and religious chiefs” and “occupied my town.” Brice says that, while few were killed in the initial assault, those that remained in the town were treated brutally. “They tied some people in sacks, beat them, and threw them into the river to drown.”

Similar stories abound in Kouango. Jean Richard, who was a municipal police officer there, remembers how Seleka fighters arrived at his home in pursuit of his father, a local dignitary, who they assumed had access to money. Unable to find Richard’s father they detained his son. The Seleka beat him for three days, hitting him with a rod, Richard says, a total of 1,500 times and breaking all his ribs. In the dead of night, he fled into the forest where he spent three weeks before crossing into the DRC.

The backlash did not take long to arrive. In the early hours of Dec. 5, 2013 the anti-balaka, a coalition of predominantly Christian militias formed to drive out the Seleka and reclaim the CAR, poured into Bangui and unleashed months of chaos, in which civilians — both Christian and Muslim — were caught up in countless reprisal massacres. Mixed communities ceased to exist and the country descended into inter-religious bloodletting so horrifying that, in January 2015, a U.N. commission of inquiry concluded that “ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population by the anti-balaka” had taken place.

Peacekeeping missions deployed in December 2013 by France and the African Union, which the U.N. took over in September 2014, have now helped stem the fighting but the violence has left the CAR’s population traumatized and furious. Almost every Central African refugee in the DRC is a Christian. These men, women, and children escaped either the Seleka’s initial advance or the bedlam unleashed by the anti-balaka’s reaction. For a large number of Christian refugees, one thing is clear: the Seleka and, Muslims in general are responsible for the CAR’s turmoil. It does not matter to those who hold such views that many Central African Muslims curse the day the Seleka deposed Bozize.

Some Christina refugees, such as Gravier Bissenou Wenceslas and Narcisse Sana Ngoupande, are open-minded. Both are students at the University of Bangui whose studies were interrupted when they sought refuge at Mole, a large camp 25 miles on the other side of the DRC border. Wenceslas fled when the Seleka arrived; Ngoupande remained in Bangui until the anti-balaka retaliated. Both grew up with Muslim friends and classmates and they point to CAR’s past as proof that coexistence is again attainable.

Yet, many disagree with Wenceslas and Ngoupande, particularly those from more remote parts of the country. They argue that the CAR’s Muslims both welcomed (and in some cases assisted) the Seleka invasion and have started to see CAR as a “Christian only country.” Three distinct groups — the Central African members of the Seleka, the rebel movement’s foreign mercenaries, and the CAR’s Muslim population — are elided into one malevolent and alien monolith.

“We are here because of the Muslims,” says Jasmin Mbakoutou, an animated man of 29 who is clearly frustrated by the tedium of camp life. “The Seleka were welcomed by the Muslims who directed them towards us.” A middle-aged woman named Natasha tells me, “the Muslims bought and hid weapons before Seleka’s arrival and helped them with the occupation.”

Certain refugees recognize the U.N.’s bleak warning about Muslims being cleansed from the CAR — but see it as positive and deserved. Indeed, some look forward to returning to a Muslim-free homeland. Catherine, a 70-year-old refugee living at Inke, complains about the indignity and pain of sleeping “on the soil” at her advanced age. “The Muslims have gone and should stay out of the way,” she says. Her friend Natasha agrees: “The Muslims have fled and they should remain where they are. The memories are too much; the memories of the killing and the rapes have entered our minds and they remain there.”

Accompanied by enthusiastic nods of assent from the 50-odd refugees huddled around him at Bili, Akarrangba Ndjoho Vianney booms that “it is not possible to live together again because they chopped off our limbs, they cut our throats, they even ate people.” He made this lurid claim despite media reports having only documented cases of cannibalism by anti-balaka fighters after killing Muslims.

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Despite the anti-balaka’s best efforts, Muslims have not been wiped out in the CAR. Both those remaining within the country’s borders and in foreign camps who plan to return bear resentments that will be difficult to overcome. It is indisputable that the CAR’s Muslims have suffered apocalyptic horrors since December 2013. John Ging, director of operations for the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, even told reporters in 2014 that the anti-balaka had inspired the potential for even greater violence. “The elements are there, the seeds are there for a genocide, there’s no question about that,” he said at a news conference in Geneva.

Yet, it is difficult to track down a first-hand account in the DRC since most of the CAR’s Muslims have fled to Chad or Cameroon. However, in Zongo, the rundown Congolese town that faces Bangui across a river, Kaddafi Idriss sits in a modest white and blue mosque behind a fence of beaten corrugated iron. Sitting flanked by local imams and Muslim dignitaries, Idriss is distinctive in his robes, and authoritative as the leader of CAR’s Muslim community in Zongo. He and a small group of coreligionists escaped the butchery that descended upon CAR’s capital in late 2013 by paddling wooden canoes across the Ubangi River as anti-balaka fighters shot at them from the bank. “God alone saved me,” he says.

“They cornered the Muslims with machetes and hacked at us piece by piece,” he recalls, adding that his cousin and his three children were murdered on the morning of the Dec. 5, 2014. “They killed every Muslim they found.” Idriss thinks that the U.N. did not go far enough and tells me that what happened to the CAR’s Muslims constituted genocide. He remains intensely distrustful of the CAR’s Christians and introduces several Muslims who he had removed from the nearby camp at Mole out of concern for their safety. Idriss’s words resemble those of Vianney, the Christian at Bili, as he reaches an energetic crescendo. “We cannot go back. We cannot trust them again. The Central Africans want to murder us all. They ate Muslims! It’s worse than Rwanda. They didn’t eat people in Rwanda.”

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

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