Recovery from civil war surprisingly fast
Central African Republic rises
BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC | Three years after his grocery stand was looted during this country’s civil war, Andre Cola is busy rebuilding.
“We are now feeling safe and everything is returning to normal,” said Mr. Cola, a father of three who lost his family in the war, as he hammered nails into his kiosk’s roof. “We can now operate businesses and people can walk freely.”
From 2013 to 2015, violence gripped the Central African Republic as mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized the government, triggering bloody reprisals by Christian “anti-Balaka” militias. As many as 6,000 people died in one of the world’s bloodiest sectarian conflicts. Armed groups recruited an estimated 10,000 orphaned children as fighters, according to the United Nations. The country’s economy collapsed, shuttering government offices and schools.
Today, however, traders trek to and from the capital carrying goods. A new water system is
up and running. Refugee camps that once housed more than 415,000 people, according to the United Nations, are closing as their inhabitants return home.
Crews are building homes, hotels and shops everywhere in Bangui. Homeowners are reclaiming their property from squatters. Streetlights are working — a sign of security. Banks, hospitals, trash collection, fire and police departments and the local electricity utility are operating.
Two years ago, the warring parties agreed to a cease-fire. Child soldiers were demobilized. Elected a year ago, President Faustin Archange Touadera has pushed the militias out of the capital with the help of African Union soldiers and French troops.
Today, those security forces keep the peace in the city.
Sexual violence was widespread during the civil war. Educators are now working overtime to help the country’s often-traumatized young people reject violence.
It’s a rare African success story, bringing a country seemingly back from the brink in a surprisingly brief time.
“We are saying no to violence, never again in our country,” said Stephen Tobule, a counselor for sexual violence victims. “We are giving psychological help to sexual victims and even sponsoring them to attend training institutions so that they can learn various crafts and skills to aid their socialization and provide them with a living back in the society.”
Parents are comfortable enough to express their gratitude for surviving.
“We are now happy again because we cannot die in our houses due to lack of medicines,” said Clara Bayamaa, a mother of two, waiting in a long line on the street to see a doctor. “There have been no hospitals since the civil war began in 2013, but we are feeling OK right now. We are not going to lose our children and relatives because of lack of medical care.”
Working with officials in Rwanda who rebuilt their country after the genocide of the 1990s, the government is planning to establish a commission to document the horrors of the war and hopes to ease suspicions between former enemies.
“This will help us bring reconciliation and harmony in our country and contribute to our growth and economy,” said Virginie Baikoua, the Central African Republic’s minister for social affairs and national reconciliation.
Christians and Muslims are living and working together too.
“Harmony between Christians and Muslims is returning back to this capital,” said the Rev. Bidace Kossingo, a Catholic priest in charge of a grass-roots effort to reconcile members of both faiths. “We used to live as brothers and sisters. So it’s important to re-create that harmony for our future generations and for stability of the country.”
Sarah Biyaata, 35, is a sign of the progress. She had been living with her two daughters at St. Joseph Mukassa refugee camp in the outskirts of the capital since 2013 after Seleka rebels attacked her home and killed her husband because he was a Christian.
“They killed my husband as I watched,” she recalled. “I have been living in fear and having bad dreams. But I have forgiven those who killed my husband. I want to start a new life and take care of my children.”
The welcome return of security and order is not complete, however. In some suburban neighborhoods and rural areas that compose about 60 percent of the country, Seleka and Balaka militias still control the government’s checkpoints, according to Oxfam.
Fighting in the northern town of Bria broke out last month, killing at least five before U.N. peacekeepers quelled the violence.
On the same day, Red Cross officials said at least 115 people had been killed in violence in the Bangassou, when Christian fighters attacked a Muslim neighborhood in the southern diamond mining city. U.N. peacekeepers were trying to secure the city.
“The worst is over. I think we hold the ground and our men will continue the sweeps,” Gen. Bala Keita, commander of the U.N. forces, said in a statement. “This must not only stop at Bangassou, but must continue in the surrounding villages, where these armed men came from.”
Fighting isn’t the country’s only problem.
Half the population is going hungry, Oxfam has warned, because of disruptions that have stopped farmers from planting.
“Despite last year’s democratic election that followed three years of political transition, one year later there is now a risk of derailment due to the failure to fulfill the promises made to millions of Central Africans who continue to suffer from hunger and violence,” said Ferran Puig, Oxfam’s country director for the Central African Republic.
Despite all the challenges, Mr. Cola believes the country is headed in the right direction.
“There’s a huge difference between now and three years ago,” he said. “Three years ago there were sounds of bullets, but now you will hear the sounds of hammers and nails everywhere you go.”
A SECOND CHANCE: Violence between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic between 2013 and 2015 led to at least 6,000 deaths and an economic collapse. However, the economy is resurging, and U.N. refugee camps for 415,000 people are closing.
Andre Cola, 50, is rebuilding his grocery store in Bangui, Central African Republic, three years after it was destroyed during his country’s brutal civil war. “Everything is returning to normal,” he said.