Refugees too trau­ma­tized to leave camp

Trust is lost be­tween Mus­lims, Chris­tians in Cen­tral African Repub­lic

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY TONNY ONYULO

BAN­GUI, CEN­TRAL AFRICAN REPUB­LIC | No mat­ter how safe they tell her it is out­side, Bahriyah Abidah in­sists she won’t leave the St. Joseph Mukassa camp.

The United Na­tions re­cently an­nounced that it was dis­patch­ing an­other 1,000 sol­diers to bring the to­tal peace­keep­ing force in this des­per­ately im­pov­er­ished coun­try to 13,000 troops. How­ever, France is slowly re­duc­ing its force of 2,000 sol­diers, and the Euro­pean Union pulled out its 750 troops last month. Both said their pres­ence is no longer nec­es­sary.

Ms. Abidah nonethe­less fears leav­ing the camp and en­coun­ter­ing “anti-bal­aka” fighters — the pre­dom­i­nantly Chris­tian and an­i­mist mili­tias formed af­ter Is­lamic rebels call­ing them­selves Seleka seized the gov­ern­ment in late 2013 and at­tacked non-Mus­lim vil­lages, plung­ing the coun­try into sec­tar­ian war.

Con­flicts be­tween Chris­tians and Mus­lims are play­ing out in a num­ber of African coun­tries, but per­haps in none has the vi­o­lence been so bru­tal and the pol­i­tics so treach­er­ous as in this coun­try of nearly 5 mil­lion peo­ple at the geo­graphic cen­ter of Africa. Even the news of a pos­si­ble truce be­tween the war­ring fac­tions Fri­day may not be enough for Ms. Abidah and oth­ers to aban­don their fears.

Ms. Abidah is Mus­lim. Anti-bal­aka mil­i­tants killed her hus­band a year ago when they oc­cu­pied sec­tions of Ban­gui, the cap­i­tal. “I will rather stay here and be safe,” said the 31-yearold mother of four. “Ev­ery per­son out­side there is an en­emy and di­vided on re­li­gious be­liefs. I will not go any­where.”

Thou­sands have died in the fight­ing, more than 440,000 have been dis­placed and 190,000 have fled to neigh­bor­ing Cameroon, Chad, the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo and the Repub­lic of Congo, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

Now that the vi­o­lence has sub­sided, Chris­tians and Mus­lims are be­gin­ning to min­gle to­gether in public and in­ter­na­tion­ally mon­i­tored elec­tions have been slated for July.

In peace talks me­di­ated by Kenya, the lead­ers of the ri­val fac­tions signed two peace agree­ments in Nairobi late last week de­signed to put a de­fin­i­tive end to the fight­ing, dis­arm ri­val mili­tia groups and set the rules for tran­si­tion to po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. The Cen­tral African Repub­lic del­e­ga­tions were led by Joachim Kokate for the anti-bal­aka and for­mer Pres­i­dent Michel Djo­to­dia for the ex-Seleka forces.

In a brief­ing Tues­day, mission leader Babacar Gaye told the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil that the Cen­tral African Repub­lic po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion was reach­ing a “crit­i­cal stage.” He ap­pealed to in­ter­na­tional donors for $20 mil­lion to fi­nance elec­tions this sum­mer and al­le­vi­ate poverty in the coun­try.

An­toine Bogo, pres­i­dent of the Cen­tral African Red Cross So­ci­ety, said peo­ple living in camps for those dis­placed by fight­ing could has­ten the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process if they re­turn home. He is work­ing to give them sup­plies to rebuild.

“Th­ese fam­i­lies can be helped so as to restart their lives im­me­di­ately,” Mr. Bogo said.

Peace process doubts

Many Mus­lims still don’t trust the peace process, how­ever. Crime is still ram­pant. Few be­lieve the elec­tions will take place with­out vi­o­lence. They aren’t con­vinced that U.N. peace­keep­ers and in­ter­na­tional elec­tion mon­i­tors can en­sure their safety.

“I can’t go back home be­cause there’s no se­cu­rity,” said Aak­i­fah Zi­mani, 28, a mother of three who lives in the camp St. Joseph Mukassa with 18,000 other peo­ple on the out­skirts of Ban­gui. “I will live here with my fam­ily for many years. I thank God my fam­ily is still alive. I thought they had died.”

Ms. Zi­mani used to live in Yaloke, a town about 140 miles north of Ban­gui where 10,000 Mus­lims lived. Now, 800 Mus­lims live there, ac­cord­ing to the U.N.

“I es­caped with my in­fant and hid in a nearby bush for two days with­out food. I thought my hus­band and the re­main­ing kid were dead,” she said. “I re­quested aid work­ers who were col­lect­ing corpses to come along with me to the refugee camp.” She even­tu­ally was re­united with her fam­ily. Anti-bal­aka means “anti-ma­chete,” a term im­ply­ing that the fighters are im­per­vi­ous to harm. The Chris­tian group’s reign of ter­ror fol­lowed the Seleka over­throw in March 2013 of Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Boz­ize, a Chris­tian leader who was ac­cused of cor­rup­tion. Seleka means “al­liance” in the na­tional lan­guage of the Sango. Af­ter they seized power, Seleka rebels went on a bloody ram­page that in­cluded hack­ing off Chris­tians’ ears, kid­nap­ping and rape.

Vi­o­lence on both sides plunged the Cen­tral African Repub­lic into chaos. Only the U.N. hu­man­i­tar­ian re­lief has pre­vented wide­spread famine. As about 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple live on the edge of star­va­tion, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is try­ing to get Cen­tral African Repub­lic farm­ers back to their fields, said U.N. Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jean-Alexan­dre Scaglia.

“En­sur­ing plant­ing dur­ing the up­com­ing sea­son, along with longer-term re­silience ac­tiv­i­ties is an op­por­tu­nity to con­trib­ute to peace ef­forts in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic that should not be missed,” Mr. Scaglia said.

That is not easy when fight­ing be­tween Chris­tian and Mus­lim mil­i­tants de­stroyed com­mu­ni­ties where fol­low­ers of the two re­li­gions once worked along­side each other.

“We used to live in peace. Our kids could play and go to school to­gether with­out dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing who’s a Mus­lim or Chris­tian kid,” said Manuela Barika, a Mus­lim mother of two who has stayed in the camp for nearly a year. “There was re­li­gious har­mony among peo­ple be­fore the war erupted.”

For many, trau­matic mem­o­ries have crowded out their rec­ol­lec­tions of tol­er­ance.

Philip Sayo, a 42-year-old fa­ther of five, said anti-bal­aka fighters killed his wife as she walked home from a Ban­gui mar­ket in De­cem­ber. He now lives in the Ngusima camp near Ban­gui.

“When I heard the gun­shots, I was very tense. I fol­lowed my wife to the mar­ket,” he said. “I found that she was al­ready dead. I took my chil­dren and hid in the bush.”

Un­able to walk on foot with his chil­dren, Mr. Sayo re­mained in the bush for three days be­fore Red Cross of­fi­cials dis­cov­ered him. He said he wants to re­turn home but has nowhere to live.

“I de­sire to re­turn home and start fresh. I also need my chil­dren to at­tend schools,” he said. “But there’s to­tally no se­cu­rity. Our homes were de­stroyed by rebels.”

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