The Central African Republic is stuck in a cycle of crime and murder. The United Nations have agreed to a military intervention. France fears a genocide. It has decided to double the amount of its soldiers in the African country. Our correspondent Koert Lindijer spoke with soldiers, civilians and clergymen.
Saturday, December 7th, 2013
It is eerily quiet in Zèré. Until the hammering of a piece of iron on a car rim breaks the silence in the empty, burned down village in the west of the Central African Republic. The signal that the coast is clear. The village chief had told the team of Doctors without Borders – Holland (MSF-H) to ring a church bell, but there no longer is any church. From the elephant grass and a thick forest of mango trees, people start to appear. One by one at first, then in larger groups. Babies whose mouths had been gagged by their mothers start screaming. Men tap their foreheads against each other in greeting. Some of them carry machetes, spears, or an antique shotgun. After ten minutes, there is a cacophony of excited voices.
An old man grabs the arm of a MSF nurse. “We hide in the surrounding areas of the village, living like animals in the bush,” he wails. “We have no clothes, no salt, no soap, nothing to survive on. The soldiers looted all our belongings. Our chickens, goats, our grain.” He shows me around. In the clinic, needles and pills lie in the grit. In the church, charred roof beams have fallen on the pulpit. Some people were burned in their homes when fighters set the village ablaze on the afternoon of 7 September. Near the remains of a house lies a corpse partly eaten by pigs.
“We hide in the surrounding areas of the village, living like animals in the bush”
In the Central African Republic, a country lost in the heart of Africa, militias have been preying upon the population for several months now. This nation of four and a half million people is trapped in a cycle of revenge and crime. Several militias without any ideology are fighting each other and the population. They create chaos for personal benefits. Like earlier nasty conflicts, like the ones in Northern Uganda, Liberia and Sierra Leone, these thugs are motivated by sheer greed.
Marauding militias, looting gangs and foreign mercenaries fight for control of gold and diamond mines and squabble over villagers’ paltry assets. Religious and ideological motives hardly played a role when the fighting first broke out earlier this year, but after several months of chaos a dividing line now seems to appear between Christians and Muslims. The looters gradually pulled a small Muslim minority – 15 percent of the population – over to their side. Christians responded by setting up self-defence militias. Their goal seems to be the eradication of Muslims.
A small and ineffective army of regional African peacekeepers has failed to create even a semblance of order. Tens of thousands of civilians have been fleeing since the beginning of the riots. They hide in the bush or seek safety in churches. Priests and imams warn for a potential genocide if the fury among Christians against Muslims increases any further.
The Central African Republic has been a chronically unstable country from the start, with coups and mutinies outweighing elections in number. However, residents have never experienced violence on this scale. The French ran their colony which was rich with gold, diamond and uranium like a company. This fusion of state power and business interests created the precedent of the person in power having a licence to profit from the exploitation of raw materials.
After the instigation of independence in 1960, African politicians ruled over a parasitic state plagued by poverty and crime. The 1976 coronation of President Jean-Bédel Bokassa as emperor was a tragicomedy that gobbled up one year’s national budget. François Bozizé, ousted earlier this year, was the country’s president as well as a diamond company’s largest shareholder. He appointed relatives, including his mistresses, to positions in government and parastatals.
More than half a century of bad government created a fertile ground for numerous armed robbery groups. When Muslim mercenaries from neighbouring Chad and Sudan joined in and created the military alliance Séléka with their Muslim brothers in the Central African Republic, the conflict took on a religious character. This spring, Michel Djotodia, leader of Séléka, declared himself president of the republic after his forces had entered the capital Bangui.
French helicopters land in a military base camp in Cameroon. Foto AFP/ Fred Dufour
The Muslims of Zèré left on the eve of the attack by the Séléka. The village elder Pané Noumagbei becomes agitated as he tells his story:
“We Christians always lived peacefully together with Muslims. But now they have betrayed us. The day before the attack, the fighters of the Séléka came to pick them up and took them and all their belongings to the city of Bossangoa, 30 kilometres from Zèré. All Muslims are accomplices of the Séléka. I never want to see them here again.”
“I have lost my trust in Christians and will never go back to Zèré”
In a small camp for displaced Muslims in Bossangoa, Adidje Hassan gives a different version of events. She used to live in Zèré. She blames the anti-balaka, a Christian militia. “Warriors of the anti-balaka attacked a village close to Zèré and cut two Muslims to pieces. Muslims in Zèré would be their next target, so Séléka fighters took us away. I have lost my trust in Christians and will never go back to Zèré”.
The population of the Central African Republic consists of 85 percent Christians and followers of traditional religions, the rest are Muslim. They lived in mixed communities all over the country, but in the Northeast region almost 100 percent of the inhabitants are Muslim. It is an isolated area with no schools, hospitals or roads. The Muslim population feels connected to Sudan more than to the government in the Central African capital Bangui. “The residents there are marginalized and they want a bigger piece of the pie,” says a Catholic priest. “Now with the help of their brethren in Chad and Sudan, via the Séléka, they have appropriated the whole cake.”
Children walk the street. In the background are French soldiers. Foto AFP/ Fred Dufour
The Séléka (which means “Alliance” in the local Sango language) came up in the rugged regions of the northeast, where foreign and domestic fighters and smugglers have been fighting for the control over diamond mining areas for a long time. As internal quarrels fractured the regime of President François Bozizé, feuding groups started working together. They formed the Séléka, led by Djotodia, a former consul for the government of the Central African Republic in the western Sudanese town of Nyala. Séléka started with 5,000 men, a force which during the march to the capital Bangui grew to 25,000 troops thanks to the recruitment of freed prisoners, mercenaries, poachers, diamond merchants, hundreds of child soldiers and Muslim fanatics. Only a small percentage comes from the Central African Republic itself. “Our country is occupied by foreigners”, is the complaint from residents of Bangui, which fell into the hands of the Séléka in March of this year.
During its advance the Séléka had attacked churches systematically. Christian citizens started defending themselves. Free reign was given to raw hatred. In September, the Christian anti-balaka carried out an attack on Bossangoa, controlled by the Séléka. The Séléka hit back, killing Christians and burning their villages. Christians and Muslims label each other as “the others” and as “cockroaches” more and more.
State of emergency
After half an hour, the MSF-H nurse diagnoses severe malnutrition in Zèré, with percentages indicating a state of emergency. But the team must leave soon. Cars have barely been driving out here for weeks, for fear of attacks. The inhabitants disappear in the tall grass again.
The dirt road back to Bossangoa leads past dozens of abandoned villages. In the bushes we see the shadows of anti-balaka fighters. They raid trucks of Muslim traders and execute Muslim passengers. In Bossangoa, we come across a unit of Séléka fighters guarding a roadblock. It is late afternoon by now and they are slumped in a drugged daze. They let us pass unhindered. They usually have little sympathy for aid workers who travel to ‘rebel villages’ like Zèré. In October they tortured two aid workers to death outside Bossangoa, claiming they were spies.
“They are afraid of the rebels”
In Bossangoa General Ya Ya and a group of high Séléka fighters lazy around in the shade of a tree. The General’s chair is draped with chains of ‘gris gris’ (charms) which are believed to keep bullets at a distance. “We tell villagers not to flee, but as soon as they see a car they disappear”, he says. “They are afraid of the rebels.” He means the anti-balaka. Ya Ya and his soldiers speak only Arabic, not French or Sango, Central African Republic’s main languages. Of his unit of 250 men, eight members are from the Central African Republic, the rest are from eastern Chad and the western Sudanese province of Darfur. They are believed to get their weapons from neighbouring countries. Some Séléka wounded fighters are reported to have been treated in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. However, there is no solid evidence that the Séléka are being supported directly by Sudanese government.
A Séléka soldier listens to coronel Anuar Mustapha at a briefing in Boali. Foto AP/ Jerome Delay
By evening, a cloudburst of rain begins to fall. This is a gift from hell for the 30,000-40,000 displaced Christians who have been living in open air at the Catholic mission in Bossangoa for weeks already. Their simple plastic shelters and few hastily-built latrines quickly overflow. Some of the displaced are less than a kilometre from their homes but they are afraid tp dare to sleep there for fear of the Séléka. A few soldiers of FOMAC, the small regional peacekeeping force, keep the Séléka fighters of General Ya Ya outside the mission. A few hundred meters away, in the Ecole de Lib,erté, a few hundred Muslims shelter, afraid to go near the Catholic Church. That evening shots can be heard near the river.
Florence Ganazoui and her two children just arrived in the hospital on the mission’s compound. “My village is 18 miles from here, but we have lived in the bush for weeks. I stay alive by brewing traditional beer. At four o’clock in the afternoon I was surrounded by customers when suddenly Séléka warriors opened fire with a grenade launcher. The most drunken customers died first. Then there were bullets and they hit my children”. Her hand rests on the shaking body of her son, whose foot has just been amputated.
The next morning I find a gloomy Father Frederie Tonfio amongst the displaced. He just had a visit from an interfaith delegation from Bangui, including the Imam Oumar Kobin. Can the spiritual leaders defuse the heightened tensions? “Reconciliation does not work any longer,” he replies, “the situation is becoming more explosive each day. The Séléka has turned the Muslims against us. But we Christians are more numerous. They cannot eradicate all of us.”
“It’s not too late,” says Imam Oumar. “Ex-president Bozizé portrayed the Séléka as Muslim fanatics who were out to Islamize the country. This created hatred between the two religions.” Both clerics believe that the government headed by Séléka leader Michel Djotodia should restore order. But in Bangui there are few signs that anybody is firmly in control. Toward sunset all inhabitants rush home, fearing robbery and rape.
Corine Nadia works for a women’s organization in Bangui. She says the number of reported rapes has increased by 35 percent since the Séléka entered Bangui:
“This morning I met a 75-year-old woman, raped by a 17-year-old Séléka warrior who spoke Arabic. They want to humiliate Christians and townspeople. It is revenge of the illiterate from the bush.”
Séléka warriors have fought among themselves and their commanders often ignored orders from the head of state. In the south east of the country, Séléka is not in control at all, not being allowed in by Ugandan soldiers who are hunting for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). “State authority has vanished”, says Frederic Nakombo, of the Catholic human rights organization Justice and Peace.
“Colonels and generals of the Séléka hold control over the gold and diamond fields, transport the raw materials to Chad and Sudan and put the proceeds into their own pockets. The reaction of the anti-balaka against this plundering of the country is becoming fiercer. Their fighters are determined to kill all Muslims.”
Christians from the town of Bouebou, about 40 kilometers north of the capital Bangui, flee the sectarian violence. Foto AP/ Jerome Delay
As it seems, the lowest point has not yet been reached. Everyone in the country is bracing themselves for more violence, which could easily spread to chronically unstable neighbours like Congo and Sudan. And as the religious fanatics get their grips on the population, the country could even become a magnet for international Muslim extremists.
France is to send a thousand more troops (400 are already guarding Bangui airport), which will mean fighting the Séléka, which may withdraw into the bush and become a hardened guerrilla force. Lawyer and human rights activist Bruno Hyacinthe Gbiegba calls, like many in the country, for speedy UN intervention. “Without the help of foreign mercenaries, the Séléka would never have taken Bangui”, he says. “The Séléka combatants are merely here for our raw materials and will step over our dead bodies if somebody pushes them out. We can’t count on them for our safety. A wolf cannot protect sheep.”