Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Raped, injected with poison, entire family murdered: One woman's story in CAR

    The first time the Séléka rebels captured Danielle* she was visiting the shallow grave where her husband, father, and brothers were all buried. Danielle had witnessed the rebels kill the men outside her home just a few hours earlier. When she returned to show her mother what had happened, the fighters – still lingering outside – turned on her.

    “They took me to the bush, where I stayed for almost two weeks with my hands tied behind my back,” she says. “Every day, they raped and brutalised us.”

    Eventually, Danielle managed to escape from the rebels, but they soon caught her again. Back in the bush in Bambari, a market town in Central African Republic’s Ouaka Province, the fighters filled up a syringe and injected her with poison.

    “Sometimes, my body smells very bad,” she says, peeling back her t-shirt to reveal a thick surgical scar snaking down her stomach.

    Almost three years on, the memory is still hard to bear. Sitting on a brown, flowery sofa at a legal aid clinic run by the American Bar Association in CAR’s capital, Bangui, the 31-year-old weeps in front of her lawyer, Guy Galabaja. 

    guy_galabaja_1.jpg

    Guy Galabaja
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

    “This is a war crime,” says Galabaja, 51.

    Sitting next to Danielle, three other women from different parts of the country share similarly horrific stories.

    They are all survivors of sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated by the Séléka – a predominantly Muslim coalition of rebel groups from the north, who overthrew former president François Bozizé in a coup in March 2013 – and the anti-balaka, a network of Christian self-defence militias that rose up in response (Since its formal dissolution in 2014 the rebel coalition is now often referred to as “ex-Seleka”).

    The battle for justice

    While a small number of victims of the ensuing conflict have since found lawyers and had their cases filed with the national prosecutor, the search for justice in CAR remains an uphill struggle.

    According to figures from Amnesty International, the UN’s peacekeeping force in CAR, MINUSCA, has helped arrest 384 suspects following warrants from the country’s prosecutor. But barely any have been high-ranking members of Séléka or anti-balaka.

    Part of the problem is a lack of resources.

    “The judiciary system has been destroyed, the infrastructure has been destroyed, and the personnel that worked in the justice system have fled,” explained Adrien Nifasha, a Burundian lawyer working with the NGO Avocats Sans Frontières.

    There is also an absence of political will. One of the few senior figures to be arrested since the conflict began was Jean-Francis Bozizé, former minister for defence and son of the deposed president. 

    After returning from exile, Bozizé fils (son) was arrested by MINUSCA but released just a few days later by the national authorities. Since then he has been networking among various anti-balaka groups, according to the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts.

    For Didier Niewiadowski, a French jurist and former advisor at the French embassy in Bangui, the Bozizé affair reveals just how deeply “the Central African authorities fear losing their lucrative positions by questioning anti-balaka and former Séléka leaders”.

    More explicit cases of corruption are occurring as well. One senior lawyer interviewed by IRIN says he was forced to abandon two recent cases involving perpetrators of rape and child abuse after receiving threatening phone calls from “high-level people”.

    “It’s clear there is corruption and not just in Bangui,” he says. “In a context where there is poverty and people are not well paid, [legal officials] will use their positions to get resources”.

    Hybrid help?

    To help rebuild public trust, the country’s pre-election, transitional government ordered the creation of a Special Criminal Court back in May 2015.

    Like previous courts in Sierra Leone, Cambodia, East Timor, and Kosovo, the SCC will have national and international staff and apply a blend of national and international law.

    If things go well its hybrid structure will mean “the justice that is served will ultimately be closer to the communities affected by violence”, says Mark Kersten, international criminal justice consultant at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

    Tasked with prosecuting genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity dating back to 2003, experts also hope the SCC will complement the work of the International Criminal Court, which has two investigations active in CAR but is expected to indict just a handful of people.

    When it opens, it will be the first example of a hybrid court working alongside the ICC in the same country. Almost two years after the law establishing the new court was promulgated however, evidence of progress is hard to find. The building earmarked for the SCC – a faded, modernist relic in downtown Bangui – is still operating as the country’s High Court.

    Asked when he expects it to be operational, Joe Londoumon, president of the SCC’s organisational committee, sighs and looks up at the ceiling of his office, across the road from where the court will eventually be based.

    “I don’t know yet,” he says. “The judicial police is not yet in place, so for now there are no investigations. Even the building where the SCC will operate hasn’t been set up.”

    One of the main challenges facing the SCC will be funding. While $5 million of the $7 million required for the court’s first 14 months has been provided, according to figures from Amnesty International, its future revenue will depend on piecemeal, voluntary contributions. A similarly unpredictable funding structure used for the Special Court in Sierra Leone left it chronically underfunded.

    The fog of war

    An even greater problem is CAR’s ongoing conflict. Like their counterparts at the ICC – yet to issue a single arrest warrant despite opening a new investigation in September 2014 – SCC investigators will face the unenviable challenge of how to access vast parts of the country where war crimes have and continue to be committed.

    “We are not talking about a post-conflict situation,” says Pierre Hazan, special advisor in transitional justice with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. “We are in a war. If [investigators] want to meet people, collect evidence, protect witnesses, how are they going to do that? It makes the whole thing extremely ambitious.”

    For Londoumon, the solution is obvious: “My hope is that these rebels will be disarmed so we can catch them,” he says, referring to the government’s ongoing disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programme.

    But simultaneously disarming and prosecuting rebels isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Since the 1990s – when the contemporary international criminal justice system was born in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – scholars have agonised over an apparent tension between peace and justice.

    Intervening after conflicts with decisive victors such as was the case with the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, created by the Allied powers in the wake of World War II, is one thing. But in active conflicts, some fear the presence of international prosecutors can turn belligerents away from peace negotiations.

    While rebel groups in CAR have complex incentives for remaining violent, with the DDR programme stalling, “there is a risk,” says Richard Moncrief, Central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, “that the process of negotiation around disarmament becomes bogged down and justice, including through the Special Criminal Court, accelerates.”

    “That creates a very strong disincentive for people to enter the disarmament programme because they are already being targeted by the justice system,” he adds.

    Outside his house in Boy Rabe, a notorious anti-balaka neighbourhood in Bangui’s fourth district, Judicael Moganazou, the spokesman for one faction of the group, says the debate is academic.

    “If some of the people know that today they are going to be disarmed and then tomorrow they are going to be prosecuted by the international community or local judges, then they won’t drop their guns,” he says.

    Finding a way

    Whatever progress the SCC and ICC do make, the mass criminality that swept through CAR means neither is likely to be sufficient.

    Searching for fresh ideas, last year Hazan joined a delegation of Central Africans to Rwanda where 9,000 community-based “Gacaca” courts sprung up across the country in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide.

    While they’ve been criticised by some human rights groups, the courts played an important role in post-conflict Rwanda, focusing not just on retributive justice but on truth recovery and national reconciliation.

    A mandate for CAR’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission was adopted by the transitional government in May 2015.

    “The basic concept is to address the needs of victims,” Hazan explains. “You need to address what people have been through over the past few years and create a narrative that is acceptable along the spectrum of public opinion.”

    No progress has been made to date, however, and in the context of open conflict, building an effective commission won’t be easy.

    “People talk a lot about reconciliation, but the tensions and the mistrust are absolutely still there,” says author and anthropologist Louisa Lombard. “The idea that Muslims are not real Central Africans is still present, as is the idea that justice should be a way to punish ‘bad people, but not us because we were just fighting for our own rights’”.

    Back at ABA’s legal aid clinic, it’s just 10am but almost every seat is taken. The road to justice may look impassable, but in a country where so few victims receive any kind of support, the women here remain hopeful that some, albeit limited form of justice, can still be served.

    “Even if they don’t find the people who committed this crime, at least I will go to the courts and publicly tell people what happened,” says Marie, who was raped by three Séléka fighters in a graveyard in Bangui three years ago. 

    “I will explain to them what is in my heart,” she adds, fighting back tears.

    *Names have been changed.

    (TOP PHOTO: Abuse survivor sits at a legal aid clinic run by the American Bar Association in CAR’s capital, Bangui. CREDIT: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN)

    pk/am/ag

    Raped, injected with poison, entire family murdered: One woman's story in CAR
    The battle for justice

    While a small number of victims of the ensuing conflict have since found lawyers and had their cases filed with the national prosecutor, the search for justice in CAR remains an uphill struggle.

    According to figures from Amnesty International, the UN’s peacekeeping force in CAR, MINUSCA, has helped arrest 384 suspects following warrants from the country’s prosecutor. But barely any have been high-ranking members of Séléka or anti-balaka.

    Part of the problem is a lack of resources.

    “The judiciary system has been destroyed, the infrastructure has been destroyed, and the personnel that worked in the justice system have fled,” explained Adrien Nifasha, a Burundian lawyer working with the NGO Avocats Sans Frontières.

    There is also an absence of political will. One of the few senior figures to be arrested since the conflict began was Jean-Francis Bozizé, former minister for defence and son of the deposed president. 

    After returning from exile, Bozizé fils (son) was arrested by MINUSCA but released just a few days later by the national authorities. Since then he has been networking among various anti-balaka groups, according to the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts.

    For Didier Niewiadowski, a French jurist and former advisor at the French embassy in Bangui, the Bozizé affair reveals just how deeply “the Central African authorities fear losing their lucrative positions by questioning anti-balaka and former Séléka leaders”.

    More explicit cases of corruption are occurring as well. One senior lawyer interviewed by IRIN says he was forced to abandon two recent cases involving perpetrators of rape and child abuse after receiving threatening phone calls from “high-level people”.

    “It’s clear there is corruption and not just in Bangui,” he says. “In a context where there is poverty and people are not well paid, [legal officials] will use their positions to get resources”.

    Hybrid help?

    To help rebuild public trust, the country’s pre-election, transitional government ordered the creation of a Special Criminal Court back in May 2015.

    Like previous courts in Sierra Leone, Cambodia, East Timor, and Kosovo, the SCC will have national and international staff and apply a blend of national and international law.

    If things go well its hybrid structure will mean “the justice that is served will ultimately be closer to the communities affected by violence”, says Mark Kersten, international criminal justice consultant at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

    Tasked with prosecuting genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity dating back to 2003, experts also hope the SCC will complement the work of the International Criminal Court, which has two investigations active in CAR but is expected to indict just a handful of people.

    When it opens, it will be the first example of a hybrid court working alongside the ICC in the same country. Almost two years after the law establishing the new court was promulgated however, evidence of progress is hard to find. The building earmarked for the SCC – a faded, modernist relic in downtown Bangui – is still operating as the country’s High Court.

    Asked when he expects it to be operational, Joe Londoumon, president of the SCC’s organisational committee, sighs and looks up at the ceiling of his office, across the road from where the court will eventually be based.

    “I don’t know yet,” he says. “The judicial police is not yet in place, so for now there are no investigations. Even the building where the SCC will operate hasn’t been set up.”

    One of the main challenges facing the SCC will be funding. While $5 million of the $7 million required for the court’s first 14 months has been provided, according to figures from Amnesty International, its future revenue will depend on piecemeal, voluntary contributions. A similarly unpredictable funding structure used for the Special Court in Sierra Leone left it chronically underfunded.

    The fog of war

    An even greater problem is CAR’s ongoing conflict. Like their counterparts at the ICC – yet to issue a single arrest warrant despite opening a new investigation in September 2014 – SCC investigators will face the unenviable challenge of how to access vast parts of the country where war crimes have and continue to be committed.

    “We are not talking about a post-conflict situation,” says Pierre Hazan, special advisor in transitional justice with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. “We are in a war. If [investigators] want to meet people, collect evidence, protect witnesses, how are they going to do that? It makes the whole thing extremely ambitious.”

    For Londoumon, the solution is obvious: “My hope is that these rebels will be disarmed so we can catch them,” he says, referring to the government’s ongoing disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programme.

    But simultaneously disarming and prosecuting rebels isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Since the 1990s – when the contemporary international criminal justice system was born in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – scholars have agonised over an apparent tension between peace and justice.

    Intervening after conflicts with decisive victors such as was the case with the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, created by the Allied powers in the wake of World War II, is one thing. But in active conflicts, some fear the presence of international prosecutors can turn belligerents away from peace negotiations.

    While rebel groups in CAR have complex incentives for remaining violent, with the DDR programme stalling, “there is a risk,” says Richard Moncrief, Central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, “that the process of negotiation around disarmament becomes bogged down and justice, including through the Special Criminal Court, accelerates.”

    “That creates a very strong disincentive for people to enter the disarmament programme because they are already being targeted by the justice system,” he adds.

    Outside his house in Boy Rabe, a notorious anti-balaka neighbourhood in Bangui’s fourth district, Judicael Moganazou, the spokesman for one faction of the group, says the debate is academic.

    “If some of the people know that today they are going to be disarmed and then tomorrow they are going to be prosecuted by the international community or local judges, then they won’t drop their guns,” he says.

  • Central African Republic: What’s gone wrong?

    There was hope last year that the election of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra would bring real change to the troubled Central African Republic. But 12 months on, he has been unable to extend his authority beyond the capital, Bangui, and the rest of the country is as lawless as ever.

    Fatimatou Issa and her family witnessed that violence first-hand last month. They’d heard rumours of trouble for days, but when the ex-Séléka rebels drove up, they had no time to react.

    At first, they assumed the men had come to fight other rebels. But as bullets whizzed around the ethnic Fulani village of Mbourtchou, in CAR’s Ouaka Province, it was clear who they were targeting.

    “They turned up in vehicles and were shooting everywhere,” said Issa, 26. “My husband fought back to protect the community, but he was shot in the head.”

    Sweating in the dusty heat, Issa was standing outside a flimsy straw and bamboo hut at Elevache camp for displaced persons in nearby Bambari, a market town of red-earth streets and mud-brick houses 400 kilometres from Bangui.

    “Many of the families here have been given nothing,” said community leader Mohammadou Saibou, who fled the same attack. “When we arrived, the Red Cross provided us with some food, but there wasn’t enough for everyone.”

    Getting worse

    A year on from democratic elections that promised a new era in CAR, the crisis is deteriorating, with armed groups in control of the vast majority of the country and civilians like Issa and Saibou the principal victims.

    Renewed fighting between rebel groups in the central and eastern provinces of Ouaka and Hautte-Kotto is now dangerously close to reaching Bambari, CAR’s second largest town.

    Together with fighting in Kaga Bandoro in the north, and Ouham-Pendé in the northwest, the number of displaced people has passed 411,000, the highest level since the crisis began.

    Back in 2013, the conflict pitted the Séléka, a predominantly Muslim coalition of rebel groups from the north, who overthrew former president François Bozizé in a coup, against anti-balaka – a network of Christian self-defence militias that rose up in response.        

    Today, that dynamic has changed. After a de facto partition between Christians in the south and Muslims in the north, hostilities between the two groups have decreased. In its place is an explosion of fratricidal fighting between different factions of the Séléka, who were disbanded in 2014 and driven out of Bangui.

    “Against the supposed Christian versus Muslim logic of this conflict, we now see Muslim groups fighting Muslim groups, divided on ethnic lines and fighting for territory,” said Richard Moncrieff, Central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group.

    In Ouaka and Hautte-Kotto, the two main groups vying for control are the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC), dominated by Muslims from the Fulani ethnic group, and a coalition of rebels led by the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (FPRC), dominated by Muslims from the Gula and Runga communities.

    The UPC and FPRC split back in 2014, after FPRC leader Noureddine Adam demanded independence for CAR’s predominantly Muslim north, a move rejected by UPC leader Ali Darassa. Tensions festered when Darassa rejected FPRC attempts to unify ex-Séléka factions last October, and turned critical a month later after clashes around a gold mine in Ndassima.

    Ethnic complexion

    Since then, violence has assumed an ethnic complexion with both groups targeting civilians associated with their opponents. The FPRC’s attack on Issa and Saibou’s village came after an even more brutal assault in Bria, 100 kilometres to the east. 

    Over three days, 21-23 November, the group singled out and slaughtered Fulani, a historically nomadic group who are falsely stereotyped as “foreigners” and “Chadians”.

    To Saibou, who worked as a trader before fleeing the FPRC, that argument makes no sense.

    “Our community has been here throughout the history of the country, even before independence,” he said, as a group of men prayed beside him. “So why do they say we are not from this country?”

    Fulani that remain in Bria are now trapped in enclaves, and there are growing fears the same, or worse, could happen in Bambari.

    FPRC forces are currently closing in on the town from two separate directions: Ippy from the northeast, and Bakala from the northwest. Their intention is to dislodge the UPC, “liberate the country from foreign armed groups”, and declare Bambari the capital of an independent state called the Republic of Lagone, or Dar al-Kuti.

    The UPC are attempting to prevent their advance, but committing their own atrocities in the process. In Bakala, they executed 32 civilians and captured fighters in December, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. 

    Around 10,000 civilians fled to nearby Mbrés, Grimali and Bambari, with several thousand others camping out in the bush.

    “They arrived on a Sunday afternoon and were attacking the Christian community and Gula [people] too,” said Christine Passio, a 45-year-old Christian who fled Bakala last December. 

    Homeless, she now lives in a straw hut near Bambari’s airstrip, surviving on meagre food rations tied up in a burlap sack. 

    “We had no time to take our belongings, and we spent three weeks travelling in the bush, carrying our children with no food,” she said.

    For the time-being, Bambari remains conflict-free. But fighting between the two groups has poisoned relations within the town’s Muslim community, with the UPC targeting Gula and Runga they consider sympathetic to the FPRC. 

    “It’s the first time we’ve had this kind of division within the Muslim community,” said one humanitarian worker, who asked not to be named. “Every time there is a convoy to Bria or Bangui, they [Gula and Runga] are taking the opportunity to leave. Others have fled to the Christian side of Bambari”.

    My enemy’s enemy

    At the back of Notre-Dame des Victoires, a small Catholic church that doubles as a displaced persons camp for Christians, 32-year-old Zoyondonko Sogala Deya, a Gula, was remarkably calm. 

    Until recently, the father of three wouldn’t have dreamt of stepping foot in the area, which lies in the middle of Bambari’s anti-balaka-controlled territory.

    But after Deya’s house was looted last month by UPC fighters, he said he had little choice but to seek refuge among the Christian community. Asked if he worried about living among anti-balaka, he shook his head. “I feel better living here with Christians than there with Muslims,” he said. “We are all scared of the UPC”.

    For the time-being, Deya’s trust in the anti-balaka isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. Wanting to share in the spoils of war, or to simply push the Fulani out of CAR, anti-balaka elements in and around Bambari have forged an opportunistic alliance with the FPRC, sworn enemies just a few months ago.

    Sitting in a restaurant near his house on the west side of Bambari, Marcelin Orogbo, general-secretary of the anti-balaka in Ouaka, said the only thing he wants is “Ali Darassa gone”. 

    Knocking back bottles of Mokaf, a beer brewed in Bangui, he praised the FPRC for their “discipline” and argued that their objective in Bambari is simply “to kick out the UPC”.

    How long that alliance lasts remains to be seen. When IRIN brought up the FPRC’s stated goal of dividing the country, Orogbo quickly rowed back. “If they go beyond their objective of getting rid of Darassa, we won’t accept it,” he said. “We are strictly against the division of the country. CAR is one.”

    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    UPC fighters in Bambari

    Major UN test

    To stem the rising tide of violence in central and eastern CAR, the UN’s 13,000-strong peacekeeping force, MINUSCA, is fighting two separate battles in one of its biggest tests to date.

    The mission, which has faced criticism of inaction despite its mandate to protect civilians, has drawn figurative “red lines” on the roads leading into Bambari to stop the FPRC from advancing. It has also issued an ultimatum to UPC combatants inside the town to leave.

    “We are ready, willing and able to take over the city and we will do it,” said the UN’s bullish head of office in Ouaka, Alain Sitchet. “Bambari is going to be a weapon-free city.”

    Others are less optimistic. The FPRC has already broken through one “red line” and, according to a well-placed source, is circumventing MINUSCA’s positions on the main roads by advancing to Bambari through the bush.

    While reports this week suggested Ali Darassa has now left Bambari, UPC combatants remain in the city in plain clothes, and others continue to fight the FPRC in nearby towns and villages.

    In an earlier interview with IRIN, Darassa – a towering figure scrunched into a plastic chair in a white robe – was deliberately ambiguous about his plans. 

    “If the civilian population want me to leave, I will leave,” he said, adding that protection of Bambari’s Fulani population remained his priority.

    Touadéra’s dilemma 

    For its part, the central government appears almost completely powerless. It shows that “having a relatively well-accepted election produces a legitimate government in [the capital] Bangui, but it doesn't give you much more,” said Moncrieff.

    To try and rein in the different armed groups, a dialogue over disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration has been initiated by President Touadéra, a former maths professor.

    But previous DDR schemes in CAR have failed, and few are optimistic about the current attempt. 

    The FPRC, a new Ouham-Pendé-based armed group called Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (better known as 3R), and anti-balaka under the command of Maxime Mokom, have all boycotted the process.

    Any measures ex-Séléka groups have taken to disarm have been “tokenistic”, said Lewis Mudge, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

    “If you think about it, there is no reason for them to [disarm],” he added. “They are benefiting. The UPC might be in a defensive position, but the FPRC and the Patriotic Movement for Central African Republic (another ex-Séléka group) are benefiting from conflict.”

    The underlying grievances driving conflict have not been tackled either, according to Moncrieff.

    “One problem is the total lack of economic opportunity in the provinces, and the other is citizenship,” he said. “Many people in the country have a feeling of being second-class citizens and being completely marginalised from the political classes in Bangui.” 

    CAR is mineral-rich, but for decades has been a byword for underdevelopment. The continued violence is deepening poverty in a country where half of the 4.6 million population is already dependent on humanitarian aid.

    (TOP PHOTO: Displaced Fulani at Evalache camp, CAR. CREDIT: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN)

    pk/oa/ag

    Central African Republic: What’s gone wrong?
    Government control is restricted to the capital, Bangui
    Christian-Muslim dynamic has changed to intra-Muslim fighting along ethnic lines
    Record displacement has soared above 410,000
    CAR’s second city of Bambari is under threat
    UN peacekeepers are struggling to stave off rebel advances
  • Closure of conflict camps tests CAR reconciliation

    Etienne Guinot picks up a blue plastic bag, pulls out a dead snake, and holds it up in the air. “If it bites, it will kill you,” he warns, rubbing its rough, spotted skin between his fingers.

    In Fondo, a Bangui neighbourhood, the snakes are everywhere these days: hanging in the trees, crawling in the grass, and hiding in large piles of dust and rubble where people’s homes once stood.

    They began to arrive shortly after Guinot and his neighbours were forced to flee the Central African Republic capital on 5 December 2013. On that day, large-scale killings of Christians and Muslims were under way. Those communities are now returning to their abandoned homes with trepidation.

    The slaughter was carried out by the Séléka – a predominantly Muslim coalition of rebel groups that took control of the country nine months earlier in a coup – and the rival anti-balaka, a loose network of largely Christian self-defence militias that emerged in response.

    Along with his family, Guinot, a Christian, sought refuge at Bangui M’Poko airport, where he lived for four years under the protection of French soldiers and the United Nations.

    The camp, which catered for more than 100,000 people at its peak, became the defining image of the CAR crisis, with internally displaced people (IDPs) living in squalor beside the runway of an international airport.

    Since December last year, the government has been in the process of closing it. While few IDPs interviewed by IRIN say they will miss living in M’Poko, the decision has left thousands of vulnerable people unsure where to go and what to do.

    Like Guinot, many of M’Poko’s residents are Christians who used to live in and around Bangui’s third district, which also contains the city’s last remaining Muslim neighbourhood, PK5.

    See also: Rebuilding peace in Central African Republic

    Closure of conflict camps tests CAR reconciliation
    Riches to rags
    Etienne Guinot rerurns to his old neighborhood

    When violence swept through Bangui in 2013, displaced Muslims moved into PK5, and the majority of Christians left. In subsequent weeks, fighters from the Séléka set about destroying thousands of Christian homes in the surrounding area using grenades, steel poles, and their own feet.

    Before the conflict, Guinot owned three homes: one for his daughter, one for his son, and one for himself. In 2013, all of them were destroyed.

    Since he returned on 29 January, his family has lived together in an abandoned house next door, with no roof, no windows, and no front door. At night, four share a foam mattress with chunks missing in a 2x2 meter room covered by a UNHCR (UN refugee agency) tarpaulin: the rest sleep outside.

    “It’s very difficult,” says Guinot. “We have no house and no food to eat. My grandson, my children: we can’t support them.”

    "We think the security situation has improved and we want people to go home"

    Compared to CAR’s provinces, which are largely controlled by armed groups, some semblance of normality has returned to Bangui over the past year. Elections in February 2016 passed off peacefully and a large UN peacekeeping force – the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) – remains in place.

    “After the election, we think the security situation has improved and we want people to go home and do their best to bring stability and peace,” says Juliana Yodiam, head of humanitarian action at CAR’s Ministry for Social Affairs.

    But Muslim and Christian communities have not lived together in significant numbers in Bangui since the conflict began, and nobody seems to know whether they are ready to now.

    Since 2014, Arsene Djamba Gassy has been working on social cohesion projects in the third district with the English NGO Conciliation Resources. He says people are generally “tired of violence” and have no “fundamental problems” with each other, but argues that previous approaches to social cohesion failed to tackle underlying grievances by focusing on pre-packaged solutions over community-lead projects.

    “For example, one activity would be bringing young Christians and Muslims together for a football match,” says Gassy. “After that, everyone would go home. For a father that has lost his son, has he got a solution through this football match? This is what was done for the past two years.”

    While leaders of various Séléka factions left PK5 for the bush in August last year, citing frustration with the country’s programme for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR), armed “self-defence” groups remain active in the area.

    “They are less organised,” says François Hericher, deputy country director for French NGO ACTED, but “more prone to criminality”.

    Who’s in control?
    Matar Anemeri AKA "Force"

    Down a dusty side street in PK5, Matar Anemeri, alias “Force”, sits around a table in camouflage fatigues with a pistol tied to a thick red rope around his neck.

    His eyes are bloodshot and his voice is deep and gruff. The 36-year-old, who was once a member of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA), became a rebel in 2003 when former president François Bozizé took power in a coup. Later, he joined the Séléka, and today he leads a self-defence group based in the south and southwestern part of PK5.

    Despite drinking heavily, Anemeri says he wants peace and access to the government’s DDR programme.

    To prove his point, he has invited Judicael Moganazou, a former fighter and current spokesperson of Maxim Mokom, a leading member of the anti-balaka, to the table for a joint interview. Previously, that would have been an unthinkable gesture in a country where ex-Séléka factions and anti-balaka groups continue to clash on an almost daily basis.

    Asked about the communities returning home, Anemeri says he sends out patrol cars at night to protect “Christians against bad people among us”, something Moganazou nods along to enthusiastically. Shakedowns by armed men on Muslim traders in PK5 don’t bode well, however. And, in a moment of humility, Anemeri admits he cannot control the 500 armed men he says work for him (a recent report by the UN Panel of Experts monitoring CAR indicates that number is far less).

    Anemeri admits he cannot control the 500 armed men he says work for him.

    “It doesn’t matter if you have 500 people under you or 1,000 people,” he says. “If you don’t have money to pay them, how can you control them? If they feel hungry, you don’t know what they can do.”

    Fear of PK5’s armed groups grips many returnees interviewed by IRIN. After three years living in M’Poko, Benedithe Ngoimon, also from Fondo, says she is nervous about being home. Having a house built with rusty, corrugated metal and a worn-out plastic sheet certainly doesn’t help.                   

    “Yesterday night, I heard a gunshot nearby,” she says. “I thought that maybe we will have to return to the camp.”

    See also: Can $2.2 billion buy peace and prosperity in Central African Republic?

     

    Back to scarcity
    A family from Boeing pack up their belongings and prepare to leave M'Poko

    Before IDPs left M’Poko, NGOs said they wanted to see significant investment in the neighbourhoods of return. The population of PK5, for example, had already grown significantly during the crisis with the arrival of displaced Muslims from elsewhere.

    With new communities now returning in a context of material scarcity – there are huge gaps in water provision, waste treatment, healthcare, and education – some say conditions for conflict are already present.

    “The government [is] making sure people leave the site but [it has] no strategy for what happens next,” says one NGO worker, who asks not to be named but has been involved in months of negotiations with the government over M’Poko. “If there is no increase in social services, it could create tensions within the population.”                                             

    How many IDPs actually return to the third district given this situation remains to be seen. According to Sahdia Khan, emergency coordinator at the International Organization for Migration, experience suggests many will go elsewhere.

    “A lot of people had left [M’Poko] before, but they return to areas that are safe,” she says.

    The number of IDPs returning on this occasion is far larger, with 15 of 30 other IDP camps in the capital also having closed. Even if many pick other sites in Bangui, Khan accepts “this is a new situation”.

     

    Nothing is constant
    Melanie Ouagram stands outside her destroyed home in Fondo

    To help IDPs leave M’Poko, the government has given individuals and families between 80 and 160 euros. But administrative problems, including officials writing names down incorrectly, had prevented dozens of IDPs interviewed by IRIN from receiving anything.

    Those that did get their money also say it is too little. Guinot’s neighbour, 48-year-old Melanie Ouagram, returned to Fondo on 26 January with 80 euros in her pocket. A week later, she has nothing. The money has all gone on paying off debts and buying bricks and food.

    With no husband to help bring in money – he was shot and killed by ex-Séléka fighters on 5 December – Ouagram can only afford school fees for two of her six children.

    “If someone gives you only this money, it means you have been abandoned,” she says.

    Help is on hand from some NGOs. To date, ACTED has helped reconstruct 1,300 homes through a system that allows IDPs to buy materials worth around $200 and build for themselves.

    “The objective of the project is to give IDPs autonomy so that when they come back, their house hasn’t been built by an NGO,” says Hericher, while taking IRIN on a tour of Boeing, a neighbourhood just outside the third district.

    “We give them [training], tools, and explain how the house is built, so that when we leave they will be able to continue building.”

    But Bangui remains a fragile place, Hericher admits. In 2015, ACTED helped reconstruct almost 900 houses for displaced people. When violence erupted again that September following the murder of a 17-year-old Muslim taxi driver, all 900 were destroyed.

    “It’s a good reminder,” underlines Hericher, pointing towards an entire neighbourhood of gutted buildings in the distance. “Everything can change from one day to the next”.

    pk/oa/ag

    More on Central African Republic

  • Rwandans feel the pinch as Burundi fallout hits home

    Walking through Kimironko market in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, you wouldn’t necessarily realise its traders were struggling. Business seems brisk and stalls are overflowing with fruit, vegetables, and huge mounds of dried fish in baskets. But life for some of Kimironko’s traders hasn’t been easy over the past two months.

     

    In late July, neighbouring Burundi banned food exports to Rwanda and restricted movement at border crossings. The step – the latest salvo in a diplomatic spat that began last year when political unrest erupted in Burundi – has left traders like 39-year-old Sabita Silas with produce that is both expensive to buy and hard to sell.

     

    “Nothing is coming from Burundi, and the things that are are very costly because they are smuggled,” he told IRIN. “The oranges we have are from Tanzania. The mangoes are from Uganda. But they are not as good as Burundian fruit. We are very worried about our business because so many things come from Burundi.”

     

    Political dispute turns economic

     

    Tensions between Rwanda and Burundi began to deteriorate when Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced last April that he would stand for a third term. Opponents said he was violating the two-term constitutional limit, while supporters claimed his first term didn’t count as he was elected by parliament and not directly by the people.

     " People from both sides are really suffering because of the political issues."

    The move triggered violent protests across the capital, Bujumbura, led to a failed coup attempt in May, and sparked fears of a return to civil war in a country where a 1993-2006 conflict claimed an estimated 300,000 lives. Nkurunziza was duly re-elected in July after the opposition boycotted the poll. The UN says at least 470 people have been killed in more than a year of unrest, while an estimated 300,000 refugees have fled to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania.

     

    Rwandan President Paul Kagame – himself standing for a third term – has criticised Nkurunziza, who in return has accused Rwanda of recruiting, training, and arming rebels to overthrow his government.

     

    Although Burundi cites concerns over domestic food security as a reason for the trade ban, according to Phil Clark, lecturer in comparative international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, it is a sign “of just how strained relations are” between the two countries.

     

    “Up until now, most of the antagonism between the two states has been at a high level of politics,” he told IRIN. “It was either the presidents criticising one another, or it was the expulsion of diplomats. I think that the key shift with this trade ban is that it is the kind of thing that really affects everyday people. Communities on both sides of the border clearly relied on that trade enormously, as does a lot the economy in Kigali and Bujumbura.”

     

    Border business dries up

     

    On a Saturday afternoon in Akanyaru, a border crossing in southern Rwanda, restaurants are empty, traders are absent, and people stumble across the border with suitcases on their heads – the result of a ban on passenger buses, introduced by Burundi to prevent smuggling.

     

    “The last time I crossed this border, it was very busy,” said 39-year-old tourist guide Eric, originally from Bujumbura. “People used to cross the border freely to do small trade. Today, you can see, it looks empty. People from both sides are really suffering because of the political issues.”

     

    At a nearby restaurant, 18-year-old waiter Munyeshema Claude told IRIN that his clientele had vanished over the past few weeks. “Burundian businessmen used to come here after selling their products in Rwanda,” he said. “They would use the money they had made in the restaurant. But Burundians aren’t crossing [any more], so there is no money for them to spend.”

     

    Rwandan goods are allowed into Burundi, but trade had slumped even before the recent ban, with businesses citing increased insecurity. In Kamembe, a town in southwestern Rwanda, an hour’s drive from the border, 34-year-old taxi driver Emmanuel told IRIN he was no longer able to take passengers into Burundi.

    rwanda_border.jpg

    Rwanda/Burundi border
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

    “Even the government of Rwanda advises people not to go there,” he said, referring to local media reports of violence at the border. “Sometimes, people go [to Burundi| and have problems. They get injuries and things like that.”

     

    Uneasy status quo

     

    The possibility of a wider diplomatic crisis will depend to a large extent on how involved Rwanda chooses to get in Burundi’s political affairs, experts say.

     

    As things stand, with Kagame’s bid for a third term and its own 2017 presidential election looming, “the last thing Rwanda wants is for the region to become even more unstable and for Rwanda to have to pour significant political and security resources into dealing with the Burundi situation”, said Clark.

     

    In the wake of the M23 rebellion in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012-2013 – which Rwanda was accused of supporting – Kigali’s appetite for regional intervention is limited, according to Clark. “If this had been 10 years ago, Rwanda would have been thinking of using proxy forces to deal with the situation,” he said. “In the post-M23 era, Rwanda is very reluctant to do that. It doesn't want to risk relations with donors at an already very vulnerable time.”

     

    Related stories:

     Who are the Imbonerakure and is Burundi unravelling?

    What now for Burundi? Five key risks

     

    Thierry Vircoulon, senior Central Africa consultant at the International Crisis Group, told IRIN that Kagame would be forced to intervene in Burundi in the event of a “large-scale massacre”, but added that the potential for a wider military conflict is currently limited. “Rebel groups in Burundi only have the capacity for local violence… and while there are defections and desertions in the army, it’s not a split,” he said. “At the moment, they are not choosing to stay and fight.”

     

    Whether that status quo holds, remains to be seen. But with the possibility of a resolution to the Burundi crisis looking slim – “the past 12 months of shuttle diplomacy haven’t brought about any significant changes”, said Clarke – relations between the two countries seem unlikely to improve any time soon.

     

    All Claude and his colleagues at the Akanyaru border crossing can do is wait and hope.

     

    “We are praying for the political situation to become stable, so our business can get back to normal,” he said.

     

    (TOP PHOTO: At Akanyaru border crossing people carry suitcases over their heads. Credit: Philip Kleinfield/IRIN)

     

    pk/oa/ag

    Rwandans feel the pinch as Burundi fallout hits home

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