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
mpoko_2.jpg Philip Kleinfeld Feature Aid and Policy Migration Conflict BANGUI IRIN Africa East Africa Central African Republic
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.”