Here’s a story I haven’t heard before: when violence spiralled in Central African Republic’s capital last December, the country’s most senior Muslim cleric sought shelter with the Catholic archbishop of Bangui.
And that month no one was attacked in Lakounga, one of the oldest parts of the capital, where Christian and Muslim leaders worked together to protect the community. Posters were plastered on every street corner with the message: “Christians and Muslims, the same blood, the same life, the same country”.
“Their message is that we are one and we have been living together … for many decades,” Nyeko Caesar Poblicks, East and Central Africa projects manager at the London-based NGO Conciliation Resources, and a frequent visitor to CAR, told me in a recent interview.
Elsewhere in the capital, mosques, shops and houses owned by Muslims were attacked by angry groups who saw Muslims as collaborators of the mainly Muslim Seleka movement. A thousand people were killed in December alone, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.
Seleka fighters carried out many serious abuses after they took power in March 2013, killing, raping, looting and burning entire villages. Although they have withdrawn to bases in the northeast since the Seleka leader and interim president, Michel Djotodia, was forced to step down in January, they continue to attack civilians.
Muslims form a minority in the mainly Christian population.
But descriptions of the conflict as being Christian versus Muslim are a “dangerous” oversimplification that helped to spread fear and violence, Poblicks said. “This is not a Christian-Muslim conflict, this is a political failure in the country,” he said.
Self defence groups called anti-balaka, set up by the government more than a decade ago to defend villages against armed gangs, were revived last year in response to Seleka abuses. They have been targeting Muslim communities, forcing thousands of families to flee their homes.
The anti-balaka are mainly young people who have seen Seleka commit human rights abuses, the head of the Catholic Church in CAR, Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga, said in a recent interview on Radio Vatican.
“When I met these young people they talked about fighting Seleka,” he said. “It’s obvious this isn’t what’s happening on the ground. These youngsters are striking Muslim communities ... to loot, for revenge and to express hatred.”
“And I think that behind what’s happening are shady politicians who are pulling the strings. The proof is that some people have declared themselves to be the godfathers of these groups,” Nzapalainga added.
For months, the archbishop and Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, the Muslim cleric who sought shelter with the archbishop in December, have been crisscrossing the country together appealing for peace, but the violence has continued.
“Unfortunately, there are people working against the message we preach. People who more than anything else want power and are willing to use young people as cannon fodder,” Nzapalainga told Deutsche Welle in January.
“If one of us religious leaders were to call on our community to get involved in the war it would be a catastrophe – it would be a genocide,” he added.
The root of the conflict is a dispute between former President Francois Bozize and rebels who ousted him in March 2013, Poblicks said.
Seleka’s objectives were simple: overthrow Bozize, take power and reap as many material benefits as possible in the process, according to International Crisis Group.
The most extreme Seleka violence occurred in areas which Seleka believed were pro-Bozize strongholds. Other parts of CAR heard reports that Muslim Seleka fighters were killing Christians, Poblicks said, and the fear and violence spread.
But Seleka members haven’t only attacked the majority Christian population, they have also attacked and looted Muslim property.
When the anti-balaka groups sprang up last year, Seleka began targeting them as well. Bozize’s former army began to support the groups, giving them training and weapons.
The anti-balaka have become well coordinated and structured, with a national spokesman and military coordinator in Bangui, Human Rights Watch says. Several anti-balaka leaders have said they want all Muslims to leave the country.
The anti-balaka groups were mobilised in 2003 by Bozize, to protect rural communities from machete-wielding bandits from Chad and Cameroon. They became part of a national programme, and brought some security to rural areas. Anti-balaka means “anti-machete” in the local language, Sangho. They include Muslims and animists, as well as Christians.
The anti-balaka reaction to Seleka began in Bozize’s hometown, Bossangoa, when word spread that a Seleka commander had dug up the grave of Bozize’s mother, believing she might have been buried with gold or jewellery, Poblicks said.
“That sparked off complete outrage. The community didn’t see it as an attack on Bozize, they saw it as an attack on their culture, and that brought it home to them that these people are up to no good.
“This is when the communities were daring enough to attack Seleka barracks … Then the whole country and the people who felt victimised gained courage from that.”
WORKING FOR PEACE
Nearly 700,000 people have been displaced by the fighting within CAR. Some towns have now split into separate Christian and Muslim areas, and tens of thousands of frightened Muslims have fled north or into neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo.
In Bangui, anti-balaka fighters armed with AK-47s and grenades have attacked Muslim areas, forcing the population to flee, and threatened to kill any Muslims left, Human Rights Watch says.
Although there are about 8,000 international peacekeepers – 1,600 French and 6,000 African Union – this isn’t enough to restore peace in a country awash with arms. And it’s likely to take months for more peacekeepers to arrive.
“In the absence of international intervention … Muslim and Christian women and religious leaders [in CAR] have been appealing together for peace,” Poblicks said. They are talking to relatives of anti-balaka members in as many communities as possible, hoping to stop the violence.
“But there needs to be some kind of support in terms of messages for communities to deal with their recent past. What do you tell someone who has lost his father, sister, and has got a gun?”