The women who put their lives on the line for peace in Central African Republic
London, Oct. 29, 2019 (AltAfrika)-Derelict homes, swallowed up by grass and trees, stand empty along the road near to the centre of Boda. There are vacant patches where buildings once stood. When deadly conflict spread to the town in Central African Republic’s southern Lobaye prefecture in 2014, homes were burned and residents fled. The road became known as the “red zone”, a line that separated Muslims and Christians. Thousands were trapped without access to food or medicine. Those who crossed into a rival area risked their lives: murders, decapitations, rapes and looting were carried out with impunity.
But as the fighting spread, Boda’s women refused to obey the town’s battle lines.
“Women are not fighters, women just want peace, women are the ones who face the crisis,” says Eiwa Djabou, a Muslim, who gathered women of both religions to convince the militias to put down their arms. Together, they entered areas beset by conflict.
The women were insulted, threatened and attacked, says Zanetta Zoumara, a Christian woman who accompanied Djabou. “We would ask [those fighting], ‘What do you see around you? Do you see good things in this crisis? What makes you so angry?’
“Some people would say, ‘Leave us alone we don’t want to hear what you have to say.’ Some people said ‘We’re going to kill you, we’re going to cut you’”.
Zoumara was left with lacerations on her back after she was pelted with rocks while accompanying Muslim women into a Christian area. “I just wanted to protect my Muslim sisters,” she says.
The women were even threatened by a local chief, says Alzina Darasa, a Muslim woman who helped Djabou. “[He] said, ‘You, Muslim woman, you are in our area now, we are free to throw a grenade on you and kill you.’ We told him, ‘You know you’re a chief, you are like the father of the area, and even you will hurt us today?’”
Conflict broke out in Central African Republic in late 2012, when rebels – mostly Muslims, and many from Chad and Sudan – began seizing control of towns. Known as the Seleka, they eventually overthrew the president, Francois Bozizé. Predominantly Christian fighters, known as the anti-balaka, retaliated. Thousands have died in the fighting since and the UN has warned that the humanitarian situation is deteriorating, with attacks against communities on the rise. More than 1.1 million people have been displaced – the highest number since the conflict began – and two-thirds of the country is now controlled by armed groups, which have multiplied in number.
Boda, 60 miles west of the capital, Bangui, is one of the few areas that has relative stability. In August 2014, almost everyone in the town fled their homes, with 60% clustering in camps and the remainder – more than 10,000 people – fleeing to the bush. Today, Muslims and Christians mix in the market and, although the houses on the red zone remain empty, some residents pass along the road. But convincing former fighters to disarm, and healing divides between two communities that have lived through brutal violence, is a painstaking process.
Muslims and Christians have lived alongside one another in CAR for generations, though not without tensions. Across the country, the legacy of Muslim slave traders, along with a tendency for the minority to be slightly wealthier, means Muslims are often viewed with suspicion. “If you’re Muslim, you have this sense that even though you’re Central African no one ever takes you seriously as a Central African. You’re always called a foreigner and every institution of government is biased against you,” says Louisa Lombard, assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University, who has written extensively about the conflict.
In a visit to the country last week, UN secretary general António Guterres warned of growing religious divides.
The UN’s peacekeeping mission, Minusca, which is severely under-resourced, is itself targeted along sectarian lines. “In certain parts of the country in the east – because the majority of [UN] troops are Muslim – people are convinced that Minusca is a plot for a Muslim takeover of the country,” says Sara Sywulka, acting country director for Tearfund.
A lot of people feel very aggrieved, they feel like they are under threat and they feel like they are being dispossessed,” says Lombard.
During the crisis in Boda, fighting escalated as people sought revenge, says Zoumara, citing the case of a man driven to fight by the killing of his own family. She understands the need for justice. When conflict erupted in Boda she was at the market alone, while her five children were on their way to meet their grandmother. Amid the violence and chaos, she became separated from her family for two weeks. When she found them she discovered that her daughter, 11, had been raped – a crime that has been used as a weapon of war across the country, according to research by Human Rights Watch.
“She is solitary now, she doesn’t really like to stay with the other kids. Even when you look at her you can see she is a little girl with problems,” says Zoumara, who also lost her house in the conflict. As a rape survivor, her daughter faces mockery and stigma. Zoumara wants the man responsible to be punished, but has no idea who he is. Even if she did, the country’s justice system is almost wholly dysfunctional.
Not only is there impunity for those who committed violence, but weapons remain in the hands of former fighters and are widely available. A grenade can be bought for the price of a cola.
Simona, a Christian who lived in a refugee camp with her nine children for two years during the crisis, says she has been threatened by Muslims on the streets. “Some Muslims take drugs and say, ‘We still have fuel and we still have matches too, we are going to burn your house again. We burned your house before and you ran into the bush.’” Some people, she adds, aren’t ready to forgive.
Despite such tensions, and despite the removal of UN troops from Boda in June, the town has remained relatively peaceful since the summer of 2014. There are still incidents – two months ago a young man threw a grenade in a Muslim area, threatening to start a new war – but none have escalated.
The town’s mayor, Boniface Katta, whose brother was decapitated during the fighting three years ago, has worked closely with Muslim and Christian leaders, urging them to relay a message of peace to their communities. Though fighters haven’t relinquished their weapons, attitudes have changed according to Katta. “Our main objective was to make sure people are morally disarmed because, even if you have a weapon, unless you use it, it cannot kill anyone,” he says.
There are regular events to improve community relations, including Christian/Muslim football matches, drama workshops, and open church and mosque days. Djabou and other women also farm together through a cooperative project supported by Tearfund and the UK, which from November will match donations to the charity’s appeal for CAR.
In some towns, projects aimed at easing community relations are superficial, says Yassir Baradine, vice-president of the prefectorial council of Boda, but in Boda people want peace. “The two communities have seen the consequences of the war,” says Baradine. “Both Muslim communities and non-Muslim communities lost families, we lost our houses … it is like a personal decision that the two communities have decided to stop the conflict and live together in peace.”
“Women lost everything,” adds Djabou. “The ones who used to do small trade now can’t get enough money [to start their businesses again]. Some lost husbands and children too.”
Some families still live in the bush because their homes were destroyed.
Darasa is one of the many who lost her livelihood when she was forced to flee her home. “I had nothing, no possessions, I just ran away,” she says. “Even the birth certificates of my children are lost.” Through Boda’s women’s mutual, Darasa has access to affordable loans, as well as seeds and tools for farming.
When Djabou first called on women to help stop the violence, a group of 50 gathered with her. There are now more than 200,. And while husbands did not initially want their wives to take part, claiming Djabou made their wives stubborn, men now encourage women to join the group.
“We made peace come back to Boda,” says Djabou, “there has been a very big change.”
Many in Boda say they believe that they can prevent another major crisis in the town. “[We] want to be an example for other villages and towns in which the two communities are still fighting,” says Baradine. “[We] want to show the world that before in Boda the two communities used to fight, but now they are together in order to restore peace.”
Source: The Guardian UK