Arguably the most striking aspect about the violence that the Central African Republic has witnessed in recent years is the extraordinary levels of demographic upheaval. The bloodletting which stretched from late 2012 to early 2015 has led to the displacement, both within the CAR and beyond its borders, of almost 1 million Central Africans. The population of the country is only about 4.5 million!
These Central Africans have been the victims of a conflict which unfurled in several stages. First, in December 2012, a mainly Muslim alliance of rebel groups – the Seleka – ripped through the country and within four months had chased the president, Francois Bozize, into exile. The Seleka’s seizure and practice of power was brutal – and especially enraged the approximately 85 percent of the population who are Christian. The backlash arrived in the form of the anti-balaka, militia groups of Christians and animists. In late 2013 the anti-balaka’s counterattack gained momentum when its fighters stormed the capital, Bangui, in the early hours of 5 December. Months of horrifying sectarian fighting ensued where the anti-balaka’s targets morphed from the Seleka into Muslims in their entirety.
Today, international peacekeeping deployments and various political developments have helped stem the violence. In May 2015, the interim government, representatives of the main rebel groups, religious leaders and figures from civil society signed peace and reconciliation accord which made welcome commitments towards elections and institutional reforms, as well as disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. Yet, with so many Central Africans still scattered and without any obvious means of participating in the rebuilding of the CAR, it is difficult to see how the interim authorities can make meaningful and inclusive progress before first addressing the central issue of displacement.
The CAR’s Muslims, who made up about 10-15 percent of the population, have been particularly profoundly affected. At one point during the fighting it was thought the country’s Muslims would become the victims of a genocide. This apocalyptic prediction did not materialise but the majority of Muslims did flee their country, to refugee camps in Chad and Cameroon. Those who remained in the CAR are confined to small enclaves, the only places they feel even moderately safe. When I was in Bangui I met several Muslim traders who had felt confident enough to recently return to one such enclave, the district of Kilometre 5. Yet, trust was in understandably short supply.
The Christian majority has also been impacted, less wholly but still in very large numbers. Indeed, in May I did much of my reporting from camps and towns in the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country which today houses about 100,000 Central African refugees. These men, women and children are nearly all Christians who have fled either the Seleka’s initial approach or the mayhem later unleashed by the anti-balaka. Many more of the CAR’s Christians are displaced elsewhere.
You can read more of my work on the conflict here and here. I also took a series of photographs while carrying out research, in the refugee camps in the north of the DRC and displaced communities in Bangui, and these are below: