A Journey Into The Central African Republic (PHOTO ESSAY)

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:

A billboard campaign financed by the UK and US government encouraging the CAR’s Muslims and Christians to put down their weapons and be friends.

A billboard campaign financed by the UK and US government encouraging the CAR’s Muslims and
Christians to put down their weapons and be friends.

Miss Central Africa 2015 echoes the message of peace and reconciliation

Miss Central Africa 2015 echoes the message of peace and reconciliation

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Bangui’s M’poko International Airport: Once home to around 100,000 refugees, now fewer than 20,000

Refugees live at the airport alongside long defunct aircraft

Refugees live at the airport alongside long defunct aircraft

Trying manioc (the vegetable which forms the base of the Central African diet) and clothes

Trying manioc (the vegetable which forms the base of the Central African diet) and clothes

A lady shelters from the midday son

A lady shelters from the midday son

 

A small number of Muslims fled to Zongo, a town in the DRC just the other side of the river from Bangui. They stand outside one of Zongo’s two mosques. Their leader, Khaddifi Idriss (striped robe), insists they live in the town rather than the U.N. camp 30 miles away at Moles which holds 18,000 refugees, all of whom are Christian. Idriss told me that the elderly man with a stick and several others were moved from Mole to Zongo after they were beaten up in the camp.

A small number of Muslims fled to Zongo, a town in the DRC just the other side of the river from Bangui. They stand outside one of Zongo’s two mosques. Their leader, Khaddifi Idriss (striped robe), insists they live in the town rather than the U.N. camp 30 miles away at Moles which holds 18,000 refugees, all of whom are Christian. Idriss told me that the elderly man with a stick and several others were moved from Mole to Zongo after they were beaten up in the camp.

Refugees at the camp in Mole, northern DRC, play basketball

Refugees at the camp in Mole, northern DRC, play basketball

Mandade Aime Felix is a village chief who fled a Seleka attack at 3am on Christmas Day 2014. Along with the rest of his village he now lives at Bili, the most recent camp the U.N. has opened for Central Africans in the DRC. Here he is (bald man, barely visible, back left, white shirt) surrounded by members of his village. Felix told me that the Seleka ‘went village by village hunting us’. He said they  ‘burnt our houses and killed our animals’, forcing his village to ‘run with nothing simply to save our lives’.

Mandade Aime Felix is a village chief who fled a Seleka attack at 3am on Christmas Day 2014.
Along with the rest of his village he now lives at Bili, the most recent camp the U.N. has opened for Central Africans in the DRC. Here he is (bald man, barely visible, back left, white shirt) surrounded by members of his village. Felix told me that the Seleka ‘went village by village hunting us’. He said they ‘burnt our houses and killed our animals’, forcing his village to ‘run with nothing simply to save our lives’.

Just outside the camp at Bili refugees and locals bond over the day’s batch of palm wine. Some are noticeably drunk by lunchtime.

Just outside the camp at Bili refugees and locals bond over the day’s batch of palm wine. Some are noticeably drunk by lunchtime.

A view of the camp at Inke, northern DRC, which is home to about 18,000 Central African refugees.

A view of the camp at Inke, northern DRC, which is home to about 18,000 Central African refugees.

Homemade toys belonging to two of the children at Inke.

Homemade toys belonging to two of the children at Inke.

Inke’s resident tailor

Inke’s resident tailor

Distribution day at Inke – for soap, rice, beans, cooking oil etc. – which is tense, frantic and sometimes bad tempered.

Distribution day at Inke – for soap, rice, beans, cooking oil etc. – which is tense, frantic and sometimes bad tempered.


William Clowes, UK

About

William Clowes is a freelance journalist based in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Previously he was a sub-Saharan Africa analyst at The Risk Advisory Group, a political risk and commercial due diligence firm headquartered in London.


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