The war across the river
FOR TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE LOOKING TO ESCAPE THE VICIOUS WAR IN CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC, CROSSING THE OUBANGI HAS BECOME THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH.
No ordinary life
Waiting for God
END OF DAYS
Waiting for God
In a country perennially embroiled in the conflicts of warring neighbours and its own factitious population, violent political instability is not new to the CAR. The animosity between Christians and Muslims however, is an altogether fresh development. The unfolding tragedy searches for new heroes.
nder the shade of a thatched gazebo in his front yard, the imam sits among men, young and old, who chatter animatedly, their laughter filling the air. To his left, sitting on plastic chairs around the perimeters of the mud brick structure that is his home, some 40 women and children listen in, peeling peanuts or narrating stories of their own.
It is a Friday morning, before the week’s most important prayers, and refugees from CAR are here to pay their respects.
Living in Zongo, in DRC, since 1981, Imam Moussa Bawa Borongo is the head of the biggest mosque in a town that is home to some 500 Muslims. Speaking softly, he says the flow of refugees from neighbouring CAR since the crisis began, is something he has never seen in all the years he has lived here.
“Refugees have come before of course, maybe for a few days, and then returned. But this is something different. It seems they cannot return,” he reflects.
Borongo says the stories narrated to him have been horrific. Broaching the thorny subject of religious tensions, he talks plainly, although he appears to take care not to fuel further hatred.
“People are just being killed, but it does appear that Muslims are being targeted,” he says. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that the west of CAR has effectively seen a “cleansing” of Muslims. Other officials and commentators, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have suggested that the minority Muslim population is under severe threat. The UN has even warned of genocide.
Christian Mukosa, Amnesty International’s Africa programme researcher, says that civilians in CAR were certainly being targeted along religious lines. “Religion is critical in this conflict situation because it reveals people’s ethnicity and their supposed alliance with the successive groups seizing power,”he explained.
ZONGO, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Imam Borongo is careful not to describe the conflict as a religious war, but isn't afraid to point out that Muslims have been specifically targeted
The mixed congregation is mindful that a war still lies at the water's edge
Following the coup in March 2013, Christians were targeted, and many were killed and their homes ransacked. Revenge attacks by the anti-balaka on the minority Muslim population have been particularly venomous.
“People on the radio are emphasising that there are no problems between the religions, but Muslims are also being killed. I don’t know, maybe there was some resentment deep inside that has now come out,” the imam says. As he speaks, a silence descends on the courtyard.
The imam’s guests are aware that they are the topic of conversation. The women, wearing colourful dresses and floral scarves sit against the wall, gazing ahead and listening intently as they crack peanuts and drop the skins into the red buckets at their feet. Two little girls oblivious to the hush that has settled or perhaps just bored by it, begin to tickle each other, while an infant breaks the silence with a timely call for feeding.
Imam Borongo is full of praise for the local Congolese authorities. He says that since the refugees arrived, the refugee commission has visited at least twice, taking note of the help he has been trying to provide to some of the children, many of them orphans now living in his home, and have done their best to provide him with assistance.
“They came, took their names, and gave them refugee cards and that allowed them to get some assistance,” he says.
Then, just as the conversation seems to be warming up, the imam requests to be excused to perform ablution and prepare for prayers.
“Refugees have come before ... but this is something different.
It seems they cannot return.”
- IMAM BORONGO
Scores of women and children have searched for comfort and protection at the imam's home
Sister Marianna has seen many changes and conflicts over the years. The wars between President Mobuto Seso Seko and rebel leader and later President Laurent Kabila in 1996-97, and then between the Enyelle and Muzaya communities in 2009-10, were just the latest chapter in a long story of turmoil.
Through it all, she says she was protected by God and has never felt any fear living here. In fact, she insists, her inability to speak excellent French has always posed the greatest hurdle, along, of course, with the limited supplies of genuine pasta. She laughs playfully but the lines on her face hint at a harder life than she presents.
“Except for this, everything else that happens is just a part of life,” she says.
ister Marianna speaks of pasta with almost the same enthusiasm and reverence she uses to describe the will of God. As part of the Capuchin Catholic mission in existence in DRC for the past 50 years, the sister, in her 60s and from Italy, doesn’t miss a detail in describing the story of her journey to Libenge.
When she arrived in 1981, she says the town was far more prosperous and orderly, cleaner even. The buildings built by the Belgians were fully occupied, operational. There were many foreigners operating companies here. But the series of wars that have taken place since the early 1990s have changed everything, she says – robbing people of their livelihoods and dignity and, in some cases, irreparably damaging their futures. The abandoned shells of buildings that give this lonely town the appearance of a discarded spaghetti western set is, she says, a reflection of the esteem of its residents.
ZONGO, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
As the town with the oldest airport in the country and situated on the banks of the Oubangi River, which separates DRC, CAR and the Republic of Congo, Libenge has always been a major conduit in the expropriation of resources from this region.
A few hundred kilometres away from Libenge is the town of Basankusu, where between 1898 and 1906, the infamous rubber company Abir Congo Company (ABIR), under Belgian King Leopold II, perperated severe human rights abuses on the people of the region.
Between 1885 and 1908, Leopold held the Congo Free State, as the DRC was known then, as his private property, free to exploit and plunder, at will. The documentation of the mutilations, rapes and kidnappings that took place there in the course of the settlers' rubber conquests were compiled in a manuscript called the Casement report in 1904, and helped pave the way for reforms and Belgium to seize control of the Congo Free State away from its king in 1908.
Incidentally, the Casement report also created tensions between ABIR and missionaries stationed in Libenge, who played a role in reporting the abuses.
The church and the community's nuns play a key role in Libenge
Many residents of Libenge say the quality of their lives are firmly tied to the whims of the authorities
Education and health facilities remain poor, as they do in many parts of the DRC
One resident of the town is more blunt. Joseph Bossa, 56, an elder who has lived and worked as a farmer in the community, says that he can’t remember how many times he has had to abandon the land and rebuild his house because of the disturbances here.
“We have to continuously rebuild our lives, start again,” he says. He, too, was once a refugee in CAR, and is surprised by the events in the neighbouring country. The residents of Libenge have endured continuous upheaval since the mid-90s. Resident here insinuate that because former President Mobuto and rebel leader and politician Jean Pierre Bemba had close ties to this part of the country, the region has suffered neglect since the Kabilas took over.
Even after living through a series of wars and dealing with displaced people flocking to the mission’s refugee complex for help, Sister Marianna describes the events of the past year as “abnormal”.
Having lived in Bangui between 2005 and 2007, she never imagined there would be such a breakdown in relations between Christians and Muslims. “I didn’t see such tensions when I was there... There were just a lot of people in need, a lot of children needing help,” she recalls.
She simply refuses to believe that the two communities in CAR have turned on each other of their own accord.
“I think there is an outside force that is causing tensions between the groups,” she explains. “I can't see them turning on each other in such a way.”
The CAR's resource wealth has long drawn more than a cursory glance from outsiders, not least its six immediate neighbours. The instability suits several actors looking for a bite at its timber, diamond and gold resources.
The Capuchin Catholic mission in Libenge is no stranger to the plight of refugees. Together with the UNHCR, the mission is currently settling returnees in their communities after they fled DRC for the Republic of Congo during the war between the Enyele and Munzaya communities in 2009-10.
At that time, the fighting forced 130,000 to leave DRC while 200,000 were declared IDPs. Now, many are trying to return. The UN says the mission’s close proximity to the local community, where they run workshops, a radio station, and even provide some counselling for those suffering trauma, made them crucial partners in reintegration.
The people, though, are growing tired of the constant disruption. When the authorities change, their living conditions alter with them. “Where do we go to say that we don’t want to start from zero, to rebuild our houses?”Bossa, the elder, asks rhetorically.
“From what I see, it seems everything that ever happens in Africa is caused by outsiders,” Sister Marianna says. “It’s just an observation; a thought. It’s how I see it.”
THE UPHEAVAL END?
We arrived in Libenge earlier in the day looking for a town elder to talk about the previous wars and it was suggested that we return near sunset to meet Joseph Bossa, who had lived through the wars of the past decade and a half. He was busy in the fields, and would only be available later.
We arrived sometime after darkness fell and it looked as if the entire community had come out to greet us.
We sat under the stars, in complete darkness and talked to Bossa about the ways in which his family had been impacted by the instability in the province and the broader region. We talked for around 45 minutes in complete darkness, with brief interruptions, comments and questions from the 'audience'. It’s these people, these farmers, who remain pawns in the power struggles of “big men”.
They must leave their homes, lose their belongings, settle elsewhere, come back when they are told to do so and then try to rebuild their lives, only to repeat that cycle. “When is this going to stop,” I asked. “You tell us,” was the reply.
When will the upheaval end?
“We have to continuously
rebuild our lives,
- JOSEPH BOSSA
The displacement has kept families on edge, anxious and frustrated at their predicament
End of days
he big mosque in Zongo is a morass of metal resembling a mini-warehouse. With strands of dry carpet making up a third of the floor, the rest of the flooring is sand and clay.
The humility of the building appears to mirror that of its imam.
Inside, a few hundred people, including women, local residents and a curious sprinkling of foreigners, congregate.
The worshippers include an old man from Mauritania living in the town for more than two decades, a Yemeni working for the UN peacekeeping force and, of course, refugees. The khutbah, or main sermon for the day, focuses on the signs of the last day, which the imam simultaneously translates from French to the local language, Sango.
The imam tells us that he has had to speak about the conflict in CAR at the mosque, but today he wants to remind the congregation that they will be called back one day.
ZONGO, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
The UN has identified religious leaders as central to stemming the violence in CAR
When prayers end, we return to the imam’s household, where he settles after some time onto the plastic mat under the shade of the gazebo to continue our discussions. He encourages us to talk to the women and listen to their stories. Oddly, there is no break for lunch as is the custom elsewhere after Friday prayers.
The imam’s hospitality has become well known in Zongo, but he is not the only one to have opened his doors to those who have needed help. While residents have welcomed friends, relatives and strangers alike into their homes; there are some fears that Muslim-Christian tensions could be imported into the town.
In April 2014, Seleka fighters spoke of establishing a separate Muslim state in northern CAR as anti-Balaka militia continued to drive tens of thousands of Muslims out of the southern half of the country. The Muslim population has also been almost completely wiped out from Bangui as the sectarian onslaught continues.
Eloko Matambimba Eudes, Zongo’s deputy mayor, admits that he is worried about religious tension but says the town is yet to experience any incident of religious violence. The struggles in Zongo were mostly economic.
“We are impressed by the generosity of the surrounding communities.”
- CELINE SCHMITT (UNHCR)
Without further medical assistance, and an end to the insecurity, tens of thousands of children are unlikely to reach the age of five
“The people here have shared the little they have, and in some ways, have become poorer,” Eudes reflects.
“If the locals are not also helped, this generosity could break one day.”
The UNHCR says it is aware of the burden this generosity is placing on host communities. “We are impressed by the generosity of the surrounding communities and we are discussing with the host communities and local authorities how we can alleviate the burden and support the community to manage and host those from outside,” says Celine Schmitt, the UNHCR’s senior regional external relations officer.
Looking forward to some official comment about how Zongo was dealing with the influx of refugees, we made an appointment with the deputy mayor. After an intense day, we were late for our 5pm meeting.
The deputy mayor was however generous enough to wait for us. For a Friday afternoon, it was impressive that he was willing to talk to us. When we met him, he was sitting on an elevated chair that resembled a throne. The country's flag hung to his right while President Joseph Kabila's portrait hung skewed behind him.
Another gentleman, bald with sharp features, sat alongside us as we quizzed the deputy mayor about refugees and their impact on the city. The deputy mayor though answered generously, and tried to help us understand the context. The old man in the neat trousers and perfectly ironed shirt, kept on falling asleep during the interview, though he
gave us the impression of being more than just a hang-on in the office.
The sun set, the sky turned pink, and the office turned into a shadow of itself. The deputy mayor apologised: His office did not have electricity. And so we talked to the government representative in the dark. It was all we needed to know about Zongo.
Later, we returned to the UN office, only to be told our passports and accreditation needed to be copied one more time and sent to another department for verification. It turned out that the old man was from a Congolese intelligence agency.
“If the locals are not also helped, this generosity could break one day.”
- ELONGO MATABIMBA EUDES (DEPUTY MAYOR OF ZONGO)
And as you might expect from a religious leader in a time of crisis and confusion, Imam Borongo says the way forward is patience.
“I tell them to be patient. What happened to you I tell them, is something God brought. Do not take revenge.”
While tens of thousands wait for God, there are many others hoping that the warring factions will come to their senses
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