Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Central African Republic: The difficulties of return for the country’s conflict-displaced Muslims
Five years after the outbreak of civil conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), a large proportion of its Muslim minority – an estimated 80 per cent of whom had been forced out of the country in the first months of fighting – are still unable to go back to their homes. In many areas, Christian militias known as anti-balaka remain active and properties belonging to Muslim families have either been taken over or destroyed. This uncertainty is preventing many from returning to their lives, leaving a legacy of conflict that has yet to be resolved.
In the CAR, Muslims attempting to return to their communities in the south-west of the country face numerous obstacles to rebuilding their lives and businesses. Most also find that they are expected to suffer a range of injustices and inequalities in silence, lest they risk upsetting a tenuous peace with local Christians.
The recent conflict in CAR was initially sparked at the close of 2012 by a coalition (‘Séléka’) of rebel groups which launched an offensive in the north against the forces of then President François Bozizé. The Séléka came mainly from ethnic groups in the north of the country, unified loosely by their opposition to Bozizé and their Muslim faith. As they advanced south, briefly seizing control, the conflict increasingly acquired ethnic and religious dimensions. Séléka raids particularly targeted non-Muslim areas. Christian communities began to form or activate existing anti-balaka (‘anti-machete’) groups to protect their areas. While anti-balaka militias may initially have fought Séléka forces, they began attacking Muslim communities more generally.
From late 2013 to early 2014, as a campaign of ethnic cleansing was perpetrated against the Muslim minority in CAR, hundreds of thousands fled to neighbouring countries, including Cameroon, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo. More fled during subsequent waves of violence in 2016 and 2017. By the end of 2017, there were nearly 690,000 internally displaced and over 540,000 refugees in neighbouring countries. Finding the conditions in refugee settlements difficult and untenable, many – mostly men – have returned to south-western CAR since late 2014, despite concerns about security.
Though conditions vary considerably from place to place, the situation for returnees is typically fraught. These challenges have very real implications for the reintegration of returnees and the future stability of the country.
Nola: peace, but at a cost
Before fleeing to Cameroon in 2014, Adamou, 52, owned four houses and two large stores, one in Nola and one Bayanga. When he left, his stores were looted and his homes taken over by Christians. He returned to Nola in 2015 but says he has struggled to get his business back on track.
‘When the conflict broke out, we had to run away quickly. We locked up our stores and left everything behind. At the time, we just needed to make sure we were safe. But the local population came and took everything. I lost both my stores. I lost all my merchandise,’ says Adamou.
When Adamou left CAR, he was a successful businessman, and was able to support a large family, including three wives and 17 children, ranging in age from 3 to 21. But Adamou was forced to make the difficult decision to leave them behind in Cameroon due to his concerns for their safety in CAR, as well as the financial constraints attached to bringing them back to Nola. Now his only income is from a small pharmacy that generates little profit. ‘At my old stores, I sold a wide range of merchandise. I would buy items in Cameroon and Nigeria and sell them here. Now my financial situation is dire.’
For 35-year-old Hamadou, returning to Nola after a two-year absence (he left in 2014 and returned in 2016) has also involved a major step down in status. All the shops in the town’s primary trading street have been taken over by Christians, forcing Muslims to open up their businesses on side streets and in less frequented neighbourhoods.
‘My old store was big and in a good location, right on the corner of the main street. Each month we went to Cameroon and bought items to sell here. We had good stock,’ says Hamadou. ‘Now I’ve hired this small shopfront for 15,000 CFA (US$27) per month. Sometimes I make about 2,000 CFA (US$4) per day in profit. Sometimes I lose money. There just isn’t enough interest in what I have to sell,’ he said, which includes small electronics like lanterns and flashlights.
Like many returnees, Hamadou also has the responsibility of sending remittances abroad to his family. ‘I am obliged to send money to my parents in Cameroon. Sometimes it’s 15,000 CFA, sometimes just 2,000. I do my best. But I have financial problems. I have to buy items on credit and pay the lender back on time.’
Abdramane, the coordinator for Muslim returnees in Nola, says that in addition to loss of livelihoods, housing is one of the other major issues that returnees face. ‘The Muslims’ houses were taken over by the residents here. Some left when the Muslims came back, but some ask the Muslims to pay them to leave. They say they are like the “guardian” of the house, so before leaving they have to be paid off. These guardians ask for a lot of money, sometimes for as much as 1 million CFA (US$1,830).’
Abdramane says that most returnees cannot afford to pay the exorbitant amounts demanded by these so-called caretakers and end up calling the police to help negotiate a solution. The authorities have been very helpful in this way, Abdramane said, and usually a more reasonable price is agreed upon, though this can sometimes be as high as 200,000 or 300,000 CFA (US$370 to $550).
Adamou has only been able to reclaim one of his properties. ‘My houses were “protected” by the local people. But those who protected the houses, now they are asking for money. Unfortunately, I am moneyless. I don’t have enough to give them,’ he says. As a consequence, three of Adamou’s houses are still occupied by Christians, though he managed to scrape together enough to buy back the right to occupy one of his homes. ‘I had to give them 50,000 CFA (US$92) to get them to leave,’ he says.
Hamadou’s experience was different. ‘When I fled, I chose an old man to secure my house. When I got back, I discovered that the old man had sold all of my possessions. When I asked him to pay me back, he was unable to pay and he ran away.’
Despite the various hardships they are facing, Hamadou says that the most important thing is that the relationship between Muslims and Christians remains peaceful. ‘Right now, we don’t have any problems. We are living side by side with the Christians,’ he says.
Garba has worked hard to help establish that peace. ‘There is open contact between myself and the anti-balaka (who now refer to themselves as a “self-defence group”),’ he said pointing out that the local former anti-balaka commander, Ferdinand Ndobadi, has been helpful in ensuring security.
‘This is a safe town, a guns-free town. There are no problems now. The issue is that there is a lack of financial support for sensitization,’ says Ndobadi, coordinator of the Shanga-Mbaire Self-Defence Group.
‘We want to maintain peace in order to promote economic activities. So we need the Muslims to come back in order for us to live together. One group needs the other,’ he says. ‘We understand now that it was political events that divided us. We understand now that we were manipulated by the politicians.’
Berberati: living with the legacy of conflict
Returnees like 47-year-old Mamadou say the situation in Berberati is more bleak. Mamadou fled to Cameroon in February 2014 and returned to CAR in November 2016.
‘All of our houses were destroyed. Our businesses were destroyed. We do not have freedom of movement. We cannot conduct our business freely. Members of the local population sometimes threaten us about our business activities. If we have a problem and want to go to the law, this will just create another problem,’ he says.
Before fleeing CAR, Mamadou had a stall at the market in the centre of town. Like most returnees, he has struggled to get back into business and remains separated from his family of 14. ‘I lost my stall when I fled. Of course, being away so long, my merchandise was looted. I am trying to look for the means to make a business again, but for now I have not been able to,’ he says. ‘My family has had to stay in Cameroon because I cannot afford to bring them back. There is no security here. Even on the way back, they could face dangers.’
Mamadou says that, unlike Nola, Berberati is not safe for Muslims. ‘The Muslim leaders and anti-balaka leaders sat down together to make peace, but still we are not free. Sometimes returnees are attacked with knives. Sometimes armed people have stopped us and robbed us, demanding money. Anti-balaka youth carry out armed robberies. They will take your motorbike and then demand that you pay them to get it back. But we have no recourse. There is nothing we can do,’ he says.
Maria, a 42-year-old widow whose father is Muslim and whose mother is Christian, has ended up living in Popoto quarter of Berberati because she cannot return to Baleko town (25 miles south-east of Berberati), where she lived before fleeing to Cameroon in 2014. Her husband was shot and killed by the anti-balaka when they tried to flee Baleko. She returned to CAR in November 2017, but when she arrived in Baleko she discovered that her home had been destroyed. Fearing for her security, she left immediately.
Berberati does not feel very welcoming either, she says. ‘My children have problems with local children when they walk around town,’ she said, adding that her 14-, 10- and 8-year-olds have to deal with regular harassment and discrimination. ‘Muslim children have to walk on the other side of the street from the Christian children. The locals say bad things to my children. They say “You should have stayed away. It is no use for you to come back here. You don’t belong.”’
Maria said that freedom of movement is a major issue and that her ability to move has been further constrained because she lost her ID card when she fled her home. ‘We lost all of our documents. This causes big problems when we want to travel or even just move from one town to the next.’ More everyday concerns also take their toll. ‘Now we have problems getting money, food and clothes. I need medicine for back pain. My children have had malaria and some are anaemic. But I cannot afford medical exams. I can only afford to buy Panadol tablets and sometimes I just make do with traditional medicines and make a tea from leaves and bark.’
Maria also laments the fact that her children are missing out on the opportunity to attend school. ‘I want my younger children to be able to continue their studies, but the fees are too much,’ she says.
For the younger generation, this inability to further their education will likely have long-lasting impacts. Haroun, 22, has also had to put his studies on hold. He fled Bania town (29 miles from Berberati) for Chad in April 2014, returning in March 2016. He was forced to relocate to Berberati in November 2017 after he and a friend were attacked by a group of anti-balaka youth.
‘One night I was coming back to Bania with a friend. As we arrived, a group of anti-balaka youth stoned us with rocks and tried to beat us with wooden clubs. Thanks to the police, who chased them away, I was able to get back to Berberati safely.’
Haroun stopped studying when he was 16. ‘I would like to finish my studies, and more than anything I would like to attend university in Bangui. But I try not to dream about this too much. There are many obstacles to me continuing my education,’ he said, such as lack of money. ‘I was a good student and sometimes I got good grades. If I had the opportunity, I would continue my studies at university. To be honest, I would study anything.’
Back in Nola, Abdramane says he will continue to do his best to maintain peace and assist returnees in any way he can. ‘But I worry a lot about the risks I am taking and the risk I am putting myself in as the focal point, giving information to people about what is happening in Nola. All eyes are fixed on me, so I can honestly say that my life is in danger,’ he says. ‘There are still enemies of peace here … bad people with bad intentions. These are the ones who worry me.’
Will Baxter (words and images)
Header image: A Muslim girl walks down a street in Nola town, CAR. Credit: Will Baxter.