The small seminary Internally Displaced People camp in Bangassou, Central African Republic, where 2,000 muslim people have been living for almost three years. Picture: AFP/CAMILLE LAFFONT
The small seminary Internally Displaced People camp in Bangassou, Central African Republic, where 2,000 muslim people have been living for almost three years. Picture: AFP/CAMILLE LAFFONT

Bangassou — In Bangassou, splendid trees overlook elegant buildings slowly crumbling to ruin.

Time here seems to have stood still, and Bangassou's trauma too.

The quiet little town in southeastern Central African Republic (CAR) was relatively spared by a civil war which erupted in 2013 and mutated into bloodletting along religious and ethnic lines.

But its years of comparative peace ended abruptly in May 2017, when so-called anti-balaka militiamen, drawn mainly from Christian communities, roared into town.

They slaughtered at least 72 Muslim civilians and 12 UN peacekeepers and besieged nearly 2,000 other Muslims who fled to the local cathedral for safety, according to the UN.

The militia accused their civilian targets of collaborating with the Seleka — an alliance of rebels dominated by Muslims who in 2013 toppled the regime of President Francois Bozize. Their coup led to an unprecedented spiral of violence.

Justice finally caught up with the ringleaders behind Bangassou's bloodbath.

Five anti-balaka chiefs were sentenced on February 7 to forced labour for life after being convicted of crimes against humanity in a court in Bangui, the capital.

The verdict was historic in a country used to impunity for such acts.

Displaced for years

Today, life is returning painfully to Tokoyo, a Muslim quarter torn apart by looters.

A local peace agreement signed in 2018 by Muslim and Christian community leaders opened the way to some reconciliation.

Ten months ago, Baba Kete, a trader renowned throughout the region, went back to live in the ruins of his home, destroyed in 2017.

The property stands a short way from a wrecked mosque and the market, where Christians man the stalls.

Kete claims reconciliation is more readily attainable in an area where Christians and Muslims often hail from the same ethnic groups, even the same families.

“We're confident, people have understood,” he says.

Even so, out of about 2,000 Muslims who fled their homes, just 145 have returned.

The others still live at the “little seminary” opposite the cathedral, where they took refuge in 2017, protected by UN troops during a months-long siege.

Crammed with their fears and doubts into a rough-and-ready camp on church property, the presence of the displaced families fuels a wild rumour mill.

“As long as they remain there, there will be no real peace,” the bishop of Bangassou, Juan Jose Aguirre Munoz, has said.

Fear

The verdict handed down by the court in the capital was unprecedented, but among those in the camp, anxiety remains palpable.

“This wasn't justice, it was theatre,” hissed camp chief Ali Idriss, who contended: “Those who led and created the anti-balaka are still out there.”

“If we go back to our district, they will get together to kill us again,” predicted Ismaïl Dicky, a camp resident.

“A majority of the population [of Bangassou] favoured the arrival of the anti-balaka,” said the parish priest, Father Serge Ikaga.

“Many people thought that unless the anti-balaka didn't come into the town, the Seleka would.”

A report by UN experts charged that Christian worthies manipulated the public at large and supported the anti-balaka with a prime goal of stealing the wealth of rich Muslim traders.

‘Need to disarm hearts’

Three years after the killings, “we still need to disarm hearts,” said Father Serge. “People avoid talking about those events.”

Christians argue that they too were victims of the violence, accusing displaced Muslims of destroying several homes around the seminary.

“There are many discontented people” among the Christians, said Christian Kotalimbora, a co-ordinator of regional civil society organisations.

Such people support the stiff sentences imposed on the five militia chiefs, but most are less happy about further tough sentences against 23 accomplices.

“Almost all these defendants are our relatives,” Kotalimbora said.

A common refrain heard from Christians and Muslims alike in this remote region was that they had been abandoned by the government, with no law and order and little hope for their children.

AFP