At least a hundred people have been killed here in Bangui today, in horrific fighting between Seleka and the so-called ‘anti-Balaka.’ The violence is increasingly sectarian, sharpening people’s fears that this beautiful fragile country could be on the brink of an abyss.
I’ve spent most of the day trapped in my flat in Bangui, because it’s been too dangerous to go outside. It has been surreal, standing on my balcony, watching vehicles loaded with heavily-armed Seleka driving back and forth, whilst listening to shooting. At one point a man in combat clothes was walking back and forth past the gate to my apartment, with a Kalashnikov in one hand and a large knife in the other.
One of my friends is the leader of the community of Benedictine monks who live in the quartier of Boy Rabbe, several kilometres outside the city centre, towards the airport. I spoke to him this morning, and could hear the grief in his voice, as he told me ‘the anti-Balaka came to the monastery this morning. Now they have gone – but there are so many injured people here in the quartier.’
On the news tonight, all the talk is of the increased number of French troops who are about to enter Bangui – in addition to the 400 who are already stationed here – and the bolstering of African Union peacekeepers from 2,500 to 3,600. Every Central African that I know welcomes these interventions: the security situation here is very fragile. But these troops also need to be deployed outside the cities, because security has been deteriorating in villages over the last few months, and many rural communities are living in fear of Seleka and other heavily armed rogue elements. Securing Bangui will not be enough to avert political implosion.
In addition to international military interventions, there also needs to be a strategic plan to begin reconstructing the national institutions crushed by Seleka – like the police and the judiciary. These have the potential to offer Central Africans a sense that in future they will have human rights, for without human rights there will be no long-lasting security in CAR. And there also needs to be a national programme of reconciliation between communities who have lost all confidence and trust in each other.
I have spent these last six months travelling around the Central African Republic talking, and listening, to communities across the country. I am convinced this bloody struggle is not religious, but based upon dirty sectarian politics that has divided communities who have often lived side by side for generations. The anti-Balaka backlash is a direct product of Seleka’s brutality towards its own people. Anti-Balaka is not a political movement, but a violent response to Seleka’s political and physical cruelty. I am not excusing the atrocities carried out by the anti-Balaka – who slaughtered dozens in a Bangui mosque today – but I am trying to understand how this situation is unravelling.
Late this afternoon, I sat at the river-front with two of my neighbours – one a Muslim the other a Christian, good friends. Both men insisted this is not a religious war between Muslims and Christians, but a deep crisis of trust between communities that can be repaired, and needs to be, for the sake of all Central Africans.