My first five-day visit to the Central African Republic (CAR) started on a bright sunny morning of Thursday January 22 after a smooth landing at Bangui M’Poko International Airport, about 7km outside the capital.
Security, as expected, was guaranteed by our very own, the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) who have been keeping peace in this country for a year.
Our RwandaAir flight, carrying a contingent of RDF sent to replace departing colleagues on a peacekeeping assignment in this conflict-torn country, touched down some minutes after 9:00am to a warm welcome from Rwandan soldiers on the ground.
This airport, I later learnt, was the scene of one of the worst skirmishes in the country fought along religious fault lines, a year ago. In fact, the first contingent of Rwandan peacekeepers, under the African Union Mission (Misca) and later United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in CAR (Minusca) had to fight their way to their current bases outside the airport.
Although I was embedded with the RDF during my entire stay in the capital Bangui, I could witness first-hand signs that peace has been gradually returning to the dusty city—the scene of unspeakable violence one year ago between Christians and Muslims.
It was at the airport that I was first introduced to stories of how Rwandan soldiers have helped bring back relative calm to the streets of Bangui. One year ago, this seemed impossible.
One resident of Bangui, who works at the airport, told me that people were happy with the Rwandan contingent because Rwandans had helped save many lives at the time when even those who started the violence did not know how and when to stop it, as mayhem spiraled out of hand.
Indeed, RDF soldiers shared with us stories of how they confronted warring parties and got them to end the violence that had also included mutilation and cannibalism.
But how safe are local people living in Bangui today; those who are not always protected and accompanied by soldiers all the time like I was?
I put this question to Jean-Damascène Hitimana, a Rwandan who has lived in CAR for seven years as an aid worker with a refugee agency. He told me that people can only be safe as long as they stay within their communities—Christian or Muslim.
“Everybody is safe from attack as long as they don’t cross to the opposite side,” Hitimana told me.
His insight was corroborated by Daouda Bilal Mohamed, a Muslim, who said that he is tired of not being able to move freely across the entire city or the whole country because he is still afraid of Christians.
I later learned that one big step so far that has been achieved towards peace is that Muslims and Christians no longer plan and execute attacks against each other, because of the presence of foreign peacekeepers.
And one would wonder why members of the two faiths would continue attacking each other while their leaders, the Imam of Bangui, Oumar Kobine Layama, and the Roman Catholic Church Archbishop, Monsignor Dieudonné Nzapalainga, have called for tolerance between Muslims and Christians.
The two leaders have remained together in their call for peace but violence has been orchestrated by politically-motivated groups beyond their control who use faith as the fault line.
“This crisis is not religion-based, it’s a military and political crisis,” says Monsignor Nzapalainga.
In line with their plan to promote peace among different faiths, Imam Layama attended a recent mass conducted by Monsignor Nzapalainga at Saint Anne Parish in Kassai, an outskirt of Bangui.
Later on, I saw vendors selling different merchandise such as vegetables, fruits, and cookies on the streets of Bangui.
When I saw rebounding businesses, I also learned that the markets are frequented by both Muslims and Christians and that they are able to buy from, and sell to, each other. It is extremely heartening that these warring communities who don’t normally mix can do business together at the market. Food for thought indeed.
The entire city of Bangui is patrolled by troops under Minusca, whose cars with the big UN sign are often seen in the city along with a handful of local taxis and personal cars owned by the locals.
For the entire five days that we spent in the city, I didn’t hear a single bullet yet I was in a war-torn country where various militias are still armed.
But, make no mistakes, relative peace doesn’t mean that CAR is peaceful. I was surprised during my stay when I heard that the country’s Minister for Sports, Armel Sayo, had been kidnapped by unknown militias. Of the two main militias, the so called militia of Christians called Anti-Balaka and the Moslems’ militia, Séléka, some rumours said the minister was kidnapped by Anti-Balaka.