An Uncertain Path to Reconciliation

With U.N. mission in early stages, local aid groups carry burden of justice

Fellows 2014

By Benedict Moran

December 05, 2014

Also published by Al Jazeera America

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Lea Lucresse, 28, sat in a line of three dozen people in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic one day in September. She was exhausted and quiet, her eyes downcast. She had recently arrived at the John XXIII center, which opened in April 2013 to serve as a listening post for victims, from her home in Mobaye, a multiple-day trip by canoe, with the hope that her testimony might someday be used as evidence in a court of law. In a small room nearby, statements like hers were stacked on a table and labeled by crime: looting, houses set on fire, illegal occupation, murder and assassination and rape.

On the morning of Nov. 11, 2013, Lucresse, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, heard her neighbors screaming. Gunmen had entered Mobaye. She said that within seconds, three strangers were at her house and the men, all speaking Arabic, raped her, stole her money and left. When Lucresse arrived in Bangui a few days earlier, she went to a hospital for an HIV test. The result came back positive. “It won’t be easy to find out who did this,” Lucresse said, speaking through tears. “But I want justice to be done, so maybe their leader will be condemned.”

African soldiers from MISCA parade during a ceremony transitioning leadership to the United Nations.

The staffers at John XXIII have collected more than 4,000 cases, a number that grows by the day. Frederic Nacombo, a priest and the director of the center, said the demand for the center is a result of the lack of other avenues available to victims in search of justice. “They don’t know where else to go,” he said. “They have no trust in the system here. They don’t believe that guilty people will be punished.”

These doubts are well founded. Abuses by the mostly Muslim Séléka and primarily Christian anti-Balaka militias have claimed thousands of lives since they began warring in early 2013. But after nearly two years of conflict, the country’s judicial system lies in ruins. Armed groups remain in control of almost all inhabited regions. The country’s interim government, the National Transitional Council, has little authority and has yet to rebuild the state’s crumbled institutions.

Bangui's Muslim district is known as PK-5.

Though some judicial activities have restarted, police, prosecutors and courts remain helpless in addressing atrocities. The International Federation for Human Rights, one of numerous human rights groups monitoring the situation in the CAR, has documented hundreds of murders. Other than a few arrests, none of the killings have been punished. When visiting the country in April, then–U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said “total impunity, no justice, no law and order apart from that provided by foreign troops” marked the CAR.

In September the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that it was launching an investigation into crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the Central African Republic since Aug. 1, 2012. “The list of atrocities is endless,” said Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, on the day of the announcement. “Both the Séléka and the anti-Balaka groups have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

But the investigation will look into only the most serious of crimes, like mass murder and rape, forced displacement, attacks against peacekeepers and the use of child soldiers. For individuals like Lucresse, who are in search of personal reparation, there is little official recourse.

Chaïbou Mahamat, 33, stands in his looted home in the PK-5 district in Bangui. After anti-Balaka fighters attacked his family, his wife and child fled to Cameroon. His brother fled too, but was killed by anti-Balaka fighters during the journey. 

Only a handful of lawyers are still working in Bangui. One of them, Matthias Moruba, said, “Some activities have restarted. Unfortunately, the security situation is equivocal, and it’s hard for anyone to go to work safely.”

In the first months of 2013, during the chaos of the Séléka invasion, rebels looted government buildings, including courtrooms and prisons, destroying records en masse and releasing detainees in the hopes that they would join the movement. In November 2013 assailants shot and killed the head of judicial services, Modeste Martineau Bria, as he drove down a street in Bangui. The killers were never found. Bria worked as a judge in the capital for years. Witnesses quoted in press reports said his killers were men he had condemned and who escaped when the prison system collapsed.

His murder reverberated among judges and lawyers. “We don’t work in safety,” said Moruba. “A number of lawyers and judges have been threatened while on the job. They’ve had to go into hiding.”

With few working prisons, it’s not clear where offenders would be locked up even if the justice system were functioning. Most prisons have fallen into disrepair. Rebels took over some prisons and turned the facilities into offices or storage; others became makeshift homes.

Only one detention center is operational: the Ngaraba Central Prison in Bangui. Ngaraba, which looks like a large mud-brick castle, sits on the outskirts of the city, near the residences of the transitional government’s President Catherine Samba-Panza and the French ambassador. Despite the nearby security, there have been three major escapes of Séléka and anti-Balaka detainees in 2014. The latest incident occurred on Nov. 24, when a group of prisoners, armed with grenades and Kalashnikovs, ransacked Ngaraba in protest against dire living conditions and delays in the processing of their cases. “We need a real prison to hold these people,” Moruba said.

“If we don’t let justice do its job, then we won’t be able to get out of this situation,” he said. “It will just push forward the cycle of violence, and everything will get worse.”

MISCA soldiers parade during a ceremony transitioning the force to United Nations leadership in September. The new mission is known as MINUSCA.

The latest international effort to quell violence in the Central African Republic began on Sept. 15, with the launch of a United Nations peacekeeping mission. At its height, MINUSCA, as the new mission is known, will be made up of approximately 10,000 peacekeeping troops and 2,000 police officers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a host of other countries. Though only 70 percent of the troops had been recruited on the day of the launch, expectations for the new mission run high. “Today is a decisive turning point in the history of the Central African Republic,” Samba-Panza said on the day MINUSCA’s first day. “It heralds a new stage in the stabilization of the country, after cycles of blind, barbaric and useless violence.”

MINUSCA holds a U.N. Security Council mandate to protect civilians from imminent danger, support the transitional government in rebuilding and preparing for elections in 2015 and creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The resolution that authorizes the force also calls for what are referred to as “urgent temporary measures” to maintain basic law and order and fight impunity in the country. In the absence of a functioning state, the U.N. is tasked with effectively running the Central African Republic’s judicial system.

For the first time in its history, the United Nations will build its own jails, where suspects will be held before being transferred to court. U.N. police will have full authority to arrest and detain wherever they are deployed. The European Union funded the rehabilitation and expansion of the Ngaraba facility, a task that has yet to begin. The U.N. has stationed armed guards to protect the complex, and it will staff the prison with international correctional officers.

While the ICC will seek to prosecute the most serious offenders, the National Transitional Council and the U.N. signed an agreement to form a special criminal court to address other crimes against civilians. Because of the risk to legal workers, lawyers and magistrates will be hired from outside the Central African Republic — “a way to not put national judges in a situation where they would face the risk of retaliation against themselves or their family,” said a U.N. peacekeeping official in New York, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The outside hiring is also aimed at insulating the judicial process from political meddling, the U.N. source said. Some members of the anti-Balaka and Séléka have been incorporated into the government and hold ministerial positions — an outcome of the cease-fire and political negotiations. When a case is built, the U.N. hopes to go after whoever is responsible, including those in the government. “The most fundamental thing that we can do is build solid cases,” said the U.N. source. “We have a responsibility to make sure to quickly arrest and limit the power of those who are indicted. Timing will be key.”

Worshippers at the Apostolique church in Bangui during Sunday Mass. The Zion flag is used as a Christian symbol and is found on taxi cabs and mobile phone stands throughout Bangui.

Nacombo, the head priest at John XXIII, said that for some people, just having their experiences documented is cathartic. “Many come here with so many worries,” he said. Part of the center’s goal is to stitch back together a society riven by conflict. He said that after people visit John XXIII, “we’ve seen that some of this worry is relieved. They feel better. We’ve seen that people are starting to forget about the worst, about revenge, and their morale improves.”

Hatred, however, particularly against Muslims, remains intense for many in the capital. Outbursts of bigotry — even expression of a desire to cleanse the country of any remaining Muslims — aren’t uncommon. “We will wipe them out,” said an official at the Ministry of Interior who spoke on the condition that he remain anonymous. “God gave us this land. We still have our machetes stored in home. They don’t know what’s waiting for them.”

At the official level, Samba-Panza and the rest of the interim government have done little to encourage justice and reconciliation among warring sides, according to diplomats in Bangui, who asked for anonymity in exchange for candid assessments. Local-level organizations are left to take the initiative. One of the first meetings between anti-Balaka and Séléka leaders was organized by Pareto, a local nongovernmental organization that promotes reconciliation, and took place in May and June at a restaurant in Bangui. Beni Kouyaté, who works for Pareto as a mediator, attended the tense meetings, which did not go well at first. “They insulted each other for 30 minutes,” Kouyaté said, and they called each other things like “political prostitute,” “traitor” and “ingrate.” Some Séléka and anti-Balaka leaders harbored personal grievances that preceded the current conflict, which needed to be resolved before any agreement could be forged, said Kouyaté.

Those first meetings paved the way for the cessation-of-hostilities agreement signed in July, the sole road map toward peace followed by the international community and interim government. In the accord, anti-Balaka, Séléka and other armed groups agreed to put down their weapons and begin a process of reconciliation. None of this happened, nor did the agreement have a meaningful impact on the level of violence in the country — at least yet. The cease-fire is a baseline that the international community can use to hold belligerents accountable and without which international donors would be reluctant to commit assistance to rebuild the country, according to a U.N. peacekeeping official.

Since 1997, 13 regional and international peacekeeping operations have tried and failed to bring stability to the country, in part because they didn’t address the causes of conflict, according to analysts — a lesson that may be doomed to be repeated.

“Most operations ended without a proper evaluation, resulting in little improvement from one operation to the following,” said Martin Welz, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Konstanz in Germany, who has written extensively on the CAR's peacekeeping missions. “As a result, peacekeepers are more or less still stuck in a trial and error approach.”

Some view the local interventions between anti-Balaka and Séléka fighters, though undertaken out of necessity, as a hopeful sign — or at least as a new tack toward quelling CAR’s conflicts — which could, in turn, trickle down to encourage reconciliation at the average citizen’s level and for victims like Lucresse.

“Each time we’ve had a rebellion, people at the top reconcile, but those at the bottom — the victims — just sit there, watching them,” said Oumar Kobine Layama, the Central African Republic’s chief imam, who lives in Bangui. “There have been so many rebellions, wars, mutinies, but the victims have never been really considered. The base was ignored during reconciliation.”

Malouloud Mahamat Amat, 30, walks through the ruins of his family's home in PK-5. Eight members of his family, including two brothers, died in March when anti-Balakas fighters attacked his home with a hand grenade. Amat is the only member of his family who remains in Bangui.

PK-5, or Kilometer 5, as locals call it, is a besieged community in Bangui. International peacekeepers stand guard on the roads leading here but don’t assuage its residents’ fears. Fighting between armed self-defense groups in PK-5 and anti-Balaka in neighboring communities is common. Rows of gutted, burned houses encircle the neighborhood, a no man’s land that marks the territory between Muslims and the rest of the city’s population.

“The future of PK-5 is the future of the country,” said a humanitarian worker speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ali Hissein stepped over a pile of crumbled mud bricks amid the moat of destruction into the small clearing where his house once stood. Three walls rose precariously from the rubble. An empty sky peered into the ruins between burnt wooden rafters and the last attached fragments of a tin ceiling looted by anti-Balaka and Christian neighbors long ago. “I am so discouraged,” he said, surveying the debris. He stepped over a waterlogged, rotted suitcase. “But I’ll come back. I’ll rebuild it completely.”

Hissein, like thousands of others, fled Bangui earlier this year, when he said tensions between Christians and Muslims made living there untenable. Many sought refuge in countries like Cameroon and the Congo; the vast majority, like him, fled to Chad, where they had friends or distant relatives. On the day we visited him, he had recently returned to Bangui in order to scout out a safe return for his family. The prospect seemed dim, but he projected determination “This is where I grew up and where I studied,” he said. “It’s where I want to be.”

In October fighting broke out in Bangui, and Hissein fled to Cameroon.

Benedict Moran reported from the Central African Republic on a grant from theInternational Reporting Project (IRP), an independent journalism program based in Washington D.C.