Fighting Over the Spoils of War

Resources, resentment at heart of C.A.R. conflict

Fellows 2014

By Benedict Moran

December 03, 2014

Also published by Al Jazeera America

Award Winner

Notre Dame des Victoires Church, or NDV, is in a small parish about a 10-minute drive from the city of Bambari in the center of the Central African Republic. A French priest established the Catholic outpost in 1857. There’s a large red brick cathedral, a nearby house where clergy sleep and rows of classrooms where villagers once sent children to school. Nowadays, NDV is home to thousands of Christians who have fled brutal violence in the surrounding countryside. Families sleep anywhere that is dry and warm — the empty classroom, priests’ storage closets, unused chicken coops. There is a market in the driveway leading to the main chapel.

Hundreds of civilians have been displaced and living in camps like NDV over the past six months because of an uptick of violence between Muslim and non-Muslim communities near Bambari. “Some have had their homes destroyed, and they don’t have anything left,” said Jonas Rawago, the head priest at NDV. “They are scared to go back. They are waiting for fighters to be disarmed to start over.”

A miner washes soil in search of gold at the Ndassima mine near Bambari.

The Central African Republic has been rocked by sectarian violence since the Séléka, a coalition of mostly Muslim rebels, toppled the country’s president last year. Fighting between the Séléka and a group of mostly Christian fighters known as the anti-Balaka has killed thousands of people and brought the country to the brink of ethnic cleansing. Though much of the country has seen bloodshed, Bambari is the current center of the conflict. The region is one of the most volatile in the country — and violence is spreading there like an infection.

Much of the hostilities reflect not a religious conflict but a power struggle between ambitious individuals. The Séléka, which moved its headquarters to Bambari in May this year, remains in control of the region, but is increasingly fractured by internal divisions. Anti-Balaka fighters, including many from the south, are infiltrating the area and launching attacks on Séléka fighters and Muslim villagers.

The town is now divided. Muslims keep within the limits of their neighborhood, and thousands of Christians, fearing for their lives, seek shelter at three displaced people’s camps that are guarded by international peacekeepers.

A displaced family living in the Notre Dame des Victoires Church.

Early one morning in September, the U.N. World Food Program distributed a monthly allotment of food to the residents of the NDV camp. Under a sweltering sun, hundreds of men and women waited behind a makeshift barrier for their names to be called. Laborers unloaded bags of rice, dried beans and cans of fortified vegetable oil. When families were called and they loaded their bags onto carts, the bags would often rip, causing grains of rice or beans to fall to the ground; they were swept up and carefully pocketed. Nothing would go to waste.

Near the entrance to one of the classrooms, Gislain Soupadé, 38, sat idly. He arrived earlier that week, with only the clothes on his back: a ragged T-shirt and ripped, oversized pants, both so dirty that the white fabric had turned dark gray. His wife, three children ages 3 to 10 and his elderly mother waited nearby in the hallway where they all slept. His mother lay on a straw mat, weakened by their journey from Lioua, a small village 100 miles southeast of Bambari.

Gonaporo Priva, 12, at Notre Dame des Victoires, suffers from malnutrition and malaria.

A cook at NDV. Thousands of displaced Christians live in and around the church in Bambari.

Armed men attacked Soupadé’s village weeks earlier. He didn’t know who they were but said they were Muslim. Like many Christians and animists, he didn’t distinguish between Séléka rebels, Muslim villagers and Fulani — Muslim nomadic pastoralists who have roamed between West and Central Africa for centuries and who have often fought with farmers over grazing rights. This confusion has fueled ethnic tension. Victims have divided aggressors into two camps — Christians or Muslims — when in fact motivations and behaviors are diverse and often nonreligious.

“The Muslims came and burned all our houses,” said Soupadé. He paused and held his head in his hands. “No one understood why. There were many injured, and some were even burned in their own homes. Everyone fled in random directions.” His family escaped on foot, he said, walking through the bush and empty farmland to avoid being seen on major roads. “Right now, I don’t want to ever see a Muslim again,” he said. “They destroyed everything and chased us away. I’m going to stay here. If I go back, how will I be safe?”

The Muslim quarter of Bambari.

Joseph Zoundeiko, 44, came out of his bedroom at 8:30 a.m., as if dragged out of sleep. He is the highest-ranking military leader of what remains of the Séléka rebel alliance. He sat down on a cheap sofa, wearing a patterned blue dashiki. Two towering yet lanky young fighters, both from Zoundeiko’s Goula tribe, stood guard outside.

Much of the recent violence was the product of a dispute between Zoundeiko and another Séléka leader known as Ali Daras. It came to a head in August, when dozens of fighters from both sides were killed in street battles. Zoundeiko dismissed the infighting. “The issue has now been resolved,” he said. But on the streets of Bambari, tension between to the two factions was palpable, and they steered clear of each other.

Bambari was once home to about 40,000 people. The Ngakobo Sugar Refinery, the country’s largest, provided hundreds of jobs to its residents. In the decades after independence, prospectors discovered large deposits of gold and diamonds nearby, and traders often passed through on their way to markets in West Africa.

A Christian woman at the market in the Muslim quarter.

The city’s fortunes changed with the arrival of the Séléka. Militias first appeared here in early 2013, on their way to attack the capital, Bangui, 300 miles to the south. Gunmen looted most of the city’s public institutions, including the mayor’s office, the hospital and the sugar refinery. Most Séléka fighters then left, and by March 2013 the city was in the control of Ali Daras, a member of the Ouda people, a subset of the ethnic Fulani.

Daras’ troops exercised more discipline than the fighters who left, according to aid workers who lived in Bambari at the time, and much of the looting stopped. Life in the city returned to a fragile calm. Residents of the bustling Muslim quarter, where cattle and other merchandise were sold, and those in the non-Muslim areas near the Ouaka River traveled freely among neighborhoods. Daras allowed humanitarian agencies to operate unhindered.

Then in May, amid sustained pressure from the anti-Balaka uprising in the south, Séléka fighters were forced out of Bangui. They moved their headquarters to Bambari, which, within a matter of days, saw a massive influx of weapons and battle-hardened rebels. The movement held a conclave and called for the north to secede. Zoundeiko emerged as the alliance’s new military leader.

The market in Bambari. Christians often cross into the Muslim neighborhood to sell goods and food in relative security.

A Muslim neighborhood in Bambari.

After a year in control of the region, though, Daras was unwilling to step aside. The reasons were in part economic, according to diplomats and human rights observers. He had established a network of checkpoints to extort money for his troops. He retained tight control over nearby mines, including the Ndassima gold mine — the country’s largest — and collected protection money from workers there, bringing in at least $150,000 per year, according to the latest United Nations Group of Experts report. “This is a zone that produces a lot of gold,” said Lewis Mudge, an Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Daras’ men control a lot of these gold mines, and Zoundeiko probably wanted to cash in on some of that … At the end of all of this talk, there is serious money to be made in this country.”

Observers who work closely with Daras and Zoundeiko said the infighting was also personal and based on ethnic rivalry. The Central African Republic is home to dozens of ethnicities, with politics that often run along ethnic lines. The two men also disagreed over whether the north should secede from the rest of the country, which Daras and other ethnic Fulani didn’t support.

“The issue over the checkpoints was just a pretext,” said Beni Youkaté, a Guinean man who works in the country as an informal mediator between Séléka and anti-Balaka groups. “There was a problem of jealousy between the two. The community of Goula, which is the ethnicity of Zoundeiko, and the community of Fulani, which is the community of Daras, just weren’t getting along.”

Joseph Zoundeiko (seated) is the leader of the remaining Séléka in Bambari.

In Zoundeiko’s makeshift headquarters, one of the rebel leader’s assistants pulled out the general’s curriculum vitae, neatly printed on two pages. It chronicled his path from a guard in a national forest to a commander in the UFDR, one of the founding rebel groups of the Séléka. The CV included personal details: He had three wives, of whom one was Christian, and 16 children. In an “aptitudes” section he listed an inventory of skills, including a “strong capacity for teamwork” and outstanding character traits, including being “humble, hard working and sincere.” He also listed an “expertise in the protection of natural resources and civilian populations.”

With civilian populations increasingly bearing the brunt of the violence that his troops were in part unleashing, though, many in the country renewed calls for international peacekeepers to forcefully disarm the Séléka. “People expected disarmament to be immediate, and they are confused that it hasn’t happened yet,” said a humanitarian worker in Bambari, who wished to remain anonymous. “We don’t know what to tell them.” As of late September, at least 2,000 fighters remained in the alliance, according to U.N. officials, split among various factions. But there is no sign they will put down their weapons peacefully. To the Séléka leadership, though, disarming them ahead of the anti-Balaka would open the door to ethnic cleansing. “If you disarm the ex-Séléka, it means the Muslims will be exterminated,” Zoundeiko said. “There isn’t any other way to protect them. The anti-Balaka are everywhere.”

A Séléka fighter under Zoundeiko's command in Bambari.

In mid-2013, reports emerged of villages fighting back against the Séléka. “People were organizing on their own, even before the term ‘anti-Balaka’ was ever used,” said Tony Lakouetene, who has worked throughout the country as a human rights observer. A nebulous structure eventually emerged, with leaders motivated by opportunism as much as revolutionary fervor. At first, their goal was to get rid of the two most burdensome aspects of Séléka rule: the presidency of Michel Djotodia and the presence of the foreign mercenaries who fought alongside him. Over time, their goals grew to rid the country of its Muslim population. Like the Séléka, the movement was extremely divided: U.N. investigators indicated in October that there are at least four groups in the anti-Balaka.

Anti-Balaka leaders insist they are at the head of a popular revolution and say they take little initiative unless pushed to do so. That is often belied by evidence on the ground. In October, the country saw the most intense fighting it had seen in months. Hundreds of armed young men took to the streets, ostensibly in reaction to a grenade attack by a former Séléka fighter on a Christian neighborhood in Bangui. Within hours, streets emptied and roadblocks went up, including around the presidential palace. Fighting between U.N. peacekeepers and armed men raged for days.

Calm wasn’t restored until President Samba-Panza met with anti-Balaka leaders and acceded to some of their demands. One of them was making an anti-Balaka leader, Patrice Ngaïssona, director general of the country’s state oil company, one of the highest-paying public jobs in the country. “It wasn’t at all a popular demonstration,” said a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It was a group of armed men who took advantage of the violence to destabilize the transition.”

In Bambari, some of the most recent fighting was also likely being coordinated from the south. Evidence emerged that “point[ed] to the involvement of Bangui-based anti-Balaka elements in what appears, at first glance, to be a local conflict, [but] might indicate that a national-level strategy against former Séléka forces is being implemented,” according to the U.N. Group of Experts report.

Outside the city, the scars of recent violence were everywhere. In September a series of empty, burned-out villages lined the road to the Ndassima gold mine. In one community, composed of a row of a dozen mud huts, a herd of goats ran through the debris of destroyed homes, and household items like pots and a half-burned bicycle littered the ground.

This violence fanned the anger and mistrust between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. In early October a truck carrying Muslim passengers was attacked nearby. According to press reports, the driver and at least two others were killed and their vehicle was torched. When the badly mutilated bodies were returned to Bambari, a mixed contingent of Séléka and armed young Muslim men attacked a camp for displaced people in revenge, and the fighting escalated into a full-scale battle with peacekeepers. At least five civilians were killed and the offices of an international NGO were set alight. A week later, in another attack by anti-Balaka fighters on a road near Bambari, seven Muslim passengers were butchered. “They undressed their bodies to humiliate them and cut them into pieces, chopping off their hands and feet,” a local resident told Amnesty International.

On Nov. 29, leaders of the anti-Balaka told reporters that the movement would lay down its weapons and form a political party ahead of presidential and legislative elections next year. But whether this will indeed happen — and what impact it would have on violence in the countryside — remains to be seen.

“Right now, many people in the countryside are buying traditional weapons to protect themselves, because they can’t trust the U.N. forces or anyone,” said Lakouetene, the rights observer. “That’s where we are now. It’s very dangerous.”

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

Slideshow: Ndassima gold mine

The gold mines in Ndassima. In late August, 27 miners died during a landslide (remnants visible at left). 

Miners wash the soil in search of gold.

Several hundred miners produce an estimated 15 kg of gold per month.

Most of the gold produced in Ndassima is trafficked to Cameroon through Bangui by air and ground.

The roads leading to the mine are pitted with mud and obstacles. Anti-Balaka often attack and kill Muslims traveling the road.

Along the road to the mine are the remains of a house in a Peul (Fulani) village attacked by anti-Balakas in August.

Miners wash the soil in search of gold. "At the end of all of this talk, there is serious money to be made in this country," says Lewis Mudge, an Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.