Christmas lights gaily blink around a nativity scene at St Paul's church in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR).
But in the congregation, a sea of tired, dispirited faces betray the trauma and upheaval the worshippers have been enduring over the past few months. This year, the traditional Midnight Mass is being held in the afternoon – because of the curfew.
There’s not much festive cheer in this African nation that has witnessed a violent opening of sectarian fault lines between the country’s Christian majority and Muslim minority for the first time in its troubled, postcolonial history.
The UN estimates that more than 700,000 people have been uprooted across the CAR since the crisis erupted a year ago. In the capital alone, more than 200,000 residents have been displaced, with many Christians seeking refuge in churches, schools and at the airport. The city’s estimated 35,000 displaced Muslims have mainly sought shelter with host families, according to the UN.
Outside the church, the grounds of St Paul’s have turned into a makeshift refugee camp, where more than 3,000 people are living in tents as religious officials and humanitarian agencies struggle to cope with the crisis.
Here at St Paul’s, the displaced people have fled the excesses of the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels, who swept into the capital from the north early this year, ousting the country’s Christian president, François Bozizé, in March.
While former Seleka chief and current transitional president, Michel Djotodia, has officially disbanded the Seleka coalition, the fighters continue to pose a threat to this fragile nation’s security.
Meanwhile, self-protection militias – called anti-balaka – rose up to defend the country’s Christian community before committing excesses and terrorising the country’s Muslim population.
On the grounds of St Paul’s a group of little boys explain their situation in simple, stark terms. "We aren't at home because of the Seleka,” says a little boy in a dirty, Spiderman T-shirt. “If they find us, they will kill us," he explains.
Chadian troops to redeploy in the north
In a call for peace issued on Christmas Eve, transitional Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye joined three religious leaders - Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, Pastor Nicolas Grekoyame and Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga – on Tuesday in a bid to stop the bloodshed.
Djotodia also issued a peace call during a lengthy speech at a press conference on Tuesday. "Love each other,” commanded the transitional president. “We find it in the Bible and the Koran."
But in the CAR, it’s not just Muslims and Christians that are having trouble getting along.
In a bizarre incident earlier this week, a gunfire exchange between Chadian and Burundian troops operating under an AU-led UN peacekeeping mandate left three Chadian soldiers wounded.
The 3,700-strong force, known as MISCA, is operating along with about 1,600 French troops in the CAR under the terms of a UN Security Council Resolution in a bid to secure the country.
On Wednesday, a MISCA spokesman said Chadian troops will be redeployed from Bangui and will be sent to secure the north, where the majority of the country’s Muslims live.
The announcement came amid growing signs that international troops were at risk of getting ensnared in the CAR’s sectarian conflict.
Many Christians believe Chadian troops are supporting Muslims – a view that has gained traction since Seleka rebel ranks include Chadian natives from across the border.
On the other hand, the Muslim community believes French troops – who were initially welcomed in the CAR – are targeting Seleka rebels and have a pro-Christian bias.
Burundian military sources have suggested that relations between the Burundians and the Chadians had been strained ever since the Chadians in MISCA had been re-deployed outside Bangui while the Burundians were tasked with securing the CAR capital.
The commercial spirit of Christmas
In this country that straddles Africa’s fault-line between a Muslim north and Christian-animist south, it’s going to take a lot more than Christmas calls for peace to bring together the divided communities.
On Wednesday, sporadic gunfire exchanges could be heard in several parts of Bangui, including near the airport, according to the AFP. There were no reports of any casualties.
But inside the walls of St Paul’s, there were signs that the commercial spirit of Christmas had survived the trauma of conflict.
As the security situation calms, some of the displaced residents have been leaving the grounds to go into town before they return to the safety of the church at night.
On a mat spread on the dusty grounds, a young man is selling cheap plastic Christmas toys as a crush of excited children gather around him.
A young mother haggles over a plastic doll for her little girl, grumbling about the price – the equivalent of two euros.
“That’s so expensive, so expensive” she sighs, untying a knot of money safely secured in her scarf.
“There’s no money,” she complains as she buys the toy. “If we pay that, we won’t be able to eat,” she adds.
Her explanation is completely ignored by her little girl standing next to her mother as she clutches the toy, examining it with open mouthed intensity.
Christmas in the CAR this year may not be as festive as it was in peacetime. But for one little girl in a camp on a church ground, it has arrived complete with a brand new doll in a crinkly plastic wrap.
Date created : 2013-12-25