Muslims, Christian unite amid Bangui religious violence
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Sectarian conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) has killed hundreds and displaced thousands in recent weeks. But in some parts of the capital of Bangui, Muslim and Christian neighbours still look out for each other.
Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), may have descended into chaos with the recent wave of religious conflict that killed around 450 people in just one week, but some parts of this city appear to have escaped the bloodshed that has gripped this country over the last few months.
In the Boulata and Ramandji neighbourhoods along Bangui’s airport road, where a mixed population of Christians and Muslims co-habit, there has been a measure of calm, according to residents.
“Here, we have a mixture of populations that do not exist in other areas,” said Bash, a 28-year-old Muslim resident who wished to be identified only by his nickname for security reasons, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.
“This diversity has prevented us from sinking into violence. We grew up together, people have intermarried. Here, you can find a child with a Muslim name in a Christian home because the father is Muslim,” he explained.
Muslims protect their Christian neighbours’ homes
Despite the relative calm, fear nevertheless stalks the residents of these neighbourhoods. Half the Christians in the area have fled their homes and sought refuge at the airport, where thousands of displaced people have camped.
Bash's friend, Kami, a Christian, is one of them. Until he can return home, Bash says he is protecting Kami’s home from looters. "Along with other young Muslims, we organise patrols every night because at night, people try to loot the houses. We arm ourselves with knives and sticks, but so far we haven’t used them because when the robbers see so many of us, they flee,” said Bash.
Weeks before the UN Security Council passed a resolution on December 5 authorising French and African troops to protect civilians in the CAR, senior French officials had warned that the country was “on the verge of genocide”.
But Bash believes the discourse of religious conflict between Christians and Muslims has been unduly alarmist and exaggerated.
"We work in perfect harmony here. I work closely with the pastor in this neighbourhood, seeking ways to ease tensions,” he said. While Bash does not deny that there has been increasing violence in Bangui, he tries to remain tolerant. “Some Muslims, when they hear that members of their community were killed somewhere, react by wanting to destroy churches – it’s human,” he maintained.
When Muslims and Christians drank together
The Central African Republic is one of the world’s poorest countries with a history of political instability since it gained independence from France more than 50 years ago. But inter-communal violence has not been a problem in this majority Christian country – until earlier this year.
In March, a loose alliance of mostly Muslim rebels, calling themselves “Seleka” (literally “alliance” in the local Sango language) ousted former president François Bozizé, sparking an unprecedented sectarian conflict.
The Seleka rebels are mostly Muslim and include fighters from neighbouring Chad and Sudan. While transitional President Michel Djotodia has officially disbanded the Seleka alliance, in reality the former rebel leader has lost control of rebel fighters. Meanwhile, Christian self-defence groups, known as “anti-balaka” (anti-machete), which sprang up to defend communities, have moved on to extract revenge.
Reporting from the CAR, RFI correspondent Hippolyte Donossio noted that the relative peace in the Boulata and Ramandji neighbourhoods are due to the absence of Seleka members in the area. “Since they’re not present in these areas, there have been no abuses, and people do not feel the desire for revenge since the arrival of the French troops,” he explained.
France has deployed around 1,600 troops to try to stabilise the restive nation, while an African Union peacekeeping force is also stationed in the CAR.
But while the French troops have managed to contain the mob lynching and brutal violence on the streets, the security situation is still precarious.
On Monday, French President François Hollande led a ceremony in Paris to pay tribute to two French soldiers killed last week in fighting near the airport.
The brutal levels of violence before the arrival of the 1,600 French troops had led some observers and Central Africans to wonder how the country’s Christian and Muslim communities could ever live in harmony again.
But the situation in the Boulata and Ramandji neighbourhoods, where neighbours from different communities look out for each other, has raised some hopes that the country’s Muslims and Christians could peacefully co-exist again.
Roland Marchal, a senior research fellow at the National Centre for Scientific Research, based at Sciences-Po in Paris, notes that the tense situation in the city today is not an accurate reflection of the true spirit of Bangui. “In normal times, it’s just peachy: rather than fight , Muslims and Christians drink a beer together,” he said.