Central African Republic: a town in danger of losing its soul

News Stories, 12 February 2014

© UNHCR/J.Mathurin
A UNHCR staff member visits the École Liberté in Bossangoa every morning to listen to the people who have sought shelter there.

BOSSANGOA, Central African Republic, February 12 (UNHCR) Zenabou feels like a prisoner in her own home. The inter-communal violence and killings of recent weeks by rival groups the predominantly Muslim Seleka and the Christian Anti-Balaka forced her to flee her house in Bossangoa, north-west Central African Republic, with her seven children and seek shelter in the town's École Liberté (Liberty School) with scores of other frightened families.

This strong woman is terrified by what is happening in the town where she has spent most of her life, especially the targeting of civilians by men with arms on the basis of religion. "Bossangoa has always been a city where Muslims and Christians have lived together. It should remain so," she stresses, adding that should the violence continue, "the city risks losing its identity, its soul." Her words mean a lot for the mixed community, in which everyone has been affected by a conflict that has left almost 840,000 people displaced within the country.

Almost 1,000 of Bossangoa's Muslims have fled since last December, when Anti-Balaka fighters began killing civilians because of their religion. These people have sought shelter in other areas or in Chad, and those that remain the 225 Muslim families in the École Liberté need protection. And the situation here is being repeated across the country, with small pockets of people hanging on in their homes despite the risk to their lives as tens of thousands of others flee.

UNHCR is highly alarmed at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Central African Republic and concerned for the welfare of the displaced in Bossangoa.

"We are here to listen, to witness and to take action through advocating for solutions," says Jean Maturim, a UNHCR national field officer, adding that the refugee agency has been regularly visiting the displaced in École Liberté and at Bossangoa's Roman Catholic church since the start of the year, bringing a message of reconciliation. Thanks to these efforts, both religious communities have requested meetings and workshops for the two communities.

Zenabou has been in her element at these well-attended gatherings, reminding the participants of the long history of harmony and peaceful coexistence between the communities. But at the end of one meeting, she confides her fears to UNHCR and the feeling that she is trapped. "Because you [UNHCR] are here, those thugs will not dare kill us," she avers.

Her concerns are real. Thugs and Anti-Balaka militiamen roam the streets, sometimes passing by the school and shouting threatening words to the families inside. International peace-keeping troops prevent them from breaking in, as does the presence of agencies like UNHCR and Catholic Relief Services, but it is terrifying for those inside the school and a daily reminder of the danger.

"We are here as witnesses of the international community, which can play a critical role in bringing people together, finding solutions, and in preventing situations, such as this one, from worsening," explains Josep Zapater, a senior UNHCR protection officer.

In this role, UNHCR staff have come to respect the proud community in École Liberté, especially Zenabou, with her love for the town. The daughter of a Cameroonian trader and a migrant from Niger, Zenabou was born in Berbérati, south-west Central African Republic, and then moved to Bossangoa, where she married at age 13 and had to work hard to support her children.

Although life was not easy for her, she explains that living in Bossangoa has been fulfilling; she has made many friends and it's where her children belong. "They are what matters most to me, that is why I do not want them to be displaced ever again," she stresses.

Zenabou has been forcibly displaced twice before: once in 2003, during the coup that brought François Bozizé to power, and then in March 2013, when the Seleka overthrew Bozizé as president. On both occasions, she fled to the bush with Christian neighbours. "It was a terrible moment in my family's life; the strong friendships we had with other displaced people kept us alive," she recalls.

Those bonds of friendship remain as strong as ever, despite the violence around them. Zenabou's friends in Bossangoa, most of them Christians, are yet another anchor for her. One friend, Marie, also fled her home and found shelter in the church. Because it is too dangerous for Zenabou to leave the school, Marie brings her and her children fresh vegetables and fruit and stays to talk to her.

Although the power of friendships like this raises hopes, some fear it may be too late for Bossangoa and for Central African Republic, unless the international community works together urgently to restore peace and effective governance.

But Zenouba is one person who will never give up. "Bossangoa is my home," she says, "and it always will be."

By Hugo Reichenberger in Bossangoa, Central African Republic