Violence divides CAR along Christian-Muslim lines

Conflict spreading to areas once considered peaceful, with more than half the population in need of humanitarian aid.

Bria, Central African Republic – Ibrahim Alawad, a “general” in an armed group, is a portly man. He walks with a limp and carries a pistol tucked in the back of his trousers.

He has an easy smile and charisma that can easily draw you in. His limp, Alawad tells us, is from a bullet wound during fighting with a rival armed group.

Alawad sits here in Bria, a strategic territory in the eastern Central African Republic (CAR) that has the biggest diamond mines in the country.

The “general” is part of the Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central African Republic (FPRC), the largest of four armed groups that broke away from the defunct, Muslim-led Seleka rebel movement, a coalition of fighters who marched to the capital Bangui in 2013 and deposed Francois Bozize as president.

A hurriedly formed, largely Christian group called Anti-balaka countered ex-Seleka and overthrew Michel Djotodia, the man who was put in power after Bozize.

Since then, fighting has never really stopped. More than a million people have been displaced and half the population needs humanitarian aid.

Lawyer by profession

Alawad plays down his role in Bria but all his actions suggest that he is very much the man in charge.

He was educated at Cambridge University in the UK and is a lawyer by profession.

So what is a Cambridge-educated lawyer doing in this corner of CAR as a rebel?

Alawad puts it this way: He wants to save his fellow citizens from bad governance.

“CAR is rich in natural resources. You won’t believe that before all this, monthly taxes from diamonds in Bria were about $12m,” he told Al Jazeera.

“But look now, we have nothing. No proper schools, electricity clean water – nothing. Before marching to Bangui we had tried to talk to the government on how to help the people.

“We proposed sharing resources in a fair way. The government refused. Our problem is not to rule the country. We want to uplift Central Africans. We have a bad governance system that needs to be fixed.”

Though the conflict has an element of religion, it’s increasingly turning into a turf war, with armed groups splintering and fighting over mineral resources, trade, cattle and supply routes.

The groups form uneasy alliances across the ethnic and religious divides, but when they break up, civilians bear the consequences.

The worst of fighting

Bria has seen the worst of fighting in recent times. FPRC and the Anti-balaka group briefly united against a Fulani-dominated faction called Union for Peace for Central African Republic (UPC).

The UPC is another group that was once part of Seleka.

When it was defeated, members of the winning coalition turned on each other.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says at least 70,000 people have been displaced in Bria since fighting began at the end of 2016.

Most of the displaced Christians are now in a crowded camp for displaced people at the edge of town and right on the doorstep of a UN peacekeepers’ base.

UN officials told us the camp is infiltrated by armed Anti-balaka men.

Alexi Zinga is among the young men in the camp suspected to be part of the group. He denied the claim and told us that, at the height of the conflict, if was not for the Anti-balaka’s protection, the people in the camp would be dead.

“They protected us, but they are not here anymore.”

Scared or unwilling

Other displaced people we tried to speak with were either too scared or unwilling to say anything about the allegations.

Displaced Muslims took shelter in the town centre, where the FPRC rebels have their main base.

Hundreds are still camped in the compound of the main hospital. The Fulani community also has its own enclave.

These are people who, before last year, lived side by side. Now the situation in Bria, as in so many other towns in CAR, has forced them to create their own ethnic and religious boundaries.

There was hope two years ago that the election of President Faustin-Archange Touadera would bring real change.

But Touadera has been unable to extend his authority beyond the capital, Bangui, and his government heavily relies on the UN Mission and other international partners.

The conflict is escalating and spreading to areas once considered relatively peaceful.

‘Christian neighbourhood’

Since January, Bria has not seen the kind of violence witnessed last year, and some people are attempting to return to their homes.

Alawad explained to us that his fighters do not want to harm anyone, adding that those displaced should not be afraid.

Benoit Yanny took up that offer and is living in what is now a “Christian neighbourhood”, very close to the camp for internally displaced people.

He told us that he is able to go to the Muslim-dominated market during the day but he must leave before nightfall. Yanny also said he does not trust the FPRC.

This is a drama that plays out in many other parts of the country: armed groups mostly fighting for control of “rich” territories; the UN peacekeeping mission and CAR national army overwhelmed; and people such as Yanny caught between the different forces.

Source: Al Jazeera