First large batch of children forced to serve militias have been released under UN-brokered deal.
After two years of devastating conflict in the Central African Republic, the signing of a disarmament deal by 10 armed groups this month is a small, but welcome step in the right direction. But the crisis is far from over: Close to 900,000 people have had to flee from their homes in this latest of many wars – and most are still too afraid to return.
The latest round of conflict started when a group of rebels, known as the Seleka, ousted former President Francois Bozize in March 2013. Fighting between the mostly Muslim Seleka and the Christian anti-Balaka militias led to numerous grave violations against the civilian population and a de facto separation of the country along sectarian lines. Now a transitional government is left to rebuild a country where mistrust still runs deep and the economy is in ruins. More than half of the country’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance.
Prominent figures are due to meet at an International Conference on the Central African Republic in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss humanitarian assistance to the country. My message to them from us who work on the ground is that donors, neighbours, and national actors all need to show long-term commitment to make positive change a durable thing.
From the cycles of conflict in the past, one thing should be clear: There are no quick fixes.
What we see today in Bangui and in the villages where the Norwegian Refugee Council works, is a deeply divided nation and a conflict that has devastated communities.
The presence of armed groups and criminal elements present a constant security threat. Civilians, including humanitarian staff, are threatened, harassed, and attacked. Killings, kidnappings and intimidation persist. Violations take place across all ethnicities and religious groups and with complete impunity.
Many who have been forced to flee report that they do not know if they will ever be able to return. Too many communities appear unwilling to welcome them back. For refugees and internally displaced persons that wish to return, the destruction and pillaging of their homes and the occupation of land and property presents another barrier.
Still, there is some glimmer of hope. In Carnot, a mining town in the west of the country where 30 percent of the population has been displaced, people are starting to speak about going home.
More than 500 Muslims have sought refuge at the Catholic mission in Carnot, which is guarded by international peacekeepers. Young men from this group had not been able to set foot outside the mission for fear of being killed.
Many who have been forced to flee report that they do not know if they will ever be able to return. Too many communities appear unwilling to welcome them back.
A few months ago many Muslims only wanted assistance to be able to flee the country. Today, after displaced youth, the host community, and former combatants were brought together through educational activities, the young Muslim men again dare to leave the mission and move around town.
“Anti-Balaka and Muslims are now working and studying together. This means that peace already has come to the city,” said a local student.
There should be maximum pressure placed on the transitional government and other powerful actors to consistently help establish safety, security, and rule of law – and rebuild trust between the divided communities. They also need to ensure the possibility of return for those who wish to do so. To allow this to happen, occupied houses must be handed back to the original owners and destroyed homes must be rehabilitated or rebuilt.
Finally, the country must address the root causes of the conflict, including deep social and economic inequalities that underpin the religious and ethnic dimensions. This can be done through investment in education and livelihood initiatives – for which massive foreign investment is needed in one of the poorest and least well-governed countries on the planet.
So let us end generations of neglect for and in the Central African Republic. The international community must learn from past mistakes. If we pull out now we will have to return to more carnage before long. At the Norwegian Refugee Council, we have learned this lesson the hard way: In 2009 we had to close down our operations here due to lack of funding, only to re-establish our presence as the need exploded in 2014. This was a mistake by my organisation and by our donors.
The mistake may now be repeated. Less than 20 percent of the money required for the common humanitarian needs for the Central African Republic has been pledged. The large unmet needs will make it more difficult to rebuild trust and coexistence between divided neighbours.
Without more international support for relief and development, peace initiatives are likely to fail – and the cycles of violence may well continue. The glimmer of hope must not be short-lived. We cannot let down the Central African Republic again.
Jan Egeland is secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. In 2006, Time magazine named him one of the 100 ‘people who shape our world’.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.