The UN and the EU are sponsoring efforts to promote reconciliation between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic. But local residents are traumatized and unsure how to start undoing mistrust.
A dozen men and women have gathered under a tree. They are briefly joined by Abdou Dieng, senior UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the Central African Republic. For a few minutes, he listens intensely to what they have to say. They are residents of Bangui, capital of the CAR, and they are discussing reconciliation, or more specifically the forming of a committee for reconciliation.
In the Central African Republic, this is matter of some urgency. For the months the country has been in the grip of a serious crisis, a brutal conflict. Christians and Muslims attack one another; people are beaten to death on the streets and mutilated with machetes. Dieng, a UN diplomat, has come here because the UN is providing financial backing for this reconciliation project. The European Union is also a contributor.
Where are the Muslims?
"Young and older women are represented, as are men and the elderly," an aid agency worker explains. "We will also have a second committee consisting of ten young people. The head of the village, a local aid organization, Protestants, Catholics, young people's clubs and associations will be represented."
The composition of these new reconciliation committees also takes local geography into account and other aspects of community life as well. It is all highly complicated, but the most important protagonists – the Muslims – are nowhere to be seen. They have long since left the district.
"You will have to learn to get on with one another again," said Dieng. "It doesn't matter whether you share the same religion or not!" Differences can act as a stimulus, the UN diplomat said, whether it is a different religion, a different skincolor, different views or beliefs.
Dieng is convinced that it is always possible to find common ground on which people should focus. "You are one nation, you live in the same country. No one group can deny the other the right to live here. You must learn to live with your differences and then numerous opportunities will open up for you. OK?"
"OK" murmur the Bangui residents in reply. Then a young man starts to speak. He is Jose Martial Beltoungou and he has just formed a group with friends. They want to encourage reconciliation. "It's very important. We used to have Muslim friends and acquaintances, but since the crisis we don't see one another any more," he said.
Beltoungou and his friends don't want to simply accept this estrangement, but feel a little apprehensive about approaching Muslims nonetheless. "I'm rather afraid that we are the only ones who are interested in reconciliation. Under such circumstances, it would be extremely dangerous for us to venture into a Muslim district. That worries me," he said.
The risks of reconciliation
Such worries are not unfounded, according to Olivier Davide from the Danish Refugee Council, which is providing local support for the project. An attempt at reconciliation was to have been in another district, but that proved impossible because the atmosphere was far too tense, he explained. That was not exactly a direct response to Beltoungou's observation, but contained a clear message - do not try too much, do not risk your lives.
Dieng also doesn't wish to encourage unnecessary risks, but said nonetheless that "somehow we have to get reconciliation going," It will be a difficult and painful road, but it is important to take the first step, he added.
The two reconciliation committees are being prepared for the task ahead in two seminars. One of the instructors is Jose Carlos Rodriguez. "Yesterday we spoke about conflicts and their causes," he said. "Today, we will speak of peace."
Rodriguez touches on the trauma and the fear that all participants have experienced. "This can sometimes prevent us from living in peace with ourselves," he said mildly. "Instead, we feel hate, anger and despair. The first thing to do is to find peace within ourselves."
It is a daily struggle with which Rodriguez himself is all too familiar. "When I get up every morning and leave the house and hear the sound of shots being fired, then I have to summon up the courage to go to work, not knowing whether anything will happen to me or not." This worries him even though he has lived in conflict regions for years. "I have never got used to it," he said.
All the others in the seminar have had similar experiences. 35 year old Zara Sonja Holona has witnessed pillaging and murder. In her district, she has seen too much. But she still believes reconciliation with Muslims is important. She also knows she needs help. "I feel a lot of hatred, like many others. I hope this seminar will help us to cope with it, to learn to overcome this hatred," she said.