CAR: The simplistic notion of a ‘religious conflict’

5 Mar 2014

Feb 2014, Bambari, CAR: Students from Bamabari's Christian and Muslim communities during a lesson at the town's school. The peaceful coexistence of different religious groups in Bambari and in towns across the country serves as a reminder that the crisis in CAR cannot be easily defined as a 'religious conflict'. Credit: TRIANGLE/Erwin Daragne
The peaceful cohabitation of Christians and Muslims in towns across the Central Africa Republic is a reminder that the crisis cannot be easily defined as a religious conflict.

The town of Bambari in the Central African Republic’s Ouaka Province, has been spared the spiral of violence that has left countless communities torn apart across the country. It serves as a reminder that the crisis in CAR cannot be easily defined as a ‘religious conflict’.

Bambari’s Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders regularly organize gatherings – bringing together the different groups in an effort to maintain and strengthen the town’s cohesion. Gael Koumsoupon, a young Christian truck driver is an eager attendee.

He says he does not mind when these meetings are held at the local Mosque. Like other members of his community, he has always lived in peaceful, understated coexistence with his Muslim neighbours.

“Everybody in town supports peace initiatives,” he says, matter-of-factly. “If civilians are threatened in other parts of the country, they can seek refuge here, whatever their religious beliefs.”

Singa Edith, a mother of three agrees. “In Bambari things are different and I regret what is happening elsewhere. Muslim people should not have to leave the country.”

As important as water or food

Maintaining this dialogue and trust between Bambari’s communities is one of the priorities of the humanitarian groups in the town.

“The humanitarian community in the region is doing its utmost to preserve this cohesion,” says Narcisco Rosa-Berlanga, the Head of OCHA’s sub-office in Bambari. “It is as important as providing water or food.”

The groups are in constant contact with the town’s religious leaders, a dialogue that includes ongoing discussions about the possibility of relocating at-risk Muslim communities from other parts of CAR to Bambari.

“We feel safe here”

Bambari is not an exception. Over the past several weeks, more than 600 Muslim Fulani, fleeing attacks by armed militias, have taken refuge in the village of Tatale, in Ouham-Pende Province in the country’s north-west. The Christian population there is determined to protect them.

“We feel safe here,” says the Imam, who is still visibly shaken and exhausted. “The population of the village and surrounding areas have even collected food for us.”

A young woman cradling a baby in her arms explains that her community has nowhere to go and will stay in Tatale. “Christian women are helping us here. We go to the market and fetch water at the well together.”

Shared history, poverty and fear

Some Fulani children are now attending the school in Tatale, even though many of them lost their school books when they fled their homes.

Despite the strong sense of cohesion, life is difficult in Bambari and Tatale. Potable water is scarce, and food is running low as farmers have been too afraid to attend their fields. Livestock has been stolen and health centres looted and ransacked by armed groups. All live in fear of future attacks by ex-Seleka and Anti-Balaka militias, a shared experience that further strengthens the bonds between the communities.

Humanitarian actors have managed to expand their presence in Bambari but have remained cut off from Tatale after the bridge leading to the village collapsed.

“It is too easy and far too simplistic to call the crisis in the country a religious conflict,” says Barbara Shenstone, OCHA Head of Office in CAR.

“However, there is no doubt that across the country, the targeting of communities based on their religious beliefs has eroded the social fabric. It will take a long time for the country to heal from these wounds.”

OCHA in the Central African Republic>>