Media CenterCentral African Republic: Responding to Violence with Unity
When violence erupted again on September 26 in the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui – leaving 77 people dead, at least 400 injured and more than 48,000 people displaced from their homes – a group of more than 100 people in the country’s northwest decided to call an emergency meeting to discuss how they could keep violence away from their community.
“Now is a difficult moment,” said, Mgr. Armando Gianni, the Bishop in Bouar, a town of around 96,000 people. “[In Bangui], people are suffering, homes burned, and people injured. It is important that our family here comes together. It is important that we don’t exclude anyone.”
The event, organized by the Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission of Bouar and the Inter-Religious Platform of Bouar and supported by Catholic Relief Services, brought together representatives of all three religious groups: women, youth, civil society, local government, the UN peacekeeping mission, local humanitarian organizations and community self-defense groups. Each group had time – and a safe space - to voice its principal concerns and propose ideas for local solutions to the violence, a discussion that was aired live on local and national radio.
“For the crisis, this is political and not religious,” said one of the attendees, a member of a local self-defense group. While the conflict has its roots in a history of poor governance and inequitable access to economic resources, the crisis in CAR has taken on inter-religious dynamics that have polarized a population struggling to rebuild their lives, livelihoods and communities.
In part thanks to inter-religious efforts – led by the Inter-religious platform in Bouar - and despite many challenges, the town of Bouar has become an example for much of the country of coexistence and a place where the community addresses issues head-on to keep violence from springing up.
During the meeting, the Imam of the Central Mosque of Bouar shared a story to this affect: A Muslim driver had been visiting the North, and he unexpectedly fell into the hands of local militia who have been known to commit violent acts. When the driver told them he was from Bouar, the militia told him that they had heard Bouar is a city where Christian and Muslim communities live together in peace. According to the Imam, this ended up saving the driver’s life.
Religious leaders in Bouar originally formed the Inter-Religious Platform in July 2013 as a mechanism for dialogue, common prayer, and the exchange of ideas. The platform has since worked to spread common messages of peace to residents of all faiths as well as authorities and armed groups. During the platform’s inaugural meeting in 2013, Caritas Bouar director, Father Aurelio Gazerra, explained their mission.
“When there’s a fire in a village, everyone comes out to help. Even those who just had a fight. So in the same way with this crisis, it’s important that faithful men and women join together for peace.”
CRS supported the event in Bouar through a program called Secure, Empowered, Connected Communities, also known as SECC, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and aims to restore grassroots social cohesion, an important approach to breaking the cycle of violence. To date, it has organized 47 community social cohesion committees, trained over 1,300 key leaders in mediation techniques, and equipped 35 of those leaders as facilitators to lead their own social cohesion initiatives in their communities.
In Bouar, CRS has been training local stakeholders in peace and conflict resolution for more than a year, thanks to funding from USAID’s Complex Crises Fund in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance.
During the gathering, people listened, reflected and discussed a number of issues affecting the social fabric in their community, including the disruption of Catholic health services and schools for children, arms trafficking, and other problems caused by the insecurity.
“What is peace?” asked Father Céléstin, a priest in Bouar. “Not absence of conflict. It is the ability to resolve conflict without violence, because conflict is part of life.”
Addressing the crowd, CRS’ Katie Price, head of programs in CAR, said “the events in Bangui during recent days bring us back to redouble those efforts of engagement to preserve the fragile peace and coexistence so that we do not lose the gains we’ve made to live together with some trust.” She explained that if everyone makes an effort to understand, analyze and peacefully manage conflict, communities can increase their mutual trust in order to create social cohesion and durable development. “CRS remains convinced that, if communities engage with all the different actors to reinforce social cohesion, they can work together in an effective manner to respond to different security challenges.”
Ouagonda expressed confidence that this approach is working, and the level of violence seen in Bangui will not spread to Bouar.
“I’m convinced that peace will stay in our [area],” he said.