Angry Mobs and Revenge Killings in the Central African Republic

As Christian and Muslim militias continue to clash in the CAR, people of both faiths continue to die thanks to a seemingly endless cycle of revenge killings.

Dec 18 2013, 5:46pm

Photos by Robert King

The mob wanted blood. Almost 100 people, many of them barely teenagers, had massed in front of the gates of Friendship Hospital, kept at bay only by French soldiers and their armed personnel carriers (APCs). Earlier that day, five Muslims had been killed by Christians in the embattled neighborhoods of PK 5 and Combattant. One Muslim man, badly beaten, had escaped by running into the hospital, hoping the French troops stationed there would be able to provide protection.

Though a semblance of normality has returned to the Central African Republic’s capital city of Bangui—taxis prowl the streets and many markets have re-opened—reconciliation between Muslims and Christians is still proving extremely difficult. Nightly outbreaks of violence and revenge killings continue unabated.

Minutes before we arrived at the hospital, we’d met with members of JUPEDEC, a local NGO staffed by Central Africans. Initially founded more than a decade ago to combat and encourage defections from Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (the army operates in the southeast portion of the country), JUPEDEC is now tasked with helping to bring peace to Bangui.

In addition to its reconciliation efforts, the NGO runs medical clinics, works with the media, and provides special care for women, children, and the elderly. It also provides much-needed psychological counseling for kids who have witnessed horrific acts of violence.

Pastor Armand Bembissot Kebela is in charge of providing that kind of counseling, and right now he is very, very busy. “Many children have seen soldiers killing people and houses being burned down,” he told us. “And if we don’t do something for these children, we don’t know what they will be like in five or ten years. Everybody is traumatized”

In addition to dealing with the children themselves, Kebela trains teachers to recognize signs of trauma in young students and help them cope. But in a country where there’s almost no money for basics like food, water, and medicine—JUPEDEC receives little outside financial aid—Kebala must make do with what he has, which isn’t much.

I asked the pastor if dealing with the traumatized had traumatized him. “You have to cry,” he said. “I just met a child in Damara. Her father was killed by the Seleka and then they kidnapped her mother. We feel very bad. We can’t help them. We can’t give them food. We can’t give them houses. We can’t do anything. We only can try to give them hope.”

Lewis Alexis Mbolinani, the coordinator of JUPEDEC, took us to a packed medical clinic in the mixed Muslim-Christian neighborhood of Malimaka. The clinic treated both Muslims and Christians, and was staffed by doctors of both faiths; JUPEDEC had set up the clinic with a twofold purpose. “We’re using the mobile clinic as a tool of peace,” Mbolinani explained.

He had reached out to religious leaders from both sides to encourage their community members to come to the clinic, in the hope of fostering peace. “Every day we give speeches about peaceful reconciliation,” he said. “We see what we can do to resolve this conflict and to promote the idea of pardons, to beg the pardons of each other so all can live in peace.“

JUPEDEC aims to encourage reconciliation in hopes of breaking the cycle of revenge that continues tearing apart the city. “It is not easy to resolve or stop something like this,” said Marius Sebastien, JUPEDEC’s program officer. “But I’m convinced that little by little, the people will agree and peace will come back.”

Sebastien blamed the widening religious conflict on the emergence of the Seleka, and the manipulations of civil society by politicians. Now, though, he sees a change that frightens him. “We cannot avoid the fact that religion takes an important place in the conflict,” he said. “The people got along before, we were one people the same… why before we didn’t have this problem?”

Back outside the hospital gates, some young men in the mob pointed out dried bloodstains on the dirt. The previous week, former Seleka rebels had taken 12 people out of the hospital and executed them on the spot. Now the young men wanted revenge on the already injured Muslim hiding in the hospital.

They wouldn’t get it. The French troops eventually put the injured man in an APC and escorted him past the angry men, who jeered as the APC drove away. At one point, one man’s voice was heard yelling above the others:

“We’re going to find you someday!”