Jewels Lie Beneath The Violence In The Central African Republic
Originally published on Thu February 27, 2014 6:08 pm
Morning Mass began with a hymn on a recent Sunday at the Infant Jesus Catholic Church in the Central African Republic town of Bouar. The Rev. Dominic Mbarta fretted about his sermon. The previous Sunday, when a Polish priest at the church simply asked the congregation to refrain from killing their Muslim neighbors or looting abandoned Muslim houses, the priest was threatened.
"They were so angry," Mbarta says. "They went back grumbling that the priest is not impartial. He is for the Muslims. He's not for the Christians."
Across town, there is a mosque where thousands of Muslims are pinned down, unable to move outside a small radius or risk being macheted in the street. In this climate, it's too soon to preach forgiveness, Mbarta says.
"People are still hot," he says. "People are still living in total anger."
That anger is tied to the events of last year, when a coup by a Muslim-led militia deposed the president and triggered a criminal spree of arson and murder against Christian civilians in the majority-Christian country. While many of those attackers were actually foreigners — mercenaries from Muslim Chad and Sudan — people in the Central African Republic accuse their Muslim neighbors of aiding the invaders.
There has been no talk of compensating people for their loss, the priest says. "So how can we talk about forgiveness and reconciliation where there is no justice?"
Now for the past few months, Muslim civilians have been hunted down in the Central African Republic. This is usually explained as a collective spasm of Christian-led revenge. But Mbarta says there is a deeper reason.
Later that afternoon, he meets me behind the closed door of my hotel room. He's brought with him a scruffy-looking guy named Joseph Baba, who wears a thick coat despite the equatorial heat. From the pocket of that coat emerges a square of pink tissue paper. Unfolded, it reveals six uncut diamonds.
The Central African Republic, the priest says, is awash in diamonds and gold. For various historical and cultural reasons, most of the traders of those jewels have been Muslim. Over the decades since independence, he says, there's been growing resentment of the middleman traders by the mostly Christian miners. Even the priest isn't immune to it: His father was one of those villagers who eked out a living by panning gold from the rivers.
As Mbarta rants about "Muslim exploitation," though, I get the sinking feeling I've had talking to other Christians here, who condemn the violence but inwardly cheer what they see as a liberation.
"Central Africans are feeling liberated, as from some burden," the priest says. Equating the Muslim minority with the former French colonial rulers, he says that "we [Central Africans] don't want to be slaves of blacks like us."
Of course, much of the Muslim minority population has been here for generations, and only some Muslims are involved in the diamond and gold trade. But this budding xenophobic nationalism has given license to an unimaginable level of brutality.
A 19-year-old Muslim named Ismaela Hibrahim survived a massacre at Yaloke, a major gold trading area once home to some 10,000 Muslims. He was when I met him hiding at the local mosque in Bouar. He explained that the Christian militias called anti-Balaka first silently surrounded the town. Then they gave a war cry and moved in.
"[They] killed everybody. Man, wife, baby. They killed one wife, she was pregnant," Hibrahim says, He mimes cutting into his stomach with a knife. "Like a surgeon they took out the baby and kill the baby also."
A small armed resistance by Muslims in Yaloke was overpowered. Then after the militias came through, their wives swept up behind to loot all the houses.
Of course, we have seen this story before, where economic resentment becomes one of the rationales for ethnic cleansing. It came up in Rwanda in 1994, as well as in the Russian pogroms of 1884.
But over the past months, as Muslims have desperately tried to flee the Central African Republic, their convoys attacked along the route, hundreds of thousands of Christians are still displaced, terrified of militia groups on both sides.
Mbarta says in a country divided by tribe, the violence could splinter and intensify.
And then, the priest says, the already dire catastrophe could degenerate further into civil war.
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The French Parliament voted earlier this week to keep its peacekeeping troops in its former colony Central African Republic. Sectarian violence there has displaced an estimated one million people. The intervention by France was supposed to last only a few months. But as the French defense minister admitted, on a visit to CAR this month, the level of hatred and violence is worse than we imagined. And a warning: The story we're about to hear does include a short description of some of that violence.
NPR's Gregory Warner takes us to the town of Bouar, where he found if you scratch beneath the surface of religious hatred, you'll find a battle over the country's riches.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: A choir opens up a recent Sunday Mass at the Infant Jesus Catholic Church in the town of Bouar. But Father Dominic Mbarta is feeling nervous about his sermon, on a previous Sunday, when a Polish priest at this church simply asked the congregation to refrain from killing their Muslim neighbors or looting abandoned Muslim houses.
FATHER DOMINIC MBARTA: They were so angry and they went back grumbling against the priest, that the priest is not impartial. He is for the Muslims. He is not for the Christians.
WARNER: Father Dominic, who's Central African, sits down after services in the empty church. Across town from where we're sitting is a mosque where thousands of Muslims are pinned down, unable to move outside a small radius or risk being macheted in the street. Father Dominic says in this climate it's too soon to preach forgiveness.
MBARTA: Why? Because people are still hot, people are still living in total anger.
WARNER: The Central African Republic is a majority Christian country. After a coup last year by Muslim-led militia Christian civilians became the targets. For months last year, mostly Muslim fighters marauded across the country on a criminal spree of arson and murder. And while many of those attackers were actually foreigners, mercenaries from Muslim Chad and Sudan, people here accuse their Muslim neighbors of aiding the invaders.
MBARTA: And how can we talk about forgiveness and reconciliation where there is no justice?
WARNER: Now that Muslims are targets in the Central African Republic, it's usually explained like this: It's a collective spasm of revenge. But Father Dominic says there is a deeper reason, it's one though he can't show me in this public church.
(SOUNDBITE OF A DOOR)
WARNER: So we go to my hotel room. Father Dominic has brought along a scruffy looking guy named Joseph Baba, who wears a thick coat despite the equatorial heat. From the pocket of that coat emerges a square of pink tissue paper. Unfolded, it reveals six uncut diamonds.
MBARTA: You understand what I'm talking about now. You understand why there is so many war in this country.
WARNER: Since independence this country has had a series of coups and battles for control over the country's rich deposits of diamonds and gold. But through all the decades of political upheaval, most of the traders of these jewels were Muslim. There's been growing resentment of the middlemen traders by the mostly Christian miners. It's resentment that Dominic absorbed as a child. His father was one of those villagers who panned gold from the rivers.
MBARTA: The Muslim can exploit the situation and become richer and richer, while the miner become poorer and poorer.
WARNER: Listening to Father Dominic's rant, I get that same sinking feeling that I've had talking to other Christians here who condemn the violence, but inwardly cheer what they see as liberation.
MBARTA: Central Africans are feeling liberated from some burden. We don't want to be slaves of a black, like us.
WARNER: You don't want to be slaves of a black like us.
MBARTA: OK, black like that, exactly.
WARNER: This xenophobic nationalism has given license to an unimaginable level of brutality. A 19-year-old Muslim named Ismaela Hibrahim survived a massacre at Yaloke, it's a major gold trading area once home to some 10,000 Muslims. I met him in hiding at the local mosque in Bouar. He explained that the Christian militias called anti-Balaka first silently surrounded the town, and then they gave a war cry.
ISMAELA HIBRAHIM: (Through translator) They kill anybody. They kill one wife, she was pregnant. Like a surgeon, they take out the baby and they killed the baby also.
WARNER: A small armed resistance by Muslims was overpowered. And then after the militiamen came through, their wives followed to ransack the houses.
HIBRAHIM: (Through translator) They just kill, kill. And then their wives and their younger bro came, and they started to check each house in order to pick up everything good.
WARNER: Economic resentment, of course, has been seen before as one rationale for ethnic cleansing. It was raised in Rwanda in 1994 and in the pogroms in Russia in 1884.
But Father Dominic says villagers in the Central African Republic right now are hoarding their scavenged diamonds and gold, because their buyers have gone. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled. And he worries that this climate of insecurity and economic paralysis will provide an opportunity for another wave of violence, not just between Christian and Muslim but between tribe and tribe, militia versus militia.
MBARTA: And then there is risk of civil war in the future.
WARNER: Gregory Warner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.