“I took her in my arms, she was bleeding, I was so angry... and I was afraid. She survived, but my nephew died. The conflict was not religious, it was political. After these events, the atmosphere was really tense. We would hear gunshots regularly.”
Alphonsine is from the Central African Republic (CAR), a country that lies at the heart of the continent as its name suggests. CAR has been gripped by civil war since 2012 and women have experienced extreme violence during this period.
“An armed group entered my neighbour's house and dragged the girl out. She was in elementary school. We could hear her shouting, but what could we do? They were armed. If they take you, what can you do? You let them do what they want,” Alphonsine continued.
“[For the rape survivors] their husbands no longer wanted them, they rejected them. The same with the girls, who would like to marry them after that?”
CAR is a landlocked country, bordered by Chad, South Sudan, Sudan, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Congo-Brazzaville. It has a major geopolitical position on the African continent and is particularly affected by regional dynamics.
Since its independence in 1960, CAR has experienced numerous waves of violence. However, the conflict in 2013-2014 had an unprecedented impact on community structures, social interactions, as well as the economic well being of the state and its people. Elections at the end of 2015 enabled a return to a more stable policy, as the country continues down the path to recovery.
The country has vast mineral resources, chiefly diamonds and gold, and 55 per cent of its GDP comes from agriculture. However, CAR remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with an annual GDP of $323 per capita in 2015.It is placed last, number 188, on the Human Development Index (HDI).
Decades of latent and open conflict have prevented the country from developing robust public and social infrastructure. The lack of access to education (literacy rate of 56.6 per cent); a lack of qualified medical personnel (0.05 qualified medical personnel per 1,000 people); poor health care services, administrative and educational infrastructure; and the high prevalence of communicable diseases (such as diarrhoea, respiratory diseases and HIV) affect the standard of living.
In 2017, almost half of the country’s 5 million citizens need humanitarian assistance.
"I was very young and I do not really remember. Around the age of 3, I started having problems walking. They said it was polio," said Rock Bouli, an economic graduate and a promoter of social cohesion. He is now the leader of a local association for people with disabilities.
"I spent many nights with my kids sleeping in the rain. People did not trust each other. If the armed groups found the contact of a Muslim person on your phone, they would have killed you without mercy and accused you of being a traitor - a spy transmitting information. I saw it with my own eyes. One day, they accused a woman of treason, they dragged her on the ground, threw straw on her and set her on fire.”
Social Cohesion in Practice
“Poverty and lack of work are factors that influence instability. When people are busy, they do not have time to fill their heads with negative thoughts, their minds are on their work. People without work can be dangerous to society. Activities, such as football, games,music and dance, bring communities together and facilitate interaction — they are powerful tools for maintaining social cohesion,” Ibrahum Mahamat, Imam Mosque in Ndélé.
"There was social cohesion here, until the conflict began in 2013. Then it was like a cold shower. Politics and rumours were behind it. Now, the situation is recovering. If we say that the problem is completely solved, we’re speaking too fast. The wound was deep on both sides of the community. To take care of it completely, we still need a lot of medicine. The healing has begun but it takes time," said Abbe Alacide Aime Ngoumou, Priest of the local Catholic Church in Ndélé.
We need to make people understand that we need peace so that we can live well. We see that when people work under IOM's Cash for Work programme, the only thing they have in mind at the end of the day is going home to be ready for the next day. They do not have time to think about getting weapons and fighting," Ngoumou continued.
"I could no longer live in this environment with constant tension. My heart was always beating fast. During this period, we could not leave the house. My husband was sick but we could not buy medicine or ask for help. He died at home. I saw armed forces kill someone like a dog, with a machete. There was blood everywhere. It was inhumane. I could not bear it anymore, I took my five children and left.
"For three years, we lived in tents near the Cameroonian border.
"There, we received food, children could go to school, we had activities and a little pocket money. We survived but we were not independent, it was not a life. We lived in tents while I had a house here in Boda. A few months ago, I heard that the situation in Boda was improving thanks to the activities of the SIRIRI [Community Stabilization for At-Risk Communities] project. It was calmer and people could walk freely in the streets. So, I decided to come back with my children. We arrived two months ago.
"My children are going to school and I will start my life again."
Religious leader in Boda
"A few years ago, there was a tense atmosphere in the city, people did not trust each other. There was a ‘red line’ dividing the communities. There was no interaction, but people had family on both sides of the line. This meant that the families were divided. There was violence everywhere, people set their own rules. The activities of the SIRIRI project gave both communities confidence.
"Now, it still happens that our opinions diverge, but we understand that we need each other to live better.
"Working together to achieve the same goal enabled people to understand that it was better to learn to live in harmony rather than live in conflict. It came slowly.
"One day, when I took part in the Cash for Work activities, a colleague finished his water bottle, and I still had some water. He came and asked me for some, and I shared it with him. The next day, he gave me a piece of his cake. After 20 days working together to repair the road, we got much closer. We exchanged phone numbers.
"During the nonviolent communication training, which is also part of the SIRIRI project, I learned that people should try to look at things from the perspective of others. When people look at things only with their own perception, rumours begin to spread and create problems. People also have difficulty detaching themselves from the past. If a driver continues to look only in the rear-view mirror, things are not going to get better. You must look at the full picture and move on.
"With the project, banditry has also decreased because people, especially the young ones, have something to do. The situation has improved considerably, although peace remains very fragile and fear is still present. We must continue to educate the community."
"I was born here. I have 14 children and two wives. I did the training to become an adult literacy teacher, it was enriching and motivating. We were 15 participants and for ten days we had lessons on psychology and andragogy. Half the population here cannot read or write. It is important to have a job or just read the doctor's prescription when the children are sick to be able to give them proper treatment.
"I would like to teach adults to have better opportunities in life. Studying together is part of social cohesion.
"During the crisis, we would not have been able to sit here like that. It was dangerous and people were afraid. I hid in the forest with my wife and our children. I can not talk too much about this period, it's painful.
"With the cash for work activities and adult literacy classes, there is a real new beginning to live together."
"I grew up in Ndélé. I have 12 children. After the crisis, our life was sort of suspended. We could no longer work to support our family. We were afraid; there were armed groups that were threatening us in the neighborhood. They robbed the houses. Every little disagreement was an excuse to get hold of arms.
"When there are such tensions, life can no longer continue. Activities such as Cash for Work have brought social cohesion back to communities, it brought us together. However, there are still weapons here and until everyone is disarmed, there will be no complete peace.
"Before, we did not really know each other between communities. It was a good idea to create these activities, they allowed us to get closer. Now I can go to my neighbours and they can also come to my house before it was not possible. We got to know each other better and we are proud to work."
Grace a Dieu
"After my divorce, I went to live with my four children at my aunt's house because I no longer had my parents. My mother died several years ago and my father was killed during the conflict.
"With the money I received from the Cash for Work programme, I was able to finance part of the construction of my house. Before, I was always very worried about how I could pay the rent.
"Slowly, the situation is improving, but it remains fragile. To be real, the whole process must take time. People still have weapons at home and the last wave of violence just happened a few years ago. It is difficult to contain anger, rage and fear. If you are not educated, it is particularly difficult to rationalize, question, think and control your emotions in a peaceful way," said Father Francisco, Mexican Priest for the Catholic Church of the Mission Area in Boda.
"Social cohesion activities contribute to community stabilization. Now the camp residents displaced behind the church are leaving and returning to their homes. But again, to be successful, the process needs time to let peace grow its roots," continued Francisco.
The SIRIRI Project
The SIRIRI project (“peace” in Sango), funded by the European Union and implemented by the IOM, the UN Migration Agency, in Bangui, Boda, Kaga-Bandoro and Ndélé is a tool for peace and stability. It is part of the ongoing transition process in the Central African Republic. The project was launched in August 2015, and aims to support community stabilization and the rapid rehabilitation of communities at risk by focusing on three main objectives:
Revitalize the local economy and support the immediate recovery of communities affected by the conflict, through the coordination of remunerated High Intensity Work Force (THIMO) to strengthen peaceful cohabitation and promote the resilience of at-risk youth.
Support and strengthen social cohesion in communities at risk of conflict through the rehabilitation of communal infrastructure, and support for inclusive dialogue between communities and local authorities.
Increase community perception of the benefits of "living together" through the implementation of strategic, sporting and socio-cultural communication activities in close collaboration with civil society.
The project is based on three types of activities: THIMO (remunerated High Intensity Work Force), which has reached more than 40,000 beneficiaries, the rehabilitation of more than 20 community infrastructures, and social cohesion activities (socio-cultural and sporting events, training on non-violent communication) for nearly 300,000 beneficiaries.
The SIRIRI project comes after a first phase implemented in Bangui from March 2014 to August 2016; this second phase corresponds to the expansion of activities to target areas of the CAR territory outside of the capital.