N'DJAMENA, Chad—Chadian citizens living in the Central African Republic (CAR) are flooding back to N’djamena, Chad’s capital, to escape the country’s escalating warfare and associated mob violence. Last month, French and African troops arrived to restore order and disarm militias, which met with mixed reactions.
“Never will I go back!” said Gantu Idriss, 58, a repatriated Chadian who arrived from CAR only two days ago. He was a merchant there, but fled with only his sorrows. “I left five married children behind, and the five I brought with me have nothing.”
The conflict, stemming from political as well as religious score-settling, has displaced up to half a million people in CAR’s capital, Bangui. The Geneva-based International Organization for Migrants airlifted thousands of Chadian nationals living in CAR like Idriss to N’djamena. Now it is helping repatriate an estimated 100,000 Chadian refugees. Thousands have been gathering at Bangui’s airport for weeks, living in squalid conditions and threatened by militias operating nearby.
Community centers across N’djamena have welcomed the returnees with a place to lay their heads and food three times a day, courtesy of the Chadian government. As cars rush down the road in front of one center on Charles de Gaulle Ave., people mill around and sit outside their makeshift home. Some have been in Chad only hours. All are Muslim. Several hundred people sleep in the center, but “more are on the way,” exclaimed Mahamat Khalil, 25, and Mahamat Al-Tayyib, 26, at the same time. The two former college students arrived on Tuesday, and have no prospects of continuing their studies. “I don’t even know where anyone in my family is—11 people,” Al-Tayyib said.
Religious leaders in CAR as well as the leader of French military Opération Sangaris, Gen. Francisco Soriano, say the chaos is not the simple case of animosity between Muslims and Christians portrayed by major media. However, returnees to Chad claim they fled specifically because of “religious hatred” towards Muslims.
“People in Bangui are killing Muslims, even burning and eating them!” Al-Tayyib said. “We don’t know what started this conflict. But after the French arrived [in December], the massacres started. For 54 years Christians were in power, then Seleka came, and the Christians rose up.”
It is clear that the Muslim rebel group Seleka’s March 2013 coup d’état fueled existing problems in CAR and ignited much fear. What was once the military’s problem expanded as civilians banded into self-protection forces, called Anti-Balaka, attacking and being attacked. In early December, African Union (MISCA) forces, supported by French troops, began to take control.
“The French misunderstood the situation, thinking Muslims were committing atrocities against Christians,” said one returnee named Khalil. “But if the French had been neutral, the situation would have become calm. Instead they let people do things against Muslims and called it settling scores.”
The returnees to Chad are clearly traumatized. Yet the conflict encompasses more than religious strife, as the religious elements have spun within political designs. Jan Eliasson, United Nations deputy secretary-general, spoke of how“traditional harmony among communities” reigned in CAR until a “manipulation of religious affiliations for political purposes.”
Rev. Nicolas Guerékoyamé-Gbangou, a Member of Parliament, echoed this sentiment. Speaking to Worldwatch Monitor, he said one reason for the current problems is the absence of 76 percent of the population—Christians—from lower level politics over the past 20 years. He sees in CAR a battle for control of the country’s resource-rich northeast, home to Seleka leader and former CAR President Michel Djotodia, who had aimed to turn to CAR into an Islamic state.
Many Chadian returnees from CAR do not trust the French because of past colonial hurts, but several told me it may take an outsider like Soriano to bring the needed authority to effect change in CAR. The newly elected president, Catherine Samba-Panza, elicited little hope. Mayor of Bangui since May last year, she lacks the voice of authority for calming what has only escalated in her city since her time in office.
But those outside the country have high hopes for her efforts to do at a national level what she could not achieve in her city. As a Christian, it remains to be seen whether she will work under the same mandate as the French forces—to take all necessary measures to disarm the militias and restore law and order. She could start by calling on her countrymen to pray for God’s intervention against the spiritual forces of darkness at work in every aspect of the country’s chaos.