The tortuous path to peace in the Central African Republic
Amnesty International’s Campaigner for Central Africa Tity Agbahey (@tityagb) reflects on the importance of the Special Criminal Court in Central African Republic for victims. This opinion piece was originally posted on Medium.
The kid is a full-of-life 4 year-old-girl. Like all kids of that age, Carine [not her real name] is curious about her surroundings; she tries to escape from her mother’s lap and grabs everything around her. She looks at my phone and flashes me a smile that looks like a silent plea. For one moment, I almost forget that we are in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. It’s unusually hot for this period of the year.
There is a power outage and I’m sitting in a sweltering room with Carine’s young mother, we are facing each other, not daring to start the real conversation, so for some time we focus on the child. She seems in a very good health, apart from a slight cough probably caused by the dry and dusty air.
Her mother said she is fine and shows me a health booklet. The history of their antiretroviral therapy is clearly detailed and updated. They’re both HIV positive. Oblivious to the tragic story that led to her birth the kid looks at me while I read the booklet. I look back at her. She smiles. A fresh and pure smile only a child can give. Does she know the story, her story?
The Central African Republic is undoubtedly one of the richest countries in Africa; blessed with significant quantities of arable land that could potentially feed its four million people and more. A fertile land, rich in mineral deposits and other resources, such as uranium reserves, crude oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, lumber….you name it. Exuberant vegetation, forests, rivers, a rich fauna and a capital city which itself looks like it was carefully placed in the middle of a green oasis.
This place could be among the wonders of the continent. Instead, the heart of Africa [BêAfrika (“the heart of Africa” in sango language) is how locals refer to their country] is associated with an enduring instability which has claimed thousands of lives.
A long history of military coups and conflict, fueled by a culture of impunity — including amnesties for people accused of having committed serious human rights violations –has perpetuated the cycle of violence.
The latest one unfolded in March 2013 when the Seleka, an armed coalition made up mostly of Muslims from CAR and neighboring countries, ousted the government of President François Bozizé in a coup. Quickly after, a collection of self-defense militia called the anti-Balaka made up largely of animists and Christians formed up in reaction. Both groups committed serious human rights abuses and crimes under international law.
In December 2013, while most of the world was preparing for the holiday season and looking away, fighting was raging between the two groups and soon, clashes reached the capital Bangui where nearly 1,000 civilians were killed. “When I drove to town there were bodies everywhere on the streets,” one witness told me, the town looked like an open-air cemetery. Among other atrocities, rape and other sexual violence were used almost systematically and on a massive scale during the conflict.
Carine’s mother was a young woman, living in one of the neighborhoods most affected by the ongoing fighting. The tragedy unfolding on the streets quickly came knocking at the door of the house she was sharing with her mother and nephews. Armed men looted the house and mercilessly raped her. She then discovered both her HIV-positive status and her pregnancy and gave birth to a child also infected by HIV.
As I landed in Bangui almost 5 years after the tragic events that changed the young woman’s life, there is something in the air that is almost impossible to touch on, objectively. It may be the sickening feeling that the country has all potential to be greater and further than it is now. It starts right at the airport when one sees the number of humanitarian planes- how can the World Food Programme be needed in such a country that is theoretically capable to feed more people than it has?
A renewed hope
During the Amnesty International mission to CAR in November 2018, something was brewing. A renewed hope. The Special Criminal Court in the Central African Republic (SCC), had just had its inaugural session on 22 October, three years after it was officially established by law in June 2015.
The SCC is a hybrid tribunal that has jurisdiction over grave human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law committed since 2003.
Although it is yet to define its investigation and prosecution strategy, the official announcement that it’s now ready to start investigations and collect complaints came as a relief for victims in CAR.
Adding to the sense of optimism was that national jurisdictions had resumed criminal sessions, the first since 2016, at the beginning of this year and already sent a strong message with the conviction of anti-balaka member Rodrigue Ngaibona aka General Andjilo.
And, just as if the judicial stars were beginning to align, Alfred Yekatom aka Rambo, also a former anti-balaka member was sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague on 17 November. This was a boost victims in CAR, especially women, needed following the acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba in June. “This is karma”, one young man told us, “the blood of his victims are demanding that justice be served”.
Hope may be irrational, yet it does need concrete facts to cling to. With renewed violence in Alindao, in the center of the country, and the PK5 in Bangui, all eyes are on the judicial system, now more than ever. Central African authorities, international partners and the judiciary (local, hybrid and international) have a unique opportunity to send two important messages: to perpetrators that nobody is above the law, to victims that their cry for justice was heard.
Time for justice to be served
Impunity is a fertile ground for perpetuation of violence. Many in Bangui have tried to temper the high expectations by pointing out that the “judiciary system cannot solve everything”. This is true. It indeed does not solve everything, it surely can never fully repair lives and restore all that was lost. Justice will not erase the very fact that Carine is there, HIV positive and in need of care for her whole life. But as she becomes a teenager and then a woman struggling with the stigma of the circumstances surrounding her birth she will not settle for impunity. After almost five years, the victims of the CAR conflict must not be made to wait any longer for justice. The Central African Republic is at a crossroads: it is time that justice is served and perpetrators are held accountable for the numerous crimes committed during the conflict.
It is time that victims are given the opportunity to start the personal and intimate journey to healing and inner peace. Justice must be served. It is one condition under which the heart of Africa can beat peacefully-at last.