By Hayato Watanabe
The Central African Republic is embroiled in a political crisis that is the product of years of fierce sectarian violence between Christians and Muslim fighters. Despite the intense rally of UN and AU peacekeepers, the conflict has spiraled out of control. If the CAR is to find any semblance of order, it’s leaders must explore alternative approaches to peace. This may mean looking to how other countries have successfully approached the issue of healing after mass violence. As the case of South Africa shows, creative methods in peace-building have made serious progress.
Whole communities have been ravaged by sectarian violence – at least 75 people have been killed. While the violence has recently increased, Christian and Muslim militias have sparred for years over control of resources and power within the region. The conflict came to a recent head when Muslim Seleka fighters orchestrated a rebel takeover and installed one of their own, Michel Djotodia as a replacement for former President Francois Bozize.
The ratcheting up of ethnoreligious hate between militia groups has spilled out onto the civilian population, creating a crisis of spectacular proportions. In an environment of internal strife and government instability, the Muslim minority is particularly vulnerable to persecution and ethnic cleansing. Revenge killings and mass displacement have gripped the country. CAR leaders are trying to desperately to stop this cycle of violence, but little progress has been made. These recent events have been an odyssey of nightmarish violence for the CAR’s people and must be stopped.
Instead of approaching the country’s violence with shaky settlements and stale documents signed-off in closed offices, the people of the CAR, with the help of the international community, should directly confront the climate of hate that has spawned this violence.
The CAR can begin to rebuild by looking to post-Apartheid South Africa as a model of how to heal after mass violence. In the years following Apartheid, unresolved resentment between whites and blacks jeopardized any hope of lasting peace. While many were tempted to pursue tough criminal penalties as a panacea for the misdeeds of those involved in the horrors of Apartheid, a more novel approach was pursued.
South Africa understood, and any country experiencing mass violence must come to understand, that peace is not achieved by splashing ink on paper. Peace is achieved by fostering empathy and a promise to respect the dignity of all people.
South Africa set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was aimed not at necessarily punishing those responsible for the violence, but instead having a forum where people could speak honestly about their experiences and reflect on how they could avoid such unspeakable violence in the future. The aim of the Commission was to investigate human rights abuses, rehabilitate those affected by the violence, consider applications for amnesty, and perhaps most importantly, create a record of the events from multiple perspectives.
While a Commission of this nature was controversial in South Africa and would be controversial in the CAR, it was necessary to move the country forward. Many observers first disparaged the idea, claiming it would be ineffective. But the Commission succeeded in fundamentally challenging the culture of violence in the country. It also brought a signal of hope and peace to communities that had been torn apart by the horrors of Apartheid. The same can be done in the CAR.
In the CAR, Muslims are facing the brunt of the violence, but neither side is completely innocent of wrongdoing. Ordinary people can be easily consumed by a larger system of ideology and bigotry. It is hard to lay blame when the line between victim and perpetrator becomes blurred, which is why it is critical to have a political forum where people’s experiences can be fairly represented and respected.
While the nation and the international community is rightly focused on reducing any further deaths, it is not premature to start considering how this nation will heal. In fact, it is necessary to ensuring stability in the region. It is maddening to watch vital resources being squandered on humanitarian campaigns that, while helpful, only provide band-aid solutions for conflict. So many international actors view peace in nearsighted terms, failing to consider that laying an infrastructure of mutual understanding between cultural groups is an effective means of preventing violence deemed inevitable.
We must seek to understand what motivated such unspeakable violence so we can avoid it in the future. Why not bring spiritual leaders, militia men, and farmers, into the same room to share their experiences? For those who claim such idealism is reckless for the CAR, why not look to the success story of a fellow African nation? As Justice Brandeis stated: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The CAR can have peace, but it must first expose the truths and experiences of this conflict, no matter how ugly.
Hayato Watanabe is a graduate student at the NYU Department of Politics. He specializes in human rights and critical race theory.
[Photos courtsey of Flickr]