Tomorrow, Pope Francis arrives in Bangui, the violence-ridden capital of the Central African Republic. He is scheduled to visit the Muslim enclave of Kilomètre 5 and its central mosque, isolated in one of the most volatile parts of a city gripped by sectarian violence. If it happens, it will be an extraordinary moment, a demonstration that respect for rights of Christians and Muslims alike is critical to ending the violence.
I have been to Kilomètre 5 many times over the past 2 years. I have seen it change from a vibrant Muslim neighborhood of 122,000 inhabitants to an isolated and fearful community of some 15,000 after repeated attacks by militias, largely made up of Christians, called the anti-balaka. Many of the enclave’s young men say they are now heavily armed, unwilling to trust anyone with their protection, and ready to take revenge on those who attack Muslims. In recent weeks, some 100 people, including women and elderly have been killed.
In 2013, during one of my visits to Kilomètre 5, I met Muhammed (not his real name). His neighborhood was overrun by Muslim Seleka rebels who had overthrown the then President Franois Bozizé and who were ruling through force and brutality, particularly against Christians and others. Muhammed did not like what he saw and was worried. Knowing I worked on human rights issues, he pulled me aside and whispered, “This will not end well for Kilomètre 5. We do not support this and we will have to face the consequences.”
Muhammed was right. When the anti-balaka organized to attack the Seleka in December 2013, they turned their vengeance on all Muslims. Thousands were killed on both sides in Bangui and in other parts of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims fled, many to neighboring countries. Those who could not flee, sought shelter in enclaves, including at Kilomètre 5.
Two weeks ago I tried to visit Muhammed again, but I was turned back by an anti-balaka road block who menacingly pointed their guns at us. I called Muhammed instead. “When is this going to end?” he asked me in frustration. “People from both communities are suffering because of the acts of a few individuals.” I replied that arresting and bringing to justice those responsible for the violence would be a start. He agreed.
I hope Pope Francis will echo these sentiments and call for justice for all. There will be no lasting peace without justice and many citizens of the Central African Republic, both Christian and Muslim, are desperate for both.