“My heart palpitates when I remember,” says Zara, a tall, slender woman in her forties, her long legs folded beneath her as she sits on a mat (1).
“I’m okay during the day,” she continues, “but at night it all comes back to me — the soldiers killing three people, right in front of me, at the market.”
She pulls her paisley pattern scarf to cover her hair. Despite the 114°F (45°C) degree heat, she is swathed in a floor-length, extravagantly patterned blue and yellow dress, miraculously clean, given the dust and garbage everywhere. It defies logic that she can emerge from her United Nations (UN) tarpaulin tent looking so elegant, her make up flawless, her ruby nail varnish unchipped.
Zara is talking to Network for Africa’s volunteer psychologist, Dr Barbara Bauer. Following the success of our innovative trauma counselling project in northern Uganda, Network for Africa was asked to share our approach with charities and UN agencies in refugee camps in Chad. Many people escaping the violence and ethnic cleansing in the Central African Republic (CAR) have been deeply traumatised by their experiences, as Barbara was to hear first-hand.
“After what happened at the market I rushed home,” Zara resumes, “I was afraid of what I’d find, and there was no one in the house, just chaos, furniture pulled apart. Everything worth taking was gone.”
She sniffs back the tears, averting her eyes. Elaborate rhinestone earrings swing from her ears as her breathing shudders, and she dabs at her eyes. “The people next door came over and told me my husband and kids escaped the soldiers and headed for the airport. So that’s where I went next. I didn’t stop to think I might not get a chance to return to the house for my possessions. I just fled.”
But at the airport in Bangui, the capital of the CAR, Zara found more chaos. Muslims like Zara were being evacuated by soldiers from France, Chad, and other African Union nations who had been sent to the CAR to restore order. Zara was put on a plane to N’djamena, in Chad. From N’djamena she and the other refugees were taken hundreds of miles south, to the remote camps on the border with the CAR, where she met the Network for Africa team.
A shopkeeper by day and a taxi driver by night back in Bangui, Zara shares little with many of the other refugees beyond nationality. They are traditional herders, illiterate and conservative. They disapprove of educating girls or letting women have lives beyond the home (“a waste of their eggs when they could have babies and take care of their men”). Their world, revolving around the value of a goat, is in contrast to the life Zara left behind in Bangui, where she was a leader in civic society.
For months Zara has been trying to locate her husband and children, all the time wondering if they ever made it to the airport or were killed by the roaming bands of looting, anti-Muslim militia. Through the refugee grapevine she heard they had been sent west to Cameroon, and she was given a phone number. When she called it someone answered and then cut the connection when they heard her voice. No one answers the phone now when she calls. Either her family is dead, she tells Barbara, or they don’t wish to be contacted by her. So Zara’s choice is between two different forms of heartbreak: rejection or bereavement. Thousands of other refugees face this uncertainty, wondering what has become of their families. In the meantime, she prays the violence in the CAR will cease so she can return to her big city life.
Zara is reluctant to discuss the roots of the war. This isn’t surprising since she shares the refugee camp with people who were ‘ethnically cleansed’ by the largely Muslim Seleka (‘union’ in the Sango language) militia. Zara’s family was targeted by the non-Muslim anti-balaka (‘machete’) militia who are avenging the deaths of Christians at the hands of Seleka. There may be tensions between Christians and Muslims in the camp, but they are mostly unspoken because no one wants the violence to erupt here, in their mutual place of safety. Everyone prays negotiations will lead to genuine peace so they can leave this baking hot, inhospitable region and return home.
The conflict in CAR is often characterized as religious. Yet, there are other factors requiring long-term solutions: livestock herders and nomads against farmers; merchants against farmers and herders; the privileged and corrupt ruling elite against the unemployed, illiterate young men who have no hope of breaking the elite’s grip on wealth and power.
Back in the camp, the elders, mostly herders, were dumbfounded when asked if they will adapt their way of life, following the changes brought about by the war in CAR. Would they encourage their children to go to school and learn skills that might be applied beyond the keeping of livestock? In contrast with Zara, who is always looking for commercial opportunities within the camp, the elders could not imagine anything other than their traditional herding lifestyle.
Yet, change is surely inevitable because of desertification and drought across a vast east-west belt of Africa, leading to increasingly violent clashes over who uses the land that remains viable. Leaders may manipulate combatants into believing they are fighting for their religious or ethnic group, but the underlying issue is too many unskilled people trying to scrape a living from too little economically useful land. While they see no point getting an education, and no possibility the elite will relax its grip on power and jobs even if they do study, they will have few choices.
Meanwhile, Zara keeps phoning the number she was given, praying someone will answer.
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(1)Interview conducted in Chad in April 2015. Zara’s name and some details have been changed for her protection.