Last week, I returned from Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic (CAR). As we touched down in the airport, I could see the white tents of the encampment where thousands of Muslim residents of the city wait to leave for camps in the North. Minimal peacekeeping forces, from the African Union and France, are stationed nearby. A soldier accompanied us in our vehicle, which had recently lost a window in the crossfire.
Over the past 18 months since the nation's most recent coup d’état, violent attacks by armed Muslim and Christian militias have escalated. Approximately 558,500 people are now internally displaced; 100,000 more people fled the country between December 2013 and May 2014, as human rights organizations warned of a possible genocide against the Muslim minority.
We do not usually provide dialogue training in the midst of mass violence. Normally, we help to repair the social fabric and prevent future violence once the guns have silenced. In this case, with UN peacekeeping forces still months away from arrival and most of the country without any formal security, we were invited to provide local Central African leaders with conflict transformation training. We were brought in by the United States Institute of Peace, the Economic Community for Central African States, and the CAR Ministry of Reconciliation.
I worked in partnership with a colleague from the U.S. Institute of Peace to provide five days of intensive training for an impressive group of 26 Central Africans. Half of the group was made up of local government officials—mayors and district chiefs within the capital city area. Other participants included journalists, human rights workers, leaders of women and youth networks, religious leaders, trade unionists, and several members of parliament. All found themselves in the position of advising on and mediating community conflicts that could easily contribute to ongoing cycles of revenge. As one local official commented,
“If we see people acting in a discriminatory manner within our neighborhood, it is up to us to approach them; there is no one else to turn to.”
Normally we ask training participants turn off their cell phones. In this case, that would have been impossible, as trainees received constant updates on incidents of violence. They were understandably stressed, on edge, and overwhelmed, and they felt the need to respond immediately if there was any way they could help maintain peace and stability within their communities.
We focused primarily on practical dialogue and mediation skills to curb the violence, strengthen communities' resilience, and prevent the conflict from escalating. We also used a participatory training tool (the “tree of conflict”) as a way to examine the roots, outcomes, and cycles of violence in this crisis. As the group put all the pieces together, they discussed the ways in which all of the overwhelming problems they face are rooted in bad governance at the national level, dating back to a brutal French colonial regime. Many of them expressed relief after the exercise. Understanding the causes of a conflict suggests paths towards resolution.
We will continue to work in CAR in partnership with the U.S. Institute of Peace, supporting the trainees as they initiate ongoing peacebuilding projects and advising the UN on how best to support a truly participatory national dialogue as part of the planned for political transition. We plan to return in October, after approximately 12,000 UN peacebuilding troops will have at last arrived.