On the road to Boda, my colleague told me an African proverb: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.
Those words stayed with me as we drove into the divided town, four hours west of the capital city Bangui. UNICEF was in Boda to monitor the work of our partner organisations, who are providing health and nutrition services, freeing children from armed groups, and helping survivors of violence.
It was my first monitoring trip to the embattled town, and I was there with colleagues from the child protection, education, emergencies and health teams. We crossed the ‘red line’ that splits the town – bordered by rubble from store fronts which had been completely destroyed. Roofs, doors and windows ripped away; and walls torn apart brick by brick.
We passed the remains of a fish shop, a mobile phone store, and diamond and gold sellers who traded the bounty from the mines on the outskirts of town. The rest were unrecognisable.
Violence hit Boda in an atmosphere of distrust and fear. The Muslim and non-Muslim communities were expecting an attack from ‘the other’. Tensions increased in December when the mostly Christian anti-Balaka armed group attacked the capital city. This was followed by the resignation of President Michel Djotodia, the former leader of the majority Muslim rebel group, the Seleka. As power changed hands in the capital city, rumors and fear imploded in Boda and in a few short days in late January, over 600 homes in Boda were burnt and destroyed.
More than 24,000 non-Muslims fled to displacement sites, while uncountable thousands disappeared into the bush. On the other side of the town’s red line, up to 6,000 Muslims were trapped in an enclave and surrounded by anti-Balaka militia men – unable to access the hospital, or the market. The only thing stopping large-scale revenge attacks was the presence of French and African peacekeeping forces.
On our visit to Boda, we were struck by the similarities between the two communities. The mothers we met on both sides had the same stories of violence and displacement. The elephants had fought and, as always, it was the everyday people who suffered.
But in their wake, we also heard the stories of everyday heroes, working to make life a little bit better for children in their respective communities. We met health worker, Mariam, who used to work at the Boda Hospital, but can’t go there anymore because she is Muslim, and will be in grave danger if she crosses the “red line”. She is now volunteering in a clinic in the Muslim enclave treating children for malaria, malnutrition and diarrhoea.
On the other side of town, we met headmaster Paul and his team of volunteer teachers, who together re-opened the school in their community. As soon as a tense peace returned to Boda, these parents re-started classes and were so overwhelmed with students eager to learn that they had to start teaching children in two shifts per day – one group in the morning and another in the afternoon.
It’s people like Mariam and Paul who are re-building the future of Central African Republic. It’s UNICEF’s job to give them the tools they need.
Madeleine is a Communication Specialist with UNICEF Central African Republic.