Etienne Guinot picks up a blue plastic bag, pulls out a dead snake, and holds it up in the air. “If it bites, it will kill you,” he warns, rubbing its rough, spotted skin between his fingers.
In Fondo, a Bangui neighbourhood, the snakes are everywhere these days: hanging in the trees, crawling in the grass, and hiding in large piles of dust and rubble where people’s homes once stood.
They began to arrive shortly after Guinot and his neighbours were forced to flee the Central African Republic capital on 5 December 2013. On that day, large-scale killings of Christians and Muslims were under way. Those communities are now returning to their abandoned homes with trepidation.
The slaughter was carried out by the Séléka – a predominantly Muslim coalition of rebel groups that took control of the country nine months earlier in a coup – and the rival anti-balaka, a loose network of largely Christian self-defence militias that emerged in response.
Along with his family, Guinot, a Christian, sought refuge at Bangui M’Poko airport, where he lived for four years under the protection of French soldiers and the United Nations.
The camp, which catered for more than 100,000 people at its peak, became the defining image of the CAR crisis, with internally displaced people (IDPs) living in squalor beside the runway of an international airport.
Since December last year, the government has been in the process of closing it. While few IDPs interviewed by IRIN say they will miss living in M’Poko, the decision has left thousands of vulnerable people unsure where to go and what to do.
Like Guinot, many of M’Poko’s residents are Christians who used to live in and around Bangui’s third district, which also contains the city’s last remaining Muslim neighbourhood, PK5.
Riches to rags
When violence swept through Bangui in 2013, displaced Muslims moved into PK5, and the majority of Christians left. In subsequent weeks, fighters from the Séléka set about destroying thousands of Christian homes in the surrounding area using grenades, steel poles, and their own feet.
Before the conflict, Guinot owned three homes: one for his daughter, one for his son, and one for himself. In 2013, all of them were destroyed.
Since he returned on 29 January, his family has lived together in an abandoned house next door, with no roof, no windows, and no front door. At night, four share a foam mattress with chunks missing in a 2x2 meter room covered by a UNHCR (UN refugee agency) tarpaulin: the rest sleep outside.
“It’s very difficult,” says Guinot. “We have no house and no food to eat. My grandson, my children: we can’t support them.”
"We think the security situation has improved and we want people to go home"
Compared to CAR’s provinces, which are largely controlled by armed groups, some semblance of normality has returned to Bangui over the past year. Elections in February 2016 passed off peacefully and a large UN peacekeeping force – the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) – remains in place.
“After the election, we think the security situation has improved and we want people to go home and do their best to bring stability and peace,” says Juliana Yodiam, head of humanitarian action at CAR’s Ministry for Social Affairs.
But Muslim and Christian communities have not lived together in significant numbers in Bangui since the conflict began, and nobody seems to know whether they are ready to now.
Since 2014, Arsene Djamba Gassy has been working on social cohesion projects in the third district with the English NGO Conciliation Resources. He says people are generally “tired of violence” and have no “fundamental problems” with each other, but argues that previous approaches to social cohesion failed to tackle underlying grievances by focusing on pre-packaged solutions over community-lead projects.
“For example, one activity would be bringing young Christians and Muslims together for a football match,” says Gassy. “After that, everyone would go home. For a father that has lost his son, has he got a solution through this football match? This is what was done for the past two years.”
While leaders of various Séléka factions left PK5 for the bush in August last year, citing frustration with the country’s programme for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR), armed “self-defence” groups remain active in the area.
“They are less organised,” says François Hericher, deputy country director for French NGO ACTED, but “more prone to criminality”.
Who’s in control?
Down a dusty side street in PK5, Matar Anemeri, alias “Force”, sits around a table in camouflage fatigues with a pistol tied to a thick red rope around his neck.
His eyes are bloodshot and his voice is deep and gruff. The 36-year-old, who was once a member of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA), became a rebel in 2003 when former president François Bozizé took power in a coup. Later, he joined the Séléka, and today he leads a self-defence group based in the south and southwestern part of PK5.
Despite drinking heavily, Anemeri says he wants peace and access to the government’s DDR programme.
To prove his point, he has invited Judicael Moganazou, a former fighter and current spokesperson of Maxim Mokom, a leading member of the anti-balaka, to the table for a joint interview. Previously, that would have been an unthinkable gesture in a country where ex-Séléka factions and anti-balaka groups continue to clash on an almost daily basis.
Asked about the communities returning home, Anemeri says he sends out patrol cars at night to protect “Christians against bad people among us”, something Moganazou nods along to enthusiastically. Shakedowns by armed men on Muslim traders in PK5 don’t bode well, however. And, in a moment of humility, Anemeri admits he cannot control the 500 armed men he says work for him (a recent report by the UN Panel of Experts monitoring CAR indicates that number is far less).
Anemeri admits he cannot control the 500 armed men he says work for him.
“It doesn’t matter if you have 500 people under you or 1,000 people,” he says. “If you don’t have money to pay them, how can you control them? If they feel hungry, you don’t know what they can do.”
Fear of PK5’s armed groups grips many returnees interviewed by IRIN. After three years living in M’Poko, Benedithe Ngoimon, also from Fondo, says she is nervous about being home. Having a house built with rusty, corrugated metal and a worn-out plastic sheet certainly doesn’t help.
“Yesterday night, I heard a gunshot nearby,” she says. “I thought that maybe we will have to return to the camp.”
Back to scarcity
Before IDPs left M’Poko, NGOs said they wanted to see significant investment in the neighbourhoods of return. The population of PK5, for example, had already grown significantly during the crisis with the arrival of displaced Muslims from elsewhere.
With new communities now returning in a context of material scarcity – there are huge gaps in water provision, waste treatment, healthcare, and education – some say conditions for conflict are already present.
“The government [is] making sure people leave the site but [it has] no strategy for what happens next,” says one NGO worker, who asks not to be named but has been involved in months of negotiations with the government over M’Poko. “If there is no increase in social services, it could create tensions within the population.”
How many IDPs actually return to the third district given this situation remains to be seen. According to Sahdia Khan, emergency coordinator at the International Organization for Migration, experience suggests many will go elsewhere.
“A lot of people had left [M’Poko] before, but they return to areas that are safe,” she says.
The number of IDPs returning on this occasion is far larger, with 15 of 30 other IDP camps in the capital also having closed. Even if many pick other sites in Bangui, Khan accepts “this is a new situation”.
Nothing is constant
To help IDPs leave M’Poko, the government has given individuals and families between 80 and 160 euros. But administrative problems, including officials writing names down incorrectly, had prevented dozens of IDPs interviewed by IRIN from receiving anything.
Those that did get their money also say it is too little. Guinot’s neighbour, 48-year-old Melanie Ouagram, returned to Fondo on 26 January with 80 euros in her pocket. A week later, she has nothing. The money has all gone on paying off debts and buying bricks and food.
With no husband to help bring in money – he was shot and killed by ex-Séléka fighters on 5 December – Ouagram can only afford school fees for two of her six children.
“If someone gives you only this money, it means you have been abandoned,” she says.
Help is on hand from some NGOs. To date, ACTED has helped reconstruct 1,300 homes through a system that allows IDPs to buy materials worth around $200 and build for themselves.
“The objective of the project is to give IDPs autonomy so that when they come back, their house hasn’t been built by an NGO,” says Hericher, while taking IRIN on a tour of Boeing, a neighbourhood just outside the third district.
“We give them [training], tools, and explain how the house is built, so that when we leave they will be able to continue building.”
But Bangui remains a fragile place, Hericher admits. In 2015, ACTED helped reconstruct almost 900 houses for displaced people. When violence erupted again that September following the murder of a 17-year-old Muslim taxi driver, all 900 were destroyed.
“It’s a good reminder,” underlines Hericher, pointing towards an entire neighbourhood of gutted buildings in the distance. “Everything can change from one day to the next”.
More on Central African Republic