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Change From the Ground Up in War-Torn Central African Republic

Refugees of the fighting in the Central African Republic via wikipédia Public Domain

Refugees of the fighting in the Central African Republic via Wikipedia – Public domain

Full-time volunteers from the ATD Fourth World Movement in the Central African Republic (CAR) have been working with those most disadvantaged since before the violent religious conflict there began to tear the country apart. The actions they have taken to support local populations have preserved unity and social cohesion in some of the communities weakened by the fighting between Seleka rebels, mostly Muslim and anti-Balakas, mostly composed of Christian youth groups. The group's continued presence within the community has rendered them key players and observers of the current situation.  

Global Voices approached the volunteers to learn their perspective on the situation and what they think needs to be done to rebuild the country. What follows is the second part of an interview with Michel Besse, the local team leader of the ATD Fourth World Team in Bangui and his collaborators. You can read the first part of the interview here

Global Voices (GV): Which of the actions taken so far have proved to be most useful to the population? 

Michel Besse: Pendant l'année de plomb qu'à vécu le pays en 2013, une douzaine de membres du Mouvement ATD Quart Monde, sont venus de leurs quartiers et de leurs villages chaque semaine jusqu'au Centre-Ville. Ils ont procédé à l’élaboration du programme d'action du Mouvement pour 4 ans, exprimer ce qui est le plus important pour leur pays ne pas laisser se perdre l'intelligence des enfants, et rejoindre d'autres qui souffrent plus encore ! Dans un pays ou même le lendemain est incertain, ils ont persévéré et résisté : malgré la pression de l'urgence et des dangers, malgré les incertitudes du présent, pour eux penser l'avenir était important. Ils voulaient semer l'espoir maintenant pour garantir l'avenir et ils continuent.

Michel Besse: During the year of carnage that the country endured in 2013, a dozen or so members of the ATD Fourth World organization travelled every week from their neighbourhoods and villages to the town centre. The members worked on the movement's four-year action programme, identifying what matters most for their country; not allowing children's intelligence to be wasted, and joining forces with others who are suffering even more! In a country where even the next day is uncertain, they have persevered and resisted hatred; despite the pressures of the emergency situation and the dangers involved, despite the present uncertainties, it was important for them to think of the future. They wanted to sow the seeds of hope in the present to secure the future, and they are continuing to do so.


Video of children in Bangui, CAR  with schoolchildren from other countries.

GV: You say that it is crucial for communities to talk to each other and maintain dialogue to resolve problems. What conditions do you consider to be necessary for this dialogue to take place? How can the international community assist with this?

MB: Ce que le Mouvement ATD Quart Monde a appris de l'expérience, pour l'avoir vécu ailleurs aussi, c'est que partout où il y a des catastrophes, des crises, les premiers à y faire face, ce sont les gens du pays, et en particulier les gens d'en bas : les habitants des quartiers qui s'organisent sans attendre l'aide internationale, ceux dont les paroles et les actes restent encore invisibles.  La plus grande crainte, c’est que le fossé ne se creuse trop entre les communautés, et qu’il soit trop difficile ensuite d’envisager la réconciliation. Alors, chaque perte en vie humaine est une souffrance pour tous ceux qui veulent la paix. Il faut soutenir les initiatives qui vont dans le sens de la paix, aider à faire entendre les voix et voir les gestes qui portent cette aspiration profonde de fraternité et d’unité.

Les jeunes n'ont pas attendu que le recensement du camp de personnes déplacées de 100.000 soit fait à l'aéroport pour commencer des bibliothèques de rue. Chancella, Kevin et Herbert l'ont fait sans autres moyens qu'un tout petit peu de matériel, quelques crayons et leurs chansons mais surtout toute leur personne. Ils n'ont pas attendus pour se mettre au service communautaire dans les camps : aider les personnes malades à prendre leurs médicaments, aller chercher de l'eau pour les plus faibles, enterrer les morts, mais aussi les mères de familles à réorganiser leur petits commerces pour les besoins du camp et pour nourrir leur familles. Comme ces jeunes, ce que les habitants du pays espèrent, c'est d'être aidés mais en étant soutenus dans leurs initiatives.

MB: The ATD Fourth World Movement has learned from experience, having gone through it elsewhere, that wherever disasters and crises occur, the local people are the ones who have to deal with things first, especially the poorer people; the neighbourhood residents, who organize themselves without waiting for international aid, and whose words and actions remain invisible. The greatest fear is that the gap between the communities will become too wide, making reconciliation a difficult prospect. Every human life lost causes suffering for those who want peace. It is important to support peace initiatives, to help ensure the voices and actions that convey this deep desire for brotherhood and unity are heard and seen.

The young people of Bangui did not wait for the 100,000 displaced people camped at the airport to be listed before starting to set up street libraries. A few of the youngsters who volunteered to help, Chancella, Kevin and Herbert, achieved that with nothing more than a tiny scrap of material, a few pencils and their songs, but most importantly, they put themselves into it. They didn't hesitate to put themselves at the service of the community in the camps, helping the sick to take their medicine, fetching water for the weak, burying the dead, and helping mothers to rebuild their small businesses supplying the needs of the camp and to feed their families. Like these young people, the country's inhabitants wish to be helped, but by being supported in their own initiatives.

GV: How can international aid help rebuild the country, without overlooking those who are the country's driving force?  

MB: On l'a souvent vu ailleurs, l'état a été dénigré et contourné par l'aide internationale.  Il faut soutenir les initiatives des gens du pays et ne pas les écraser. Comment dire qu'on ne peut se mettre derrière ceux qui sont engagés et ont une expérience et une réflexion sur ce qu'il faut faire, nourrie par des années d'engagement ? Les responsables  d'une « maison » pour enfants vulnérables a vu des tonnes de riz distribué en rations individuelles… et les plus faibles se faire dépouiller, ou le vendre à vil prix pour avoir quelques sous. Ces responsables auraient su comment procéder avec ses collègues pour qu'il serve à tous les enfants, plus équitablement.

MB: We've seen it happen elsewhere, the state being denigrated and bypassed by international aid. The initiatives of the country's people have to be supported, not crushed. Why refuse to support those who are involved and have experience and an appreciation for what needs to be done, gained through years of involvement? The people in charge of a “home” for vulnerable children have seen tonnes of rice distributed in individual portions… and the weakest ones having it stolen from them, or it is sold at a low price just to have a few cents. The people in charge of these homes would know how to work with these colleagues to ensure that the rice was used to help all the children more fairly.

GV: How should we go about gathering the people's views and ideas and engaging with them as partners?

MB: Alors qu'elle était Maire de Bangui, l'actuelle Chef de l’État de la transition avait expliqué lors d'une table ronde des organismes humanitaires cet enjeu central : « des chefs de quartier peuvent sembler de vieux messieurs, des instituteurs sans travail depuis des mois ou des responsables d'associations de jeunes dont les locaux sont détruits depuis des années peuvent ne pas ressembler à des interlocuteurs habituels pour ces ONG, mais c'est pourtant avec eux qu'une action passe et peut être acceptée par les habitants ». C’est vital, et c’est d’ailleurs le principe de respect des peuples et un sens profond de la solidarité qui garantie la paix et le vrai progrès avec tous.

MB: While she was Mayor of Bangui, the current transitional Head of State explained the key issue at a round table for humanitarian organizations: “It may seem that some community leaders are old men, teachers who have been out of work for months, leaders of youth associations whose premises were destroyed years ago, and they may not seem to be the kind of people these NGOs are used to liaising with, but it is through them that measures are achieved that are acceptable to residents”. It is vitally important, as it involves the principle of respect for the people and a profound sense of solidarity, which ensures peace and progress for everybody.

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