I want justice,” says Antoine Pounengakola, a Christian pensioner whose pregnant daughter, 26, and two-year-old granddaughter were slaughtered by Muslim rebels in the Central African Republic two years ago. Abdul Wahid, a Muslim truck driver, lost eight members of his family, massacred by Christians who formed vigilante bands to avenge atrocities by the ex-rebels of the Seleka alliance, which seized power in a coup in March 2013. Both families were victims of the latest strife to ravage a very poor, landlocked nation. The conflict led to unprecedented brutality across the fault lines of religion and initially raised fears of a genocide.
Christian vigilantes and Seleka fighters mostly drawn from the Muslim minority killed, raped and looted civilians, while hundreds of thousands fled their homes. “Those who committed crimes and theft must be arrested,” Wahid says after filing a suit at a court in the capital Bangui. “How many amnesties have there been in this country? It’s not a matter of religion. We shan’t build this nation without justice,” he adds. The road to justice is hard in a country battered by coups, insurgencies and army mutinies since independence from France in 1960 and today under interim governance.
Three foreign peacekeeping forces have been active since the president installed by the Seleka, Michel Djotodia, stood down under international pressure in January 2014, but the CAR remains far from pacified. Armed gangs have turned dusty swathes of territory into an African Wild West and their leaders must be considered in the problematic quest for law and order. “There’s a paradox.
On the one hand, we want to prosecute those behind crimes. On the other, we’re obliged to negotiate politically with many chiefs of armed groups… who are among those who will be pursued,” said one Western source, who asked not to be named. “Reconciliation doesn’t mean impunity,” stresses Justice Minister Aristide Sokambi. “It’s not because there is reconciliation that those who are sought will escape punishment. “We need a strong position shared by the international community, by the government, but above all by the population.” Any amnesties were ruled out during a national reconciliation forum that gathered delegates from all over the CAR early in May, soon after the ruling National Transitional Council announced the creation of a Special Penal Court. This tribunal will consist of 27 judges — 14 Central Africans and 13 from abroad — to give it both “expertise and legitimacy” in trying crimes, the minister said.