In Bangui, an evening with the general

Editor’s Note: Kevin Clarke, senior editor and chief correspondent for America magazine, is reporting from Central African Republic and is touring programs operated by Catholic Relief Services. His blog posts are being published by Catholic News Service under a special arrangement with the magazine. This post was written May 7.

By Kevin Clarke

BANGUI, Central African Republic — Coming from such a large and imposing figure, the soft voice of the general is a surprise. One has to lean in and listen closely to hear Mohamed-Moussa Dhaffane speak, sharing the high drama of the moment in something close to a whisper.

As acting president of Seleka in the Central African Republic and a former minister of water and forests for the ousted government, Dhaffane still haunts the capital, Bangui, in discussions with local government officials, NGO leaders and representatives of the international community.

His life is essentially in mortal peril each day as he makes his rounds for dialogue and courtesy calls. Many have urged him to leave Bangui for his own safety; his family has already fled the country entirely. But Dhaffane is determined to remain in the capital.

“Leaders should stop saying one thing and then doing something else,” says the general. “When I told the Muslims to turn back, I continued to stay myself in Bangui despite all the risks I am running.”

People hide from gunfire near a church during a Feb. 18 firefight between African peacekeepers and fighters from the Anti-Balaka militia in Bangui, Central African Republic.  (CNS/Reuters)

People hide from gunfire near a church during a Feb. 18 firefight between African peacekeepers and fighters from the Anti-Balaka militia in Bangui, Central African Republic. (CNS/Reuters)

He travels with two stone-faced Seleka guards in crisp jungle camouflage uniforms and AK-47s slung from their shoulders. The general says he keeps his own “Kalashnikov” with him in the car as the small squad moves across Bangui’s sometimes invisible and sometimes thoroughly barricaded borders, demarcations of districts no Muslim is safe to pass.

Despite the clear divisions that have erupted between the nation’s Christians and Muslims because of the conflict, Dhaffane echoes Christian leaders of Bangui in insisting that the struggle “is not religious, though politicians are trying to manipulate this as a religious conflict.”

“But if we are not careful it could become a religious conflict,” he quickly adds.

Of the state of the nation now, he says, reconciliation is still possible. “The situation is difficult, but we are allowed to hope.

“We can fix the problem quickly with the engagement of all religious leaders,” he says. “Let’s separate religions from the movements. Let’s put religions aside and have Seleka and anti-Balaka talk together because, in reality, Islam does not encourage people to go and kill civilians, and Islam does not encourage people to loot houses — it’s not in the Quran or in the words of the prophet. And in reality the Bible and the life of Jesus do not encourage people to eat the flesh of others and to kill others. When Jesus took the wine and said, ‘This is my blood,’ it was a symbol meant to unify people.

“What anti-Balaka has done is not in the Christian religion,” he says, “and what Seleka has done is not in Islam.

“Reconciliation is possible if the religious leaders are consistent in saying Seleka is one thing; Islam is something else. Anti-Balaka is one thing; Christianity is something else.”

Read more about this interview here.

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