Four years ago today, an eruption of violence in the capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui, left dozens dead and shattered the lives of many others.
An attempt by Anti-Balaka (“anti-machete”) vigilantes to oust rebel leader Michel Djotodia, who had swept across the country into the capital to proclaim himself President, led to a violent counter-offensive by Djotodia’s militants, known as Séléka.
Pastors Jean-Eric Vogbia and Gilbert Bogolo were among the Christians who lived in PK5, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Bangui, at the time.
On the day of the attack – 5 December 2013 – they became the prime targets of Séléka militants. Pastor Vogbia lost his eldest son; they both lost their churches and properties.
Four years on, the scars of that dramatic day are still fresh.
It was still dark when the first rifle shots and grenade explosions erupted in the heavily populated area of PK5. Many were still in bed, including Pastor Vogbia and his family.
At about 4am, as the detonations intensified and got closer, his wife, children and other relatives fled the family compound – a set of three to four residences, inherited from parents.
Vogbia and his brother were left behind in the compound, but also decided to flee as the situation became uncertain.
“As we were about to leave the neighbourhood, we were stopped by two heavily-armed Séléka militants,” Vogbia recalls. “One of them, who seemed to know us, told me in Arabic: ‘The God you serve has already saved you. Keep going’.”
At about 8am, Vogbia’s phone rang and a voice said: “We are at your place. We have destroyed everything and set the compound ablaze.”
Vogbia’s eldest son – a second-year medical student – was at the university and knew nothing about the situation at home.
“We tried to contact him on the phone, but he was not reachable,” Vogbia explains. “At about 12 noon, my phone rang again and a voice said: ‘The boy was killed. We didn’t plan it, but as we missed you, we had to kill him’.”
Vogbia and his family were devastated. Since then, his wife has developed trauma-related reactions.
“Each year, during the first week of December, she will have some crisis, which can last for two to three days,” Vogbia says. “Though she had some counselling sessions, she is not completely healed.”
‘We were terrified’
Until 5 December 2013, Gilbert Bogolo was the pastor of a church that hosted more than 500 worshippers each Sunday. He also used to work for a petroleum company, and was well-off.
Today, as he revisits the ruins of his house, and his church, now surrounded by wild plants, he can’t hide his emotions. (Video in French – if subtitles don’t automatically appear, click ‘CC’ at the bottom-right of the video.)
“We were terrified by the detonations of automatic weapons,” he recalls. “My family and I stayed indoors the whole day, praying and waiting for the situation to calm. As I looked over the fence, I saw Séléka militants shooting randomly at people passing by. Even animals were not spared.
“Two armed militants passed a few metres away from our gate, without touching it. Maybe they thought we had already fled as the neighbourhood seemed empty.”
The next day, as the shootings lessened, Bogolo and his family fled to the Mpoko camp near the airport, where thousands sought refuge.
The living conditions in the camp were appalling, says Bogolo. People were exposed to the elements, such as the heat of the sun, torrential rain, combined with mosquitoes. There weren’t enough toilets or drinking water to accommodate everyone.
Food aid distributions often turned into mass brawls between the internally displaced people (IDPs). Moreover, Anti-Balaka militants were active within the camp.
“They pretended to protect the displaced people from Séléka, but instead, they extorted money and valuables from defenceless IDPs,” Bogolo says. “Though French soldiers were all over the camp, they didn’t care about our situation.”
Bogolo describes their three months as a “humiliating experience”; his wife and their ten children were left with nothing to sleep on but some pieces of cardboard boxes.
“But one night as I was praying, I had a vision: it was like a voice telling me: ‘Do not be worried, do not be worried’,” he says. “Since then I was filled with peace and I regained strength to encourage other IDPs.”
Bogolo and his family eventually left the camp, and moved to a rented house.
‘A new beginning is possible’
Four years later, Vogbia and Bogolo have no hard feelings. They say they want to move on.
“What happened was a punitive act because of my Muslim background,” Vogbia says. “They wanted to silence the preacher who converts Muslims to Christianity.
“It was also an attempt to chase us away from our ancestral lands. Many have already sold their properties (in PK5) and left for other areas of the city.
“Each time I pass by the ruins of our family compound, now invaded by wild plants, I feel bad. But I need to overcome my anger and act with love towards my Muslim brothers and friends.”
With God a new beginning is possible, says Bogolo: “Maybe one day we will understand why he allowed us to go through this painful experience.”
His church now gathers in a tent erected in the back yard of a church member’s house, who generously offered the space to the church.
“It’s not the big attendance of the old days, but the remaining members are more committed than ever,” he says. “The donations we receive on Sundays are greater than ever.”
The church has bought a new plot of land and is planning to build another church building.
Pastors Vogbia and Bogolo say there is an extremist ideology which fuels the violence among communities, irrespective of their religious background, and that many have been dragged into that way of thinking.
Vogbia and Bogolo have pledged to work hard to regain trust between Christian and Muslim communities by promoting dialogue.
Yet despite the prevailing calm, they both agree that it’s too soon to think about moving home to their PK5 neighbourhood.
Last month, on 11 November, seven people were killed after an attack on a concert organised by young Christians and Muslims to aid reconciliation between the two communities.
The attack has raised the fear of a new wave of violence and prompted many traders to close their shops, and some residents to flee to other areas of the capital.