SHAFAQNA – Observers warn that if land and property are not returned, there will be no peace in the Central African Republic.
M Babakir Ali cuts a lonely figure sitting on a plastic chair outside a rundown cafe in the PK5 district of Bangui.
Once the owner of five houses and 18,000 square metres of land in the Foulbe district of Pk13, on the outskirts of Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, Ali is now reduced to a pair of jeans and a short white sleeved shirt. The thin vertical stripes are faintly visible beyond the creases. He is a refugee in his own city.
“I left for Chad in January 2014 because of what happened on the streets of Bangui,” Ali says.
Ali says he watched as bodies of young Muslim men were dragged through the streets of the capital and then piled at a local mosque in what was to signal the changing fortunes for Muslims in the country.
He was right.
In early January, Muslims in the PK5, PK12, PK13 districts of Bangui were hunted down, mutilated, burned alive and left on the streets. Muslims in the towns of Bossangoa, Bozoum, Bouca, Yaloke, Mbaiki, Bossembele and others also fled, as Anti-balaka embarked on a reign of terror across the northwest and southwestern regions.
Ali gathered his family, and fled to neighbouring Chad, too.
With the unrest in Bangui lifting in 2016 as the country neared elections, he decided to come home.
But he knew he would face a new struggle on his return.
“I knew my houses and my land, that everything had been taken,” 45-year-old Ali says. “I knew I would be coming back to nothing.”
Ali speaks in short and abrupt sentences. The already battered plastic chair bends and shifts with his every gesture. There is a calm dissonance in his moist, jaundiced eyes even as he explains that his property was sold to a third party by a local chief.
“I am not the only one. So many from my district have returned, and have nowhere to go,” Ali says, looking away.
‘Exodus of historic proportions’
Thousands have been killed since the Central African Republic fell into a slow-churning civil war following a coup in 2013. Close to a million others fled their homes fearing catching a stray bullet or becoming the victims of targeted killings.
At first, when the Muslim-led Seleka rebels took Bangui, the Christian community was attacked.
Later, when Christians formed self-defence groups into what became known as the Anti-balaka, and many Seleka rebels disarmed, the Muslim minority was attacked.
Muslims were shunned, forced to flee into enclaves and displaced camps or into neighbouring Cameroon or Chad in a cascade of violence.
Amnesty International warned of “a Muslim exodus of historic proportions”. And when the Muslims left, their homes, property and lands were confiscated, sold or occupied.
In June 2016, the country held presidential elections and a new government led by President Faustin-Archange Touadera was voted in. Security returned to the capital Bangui.
Under a sizeable UN peacekeeping force, many thousands of people like Ali began returning to districts in and around Bangui.
But many others refuse to come back, either out of fear or because they have no home to return to. One-fifth of the country’s population is currently either displaced internally or abroad in neighbouring Chad, Cameroon or the Democratic Republic Congo.
Humanitarian organisations in Bangui are concerned that if left unresolved, unlawful and illegal occupation of homes or properties could easily become another driver of conflict in a country already overwhelmingly riveted on land, resources and power.
“Addressing housing, land and property is a crucial component of sustainable peacebuilding efforts,” Ingrid Beauquis, spokesperson for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Bangui, says.
“If people displaced by violence cannot return to their communities, reclaim their property or relocate with the support of authorities, small conflicts over land may escalate to violence, communities may remain divided, and long-term stability may become impossible,” Beauquis told Al Jazeera.
The NRC has been working with the local government in tackling what they call Housing, Land and Property (HLP) rights in an effort to facilitate the process of returning homes and land to the rightful owners. But results have varied.
For instance, out of the 475 cases the NRC is directly mediating, including illegal selling and occupation, destruction and encroachment of land or houses, just 18 cases have been successfully solved.
But resolving these cases is complicated.
For instance, Ali’s family is one of 280 households who has been reportedly displaced in the PK13 district. Given the sensitivities of broaching an issue that encompasses theft, sectarianism and desperation, simply asking the new occupants to leave is not possible.
“Once we verify all 280 cases, the local community and local authorities will approach the secondary occupants,” Beauquis says.
But amid mass displacement, insecurity and a crisis of authority, the government is simply unable to prioritise housing, land and property rights.
“We have to work with local leaders and movement on the cases is dependent on their willingness to push ahead with the cases.” Jennifer Jecolia, a programme coordinator with the NRC, says.
Justice for social cohesion
Jean Emmanuel Gazanguenza’s pinstripe suit hangs from his gaunt body. The mayor of Begoua or PK12, one of the 134 district of Bangui, chooses his words slowly and meticulously. His organised thoughts are a far cry from the chaos that is his desk: a melange of reports and loose papers, unopened envelopes, an assortment of plastic pink roses that remarkably match the surrounding four walls of his office.
Gazanguenza says that it was only a few months ago that he was displaced too, and that he only just moved back home and into his office.
He says that his office has identified 231 houses in his district that were sold illegally. A majority of which originally belonged to Muslims, he admits.
“Many regret what they did, because they never had issues before and they realise they got carried away in the chaos,” he says.
Gazanguenza is clear that people will need to get their lot back.
“Else we will have a problem here,” the mayor says slowly. “If people feel that there is impunity, then everyone will do what they like, and there will be revenge,” he says, his hands slowly forming a steeple.
“Justice and reparation are necessary for social cohesion,” he says.
But even he understands that this is easier said than done.
Part of the problem is many home or property owners, especially outside the capital Bangui, simply do not have title deeds.
If individual owners have the financial capability to approach the courts, the country’s property law does not sufficiently protect the rights of the displaced to return to their property. In circumstances where title deeds or ownership cannot be established, the displaced have simply nowhere to turn.
According to the NRC, a new framework law on property is currently being drafted with the dual ambition of protecting the very particular rights of the displaced and helping to facilitate the resolution of future land or property conflicts.
But like so many other facets of CAR, law enforcement is likely to remain a major obstacle, especially outside the capital, the NRC says.
As it stands, the state starts and ends in Bangui. The countryside remains firmly within the ambit of armed groups. Groups belonging to the Seleka or Anti-balaka can be observed running towns and villages often in the full view of UN peacekeepers.
Even in Bangui, individuals who want their land back are most likely to find traction via the NRC or through their local mayors, who focus on discussions and negotiations in an effort to have secondary occupants give up the stolen property.
Forty-five-year-old M Osman from PK13 lost five of his houses in 2013. Osman is still not able to return to his properties because they have been occupied by people who were displaced by the violence themselves.
In Osman’s case, the NRC, together with the head of the district, approached the new residents and explained that the owner wanted to return. They agreed to leave. But Osman is still not convinced that the area is safe enough for Muslims to return. Until more Muslims return, he won’t go back.
“I told them that I will give them one month notice before I want to move back,” Osman told Al Jazeera. Until then, he will be living in the PK5 district.
It is not clear how much longer people will wait. Noumou Waziri, 60, an Imam who lost his home and his mosque in PK13 in 2014, says he continues to remind people to be patient.
“I tell them not to take revenge. I tell them that despite what has happened, we do not accept that people can take action in their own hands.”
Ali agrees that vigilantism is not the solution, but his response is a little more cryptic.
“I came back because this is my home. I didn’t want to live as a refugee,” he says. “But if the land is not returned, it means we cannot live together.”