Ex-combatants in the Central African Republic join the fight against COVID-19

In the Central African Republic, empowered conflict-affected communities and ex-combatants are actively involved in the fight against COVID-19 through Community Violence Reduction programmes implemented by the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration section of the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

“I must admit that our habits have changed. We regularly wash our hands and we often wear face masks,” says Makoudjouman Baudouin Innocent, an ex-combatant from Kaga Bandoro, a town in the centre of the Central African Republic. He and Ali Balkissou, a former armed group abductee and mother of three from Bria, have both become key actors in raising awareness on preventive measures against COVID-19. Since the beginning of the outbreak, they have been helping their communities fight the virus by producing face masks and soap.

Ali and Makoudjouman are engaged in Community Violence Reduction programmes aimed at providing alternatives to joining armed groups and empowering communities to become active peacemakers.

With the COVID-19 outbreak, the programmes implemented in the Central African Republic had to be reprioritized in order to address a burning priority: slowing the spread of the virus. As a result, MINUSCA is now working with thousands of its beneficiaries to, among other things, produce face masks and soap.

Ali is one of these beneficiaries. She joined the programme in 2019, after having spent six years in the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), an armed group in the Central African Republic. “Before the conflict broke out in 2013, I was working in a small business related to market gardening in order to support my family financially,” she says. “One day, while I was selling my products in Mbangana, a village located 30km away from Bria, fighters of the UFDR took the local population by surprise and forced us into their ranks. All our belongings — even the houses in the village — were destroyed.” Ali worked as a housekeeper at the UFDR command headquarters until she and her mother successfully managed to escape and return to Bria.

Despite this experience, Ali did not turn to violence to avenge her kidnapping, but made the first step in her journey towards recovery by joining the Community Violence Reduction programme.

When the Coronavirus started to spread throughout the world, the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration section of MINUSCA began to sensitize local populations to the risks associated with the pandemic. According to Ali, this was critical given the large number of locals who believed COVID-19 to be a “made-up” disease. MINUSCA mobilized and trained Ali and her cohort in manufacturing soaps, essential for community members to wash their hands and protect themselves from the virus.

Photo: MINUSCA

“This income-generating activity was introduced at the right time,” she says. “[Working in the production of soaps] is an opportunity for me not only to have financial resources, but also to be involved in the fight against COVID-19. We are producing soap that is either distributed for free by MINUSCA or sold at a low price. This allows my community not to run out of soaps,” she explains.

Ali warns that the Coronavirus could be a threat to peace in the region. The closure of borders due to COVID-19 has impacted the importation of basic necessities, which dramatically affects economic activity in remote areas. Finding food and other items at a reasonable price has become challenging.

“Today, my pride, as for many other members of my group, is the new perception that our community and our respective families have of us,” she says. “Before, we weren’t so important, but now, we are seen differently; everyone respects us. COVID-19 was an opportunity for us to be considered as valuable members of society.”

In this climate of uncertainty, Ali hopes that their project will help reinforce cohesion among the community to better fight the disease, and that their small-scale soap production can eventually be turned into a larger business.

After spending eight years in the ranks of the Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC), Makoudjouman also decided to engage in the Community Violence Reduction programme. “Before the Coronavirus, MINUSCA trained beneficiaries in masonry, carpentry, sewing, mechanics, welding and many other skills,” he says. “It gave people jobs that allowed them to take care of their families. We have seen violence decrease in our neighbourhoods.”

Since the virus started to spread across the country, life in his community is hardly recognizable. Makoudjouman has witnessed the closure of schools, bars and churches, but also the enforcement of new preventive rules. In this context, Makoudjouman finds project activities to be essential. He explains, “the Community Violence Reduction programme educates the entire population on COVID-19, even in remote areas. MINUSCA has put hand-washing buckets in the city and is helping the authorities deal with the crisis. There is a COVID-19 treatment centre within the local hospital.”

Photo: MINUSCA

Makoudjouman is personally involved in the fight against the pandemic. Thanks to MINUSCA, he received the proper equipment and training to sew masks according to WHO standards. He is able to educate his family and friends about preventive measures and produce masks distributed to the local population.

Like Ali, Makoudjouman is looking forward and is not considering returning to an armed group. “My future depends on myself now. I chose to join the Community Violence Reduction programme to learn a new profession. All I want today is to be successful,” he declares.

To him, a sustainable peaceful future for the Central African Republic is achievable. To attain this goal, he encourages all combatants to give up their weapons and join Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration programmes to engage in vocational training and to become development actors.

Just like MINUSCA, other missions such as MONUSCO, MINUSMA and UNAMID continue to implement their Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration/Community Violence Reduction mandate while adapting to new realities. Every day, their interventions assist former combatants, their dependents and communities in their journey towards peace. More information: https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/disarmament-demobilization-and-reintegration

Related article: From combatant to civilian during COVID-19

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