There is a river that runs through Bambari, one of the largest cities in the Central African Republic. The city’s Muslim community lives on one side of the river. The Christians reside on the other.
The river is called Ouaka, and it has morphed from the life source of the fishing and farming community to a bitter dividing line.
Christians and Muslims lived together for decades in Bambari, and throughout the Central African Republic. But the sectarian bloodshed that erupted three years ago has wrenched the country apart.
The River Ouaka now demarcates a tense truce. Few venture over the river these days, for fear of sparking more of the reprisal killings that have repeatedly flared in this city since 2013.
Yet one group of Muslims and Christians in Bambari are trying to reclaim the river’s name as symbol of unity.
They set up the city’s only functioning radio station last year. After a public vote, they named it Lego Ti la Ouaka -- which means "Voice of Ouaka" in Sango, the local language.
“The radio hopes to be like a kind of bridge over the river that could help people to be reconciled,” said Mathias Manirakiza, the Central African Republic director for Internews, the international media development nonprofit that helped the community establish the radio station.
The D.C.-based Internews has helped Voice of Ouaka secure about $340,000 in funding from a United Nations-managed pool of donor funds since November 2014, when the organization began laying the groundwork for launching the station.
But those funds came to an end on Tuesday. Now the station's ambitious journalists, who have fended off hostile militias and showcased ways to heal their country, face an uncertain future.
A Lifeline For Residents
Radio is the most accessible form of media in the Central African Republic, due to conflict, poverty and a lack of infrastructure. But all of Bambari's radio stations had shut down by late 2014, following a year of horrific sectarian violence. A local militia had burned one station's building to the ground, killing several civilians.
Since then, people in Bambari have sometimes been able to pick up national radio signals broadcasting from the capital. But most of the time, they had no media left to turn to.
“In places like the Central African Republic, there are large portions of the country that have no information at all,” Marjorie Rouse, Internews' senior vice president for programs, told The WorldPost. “Community radio stations can provide highly local information... and an important platform for discussion and debate.”
Without any functioning media in Bambari, rumors ran wild and stoked tensions in the city, said Adja Khaltouma Boulama, the president of Voice of Ouaka's managing committee.
Bambari residents wanted a fresh start, and feared that reopening one of the old stations would only draw further attacks. So they approached Internews about opening a community radio station.
“The community told us that they wanted to hear the voices of Bambari better represented,” said Boulama, who was elected by a group of community representatives to head the committee that oversees the station. “I wanted to do this for my country… so we could put rumors to rest and cultivate social cohesion between us, between Christians and Muslims, so that peace could return.”
Voice of Ouaka broadcasts for two hours each day. Most of its programs provide practical information about where to get aid and medicine, or communicate messages about peace and social cohesion. The station’s most popular program, "Kambissa," tells the stories of previously displaced people who have come home to Bambari.
“This is all really essential information in a humanitarian crisis,” Rouse said. “Displaced populations rely on information about services and where conflict is happening when making decisions about where to move, when to move and where to get humanitarian assistance.”
'Microcosm' Of The Conflict
Bambari lies on the front line of the conflict that erupted in the Central African Republic in 2013. At the height of the violence, around 80 percent of the city’s estimated 60,000 residents fled their homes. The conflict has displaced nearly 1 million people across the country, around half of whom have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
A coalition of mainly Muslim rebel forces that ousted former President Francois Bozize in March 2013, called Seleka, was headquartered in Bambari. The coup prompted Christian militias to form a group called anti-Balaka, which fought the Seleka. Violence by the militias sparked a cycle of reprisal killings against Muslim and Christian civilians that left thousands dead.
The Seleka were formally disbanded in late 2013 and the U.N. declared Bambari a "weapons-free zone" last September, but warlords who were part of the group continue to wield power and control the local economy. Meanwhile, anti-Balaka forces keep vigilant watch over the Christian areas west of the River Ouaka.
The International Crisis Group has described the city as a “microcosm” of the conflict.
“Traditionally a dynamic economic center and mixing place for Central Africans… [the war] transformed a once peaceful city in a divided and dangerous territory,” Thibaud Lesueur and Mathilde Tarif wrote on the organization’s blog last year.
The worst of the fighting in the Central African Republic abated after a 2014 ceasefire, but tensions have repeatedly flared into violence.
In February, the country elected former mathematics professor Faustin Archange Touadera, who pledged to disarm militias and unite the population, as president. However, analysts say extending the government’s presence throughout the country after decades of weak state control will be a major challenge.
As in most of the country, peace is tenuous in Bambari: Local armed groups remain firmly in control, and the threat of violence hangs over the city.
Militants have mostly spared Voice of Ouaka from attack since it went on air in February 2015, although the station has had problems with looting and has suffered some collateral damage in the fighting.
The station's journalists have worked hard to persuade local militias to leave them alone. Voice of Ouaka staff members met with both anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka leaders before they started broadcasting to ask them not to harass journalists or raid their broadcast studio. The dialogue continues today.
“We train the armed groups on the meaning of community radio, the need for protection of the media, and how they can identify us by our logos and equipment,” explained Theophane Patinvoh, Internews’ trainer who supervises the radio station.
Militants accused previous radio stations in Bambari of broadcasting hate speech, so Voice of Ouaka’s journalists are cautious about what they put on the air. They know a stray word by a journalist or listener could ignite communal tensions.
To address these risks, Voice of Ouaka does not broadcast live or allow call-ins. It avoids political programming, and Patinvoh vets all content before it goes live. The station hopes to relax these restrictions if tensions subside, and once the staff is more experienced.
“Hate speech can be quite subtle, and build over time,” Rouse said, noting that Internews has taken a similar approach when working in other areas of conflict, like South Sudan.
An ex-Seleka militia leader called Voice of Ouaka during its first broadcast, but asked for more music instead of issuing threats, according to Internews.
News Over Rumors
On rare occasions, Voice of Ouaka has broken its rule about live broadcasting to deal with a crisis.
Last August, for example, a 19-year-old Muslim was decapitated in Bambari, allegedly by anti-Balaka militias. Deadly reprisal attacks pushed thousands to flee the city yet again, and rumors began to fly that one of Voice of Ouaka’s journalists had been killed.
While attacks raged around them, Boulama and other board members drove to the radio station to broadcast a message urging peace and to dispel the rumor that one of their own had been attacked.
“Life in Bambari is deeply challenging and dangerous. … They live with enormous uncertainty and, in the midst of it, they maintain a radio station that communicates messages of peace,” Mat Jacob, the operations manager of Internews' Africa Program, wrote about the experience of being in Bambari at the time. “I understand now, even better than before, what a feat of courage that is.”
A Glimpse Of A Peaceful Future
Voice of Ouaka also aspires to be a model of how to overcome the sectarian divide. The team of six journalists include Muslims and Christians; Boulama, a Muslim woman, heads the seven-member managing committee, and her deputy is a Christian woman named Marie Helene Nzapanede.
The fact that the community elected a multiconfessional managing board gives hope for resolving the crisis in the Central African Republic, Patinvoh said.
“You realize that the crisis is actually relatively recent and people in a given community know each other, have always lived side by side and are quite close,” he said.
“Everyone knows me here in Bambari, Muslims and Christians alike,” Boulama said. “It’s thanks to this trust that things work well.”
The long-term future of the radio station is precarious, however. The electricity supply in Bambari is limited, and the radio is powered by an expensive generator.
Staff members have come up with some creative proposals to keep the station afloat after the donor funding ends this week. They’re trying to drum up advertising and partnerships with local businesses and humanitarian groups, and offer Internet, photocopying and cell phone-charging services to residents from their office. Staffers have even explored setting up a small cafeteria on site.
Internews-supported radio stations located elsewhere on the continent also have had to experiment with novel ways to stay afloat -- a station in the Democratic Republic of Congo even operates a rice-processing plant.
“Any community radio station in rural Africa finds itself in a tenuous day to day struggle for survival,” Rouse said. “But many, many of them do survive.”
But establishing a profitable business is a huge challenge in the Central African Republic, a country rich in resources but with one of the highest poverty rates in the world.
“The difficult conditions that Bambari and Ouaka inhabitants have to face, including a large number of people are still living in internal displacement camps or with host families, don't allow them yet to contribute to cover expenses of the radio that still needs support,” Manirakiza said.
However uncertain the station's future may be, Manirakiza notes that it has already come along way.
“We felt that the radio could be destroyed within months, and the fact that the radio is still working now makes us feel very proud,” he said.
Willa Frej contributed reporting.