#SiegePhoto winner: Holding the keys as a reminder of home
We put out a call on social media last month asking you to send us your photos of women in war—images of women facing violence, coping with it, or empowered in conflict areas. The winning submission, we said, would be featured on our website, along with an interview with the photographer.
In an email sent by Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis response adviser for Amnesty International, we found a stunning image. Mariner managed to capture with subtlety and symbolism the uncertainty of what it means to live in war in this photograph of the hands of a woman holding the keys to her home—now forever a part of her past—in the Central African Republic.
We have covered the conflict in CAR in recent months, highlighting the violence and chaos in the country that have left scores dead and thousands in need of assistance. International organizations have documented grave human rights abuses against civilians, including “pillage, summary executions, rape, and torture,” yet somehow the crisis barely makes the news, let alone the front pages of major media outlets.
With Mariner’s photograph, we have the chance to illuminate the suffering of women and men in this under-covered conflict. We asked her some questions about the photo and her work in CAR. Her answers are haunting.
Shazdeh Omari: When and where did you take this picture?
Joanne Mariner: I took it in the courtyard of the Central Mosque, in the PK5 neighborhood of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, on February 8.
SO: What were the circumstances surrounding the picture?
JM: A colleague and I had arrived in Bangui that morning; it was my third trip to the Central African Republic. I had been out of the country for just over a week, and even during that short time, the situation for Muslims had worsened. What were vibrant Muslim communities just a couple of months earlier were now threatened enclaves. The speed of ethnic cleansing was shocking; equally shocking was the fact that it was happening despite the presence of French and African peacekeeping forces.
In the early afternoon, we visited the PK5 neighborhood, the heart of the capital’s Muslim life, and found the streets largely deserted. Instead of the bustling market area that used to exist there, we saw overloaded trucks—everyone was packing up to leave. Most had already left.
We decided to visit the Central Mosque where, we knew, hundreds of displaced Muslims were taking refuge. When we arrived, we found that the numbers of displaced people had grown enormously over the past 10 days. There were at least 1,000 people in the mosque compound, living in precarious conditions without shelter. The PK5 area is under constant threat by anti-balaka fighters [militias formed after former President Michel Djotodia came to power in 2013]. Several of them had been injured in anti-balaka attacks, and many of them were sick. They were all seeking a way to escape the country. The woman whose hands I photographed was one of them.
SO: Who is the woman in the picture?
JM: The woman is Madé Abdulaye, a Muslim inhabitant of Bangui, who was driven out of her home by violent anti-balaka fighters.
SO: What is her story? What did she tell you about her life, her family?
JM: Abdulaye didn’t know her exact age, but she was around 60 years old. She has lived in the Central African Republic her entire life. In the previous week, anti-balaka fighters had attacked her neighborhood, forcing her family to flee. Along with dozens of other families from the same area, she and her relatives had come to the mosque to seek refuge and to find a safe way to leave the country.
I asked about the keys that I saw attached to her scarf. She said they were the keys to the home that she had been forced to leave. She said she knew she was never going to see her home again, but that she wanted to hold on to its memory. The keys were a physical reminder of home. She had very little idea of where her next home would be—her family was trying to get to Chad or Cameroon, or anywhere else where they could escape the violence.
SO: What are you doing in CAR?
JM: I’m a crisis researcher for Amnesty International, so I tend to work in situations of armed conflict and severe human rights violations. Over the past year, I’ve worked in Afghanistan, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, among other places. I first visited CAR last December, and arrived the day before a massive eruption of violence in which some 1,000 people were killed.
Amnesty, which has worked in CAR for decades, has been trying to draw international attention to the country’s human rights and humanitarian crisis, and has been pressing for civilians to be protected. In my first trip to the country, in the beginning of December 2013, the situation was explosive and it did, indeed, explode.
When I arrived again in mid-January with my colleague, Donatella Rovera, Muslims were being massacred. During just our first few days in the country, we documented three anti-balaka attacks on Muslim communities, including one in which nearly 50 Muslims were killed in and around the town mosque. The level of violence was shocking: Whole families were being killed—including small children.
Based on the information we collected in towns and villages across the western part of the country, Rovera and I wrote a report for Amnesty International called “Ethnic Cleansing and Sectarian Killings in the Central African Republic.” The report describes the massive abuses in CAR and the large-scale flight of the country’s Muslim population.
I left CAR on February 15, but I have stayed in close contact with people there, as well as with refugees who’ve fled to Chad and Cameroon.
SO: We’ve read reports of terrible violations in CAR against civilians, including women and children, and hundreds of cases of sexualized violence. What can you tell us about the present situation there?
JM: There is still very little security for Muslims in CAR. Anti-balaka militia continue to kill Muslims, and Muslims continue to flee. At present, in Bangui, there are only two small Muslim enclaves. In the western part of the country, its most populous region, there are only a few towns in which Muslims remain. Besides anti-balaka violence, the Seleka forces that have regrouped in the country’s northeast are also perpetrating serious human rights abuses, including killing Christians and burning homes.
What we heard about most in CAR was killings, looting, and forced displacement. In the village of Boguera, we found a woman’s corpse on the street, naked from the waist down. She may have been raped before being killed. There have also been several cases in which men were lynched and emasculated. This kind of violence affects both sexes.
We arrived in Boguera just three days after a massacre occurred and found the Muslim neighborhood littered with corpses. We also found bodies on the outskirts of town: people killed as they were fleeing, with little bundles of clothing and food that they had tried to bring with them. We found a young girl there who was so traumatized that she could hardly move or say a word. She was the sole Muslim remaining in the village; both of her parents had been killed. She seemed to be trying to withdraw from the world, as if her only defense was to cease to exist.
And I can’t count the number of burned homes, destroyed mosques, and looted shops I’ve seen.
SO: What is a story that has stuck with you the most?
JM: What upset me most, I think, was the killing of Saleh Dido, the Muslim deputy mayor of Mbaiki, a town in southwest CAR. He was born in Mbaiki. He held a position of public responsibility there, and he was deeply patriotic. We met him on February 10, just a few days after nearly all of the town’s Muslim population had fled. His shop had been looted—in fact, the looting was continuing before our eyes—but he refused to leave his home. He told us that his grandfather had helped build the town’s first mosque, and that he had helped build its replacement. Because African peacekeepers were stationed in the town, he thought he had a modicum of protection.
I was worried about his safety and stayed in touch with him after I left CAR. The last time I called, he told me about the killing of the Muslim mayor of a neighboring village and said that the peacekeepers weren’t carrying out patrols. “My children are scared,” he said.
Two days later, on February 28, he was brutally murdered by a mob. According to a journalist who investigated the incident, the mob showed up at his house just before noon, angered by rumors that he was encouraging other Muslims to return.
He is survived by his wife, who was pregnant, and their seven children; they were taken to Bangui for (relative) safety.
UN agencies and the French military had earlier held up Mbaiki, Dido’s town, as a model of reconciliation. I think efforts to reconcile the different communities in CAR are crucial, but security has to come first.
SO: Do you know what happened to the woman in the picture?
JM: I don’t know with any certainty. Either she managed to get on a convoy to Chad or Cameroon, which would mean she is likely living in one of the refugee camps along the border (in Sido, Chad, or in Garoua-Mboulai, Cameroon). Or she could still be stuck at the Central Mosque. There are hundreds of displaced people living in the mosque compound, trying to find a safe way to escape the country.
For more about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Central African Republic, see Amnesty’s “story map” here.
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