A Radio “Bridge” to Peace

Bambari, in the Central African Republic, was a flash-point for conflict between Christian and Muslim communities last summer. Heavy fighting left thousands displaced from their homes.

The ruins of a destroyed radio station
The remains of Bambari’s last functioning radio station. Credit: Internews

The last radio station here was destroyed by the violence in July, 2014.

Now, for the first time in seven months, a new local radio station is reaching this fractured community. Provisionally called Radio Gbagbara, or ‘bridge’ in the local language Sango, the station is on the air and people are listening.

People sit in a classroom while a man hands over a box to a woman
Theophane Patinvoh, Internews Trainer and Radio Station Supervisor, distributes radios in Bambari, where the residents have been without a local radio station since last July. Credit: Internews

Getting the station up and running was a community effort. Muslim and Christian leaders, rival militias, civil society, and women’s and youth groups were all part of the earliest discussions. The community management committee reflects this diverse support. Its head is a Muslim woman and the other members are Christian and Muslim men and women, a powerful example of cooperation in a country still grappling with sectarian violence.

“There has been widespread support for a truly representative radio that would bring communities together,” said Mathias Manirakiza, Internews’ director in CAR. “The station not only shares accurate and useful information for living safely together, but it is a true community-owned resource with mixed local staff and programs.”

Much-needed hope in a country in crisis

UN officials have repeatedly warned of a risk of genocide in CAR, where both sides — known as ex-Seleka fighters, a coalition of mostly Muslim rebel groups, and mostly Christian militias known as anti-Balaka — may have committed war crimes.

UNHCR estimates almost 900,000 in the Central African Republic have been forcibly displaced by violence; about half of these have sought safety in different parts of CAR and half are in exile in Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo.

According to the UN, more than half of CAR’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance.

Young girls sit in a row in a tent
Girls in a school at an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Central African Republic. UNHCR estimates nearly 900,000 have been displaced in CAR. Credit: Girls attending school in Sam Ouandja by Pierre Holtz for UNICEF/CC

Bambari was the headquarters of the ex-Seleka militia and saw heavy fighting from December 2013 to June 2014. After extensive discussions and consultations with international and local humanitarian organizations and assessments in Bambari, Internews, which operates in CAR with support from USAID, secured funding from the UN Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) for the establishment of a new “multi-confessional” (cutting across religious divides) radio station in Bambari.

Launched less than two weeks ago, on Feburary 26, Radio Gbagbara is on the air two hours a day.

a map shows radio coverage in Central African Republic
A map of radio coverage from July 2014 shows the limits of coverage in Bambari and elsewhere in CAR. Credit: Internews/UN OCHA/iMMAP/ARC

The station plans to expand on-air time gradually as local staff are recruited. The same project includes establishing an FM radio relay in Bozoum, another town which is currently without local radio coverage.

Beset by the ongoing crisis, residents in Bambari have an acute need for reliable, balanced, and timely information, and there is hope that Radio Gbagbara can begin to fill this void. Listenership is a first step, and for that, there are already positive signs. During the very first broadcast, an ex-Seleka leader phoned the station, but not with threats or demands. He requested more music.

Internews’ current work in CAR began in February 2014, with funding from USAID. Internews’ local partner, the Human Rights Journalists Network (RJDH, as a French acronym), produces a daily e-newsletter and radio programming from Bangui, the capital of CAR.

In the context of current efforts towards reconciliation, national dialogue and scheduled elections, RJDH’s content has expanded from an initial focus on humanitarian information to providing citizens with information and civic education to prepare for a return to constitutional order, effective government, and civil peace.

Banner photo: Community members elected the first interim managing committee of Bambari’s new radio station. Credit: Internews

(This story originally ran in Medium.)