Zo Kwe Zo, “One man is worth another”

Late in 2013, violence flared up in the Central African Republic. Villages were ransacked and burnt, and civilians massacred. International bodies for the protection of human rights unanimously condemned acts of torture, disappearances and war crimes. Blame was cast on both sides. Majority Christian and animist militias known as the "anti-balaka” took revenge for atrocities committed by ex-members of the officially disbanded Séléka (literally “Coalition” of Muslims). By January 2014, the frenzy had reached murderous heights. Neither the Sangaris French military force, nor the stabilisation missions sent by the African Union, then by the UN could put an end to the violence spiralling out of control. Never in its turbulent history since it achieved independence in 1960 had this country of 4.5 million inhabitants suffered such terrible events. At the height of the violence, over a million men, women, and children fled into the bush to avoid atrocities. Amongst them, some 220,000 people sought refuge in neighbouring countries.


Over 140,000 Central African citizens, many seriously injured and malnourished after months of wandering, sought asylum in eastern Cameroon, in addition to 110,000 who had already sought refuge in earlier crises. The majority, Muslim Peuls, now live in refugee camps. They have no plans to return home in the near future. The security situation remains highly unstable and the memories of the violence are still fresh. The psychological trauma they have suffered blights their future. Yet day after day, they struggle to rebuild their lives.


Within the Central African Republic, around 370,000 persons are still displaced. Enclaves have formed, both in the capital Bangui, and elsewhere such as in Yaloké. Muslim populations have sought refuge there, under the threat of death if they attempt to leave. These places are symbolic of the unsolved crisis and people are still dying in them, of both hunger and illness. A return to peace and national reconciliation, advocated by the transitional government and the international bodies remains wishful thinking. The main factions still haven’t laid down arms, and some have evolved into organised criminal gangs. Conflict never ends simply with an official declaration. To rebuild the country, justice must be done. This will take time. Forgiveness, individually and nationally, depends on it. Then, and only then will the country’s historic motto, “Zo kwe zo” (“All people are people” in the Sango language), which means that every person has the right to be judged and be treated equally, become meaningful.


Photographer Oliver Laban-Mattei and writer Baptiste de Cazenove met refugees and displaced persons in Cameroon, Chad and in the Central African Republic. They spent several months investigating the individual and communal traumas suffered in the conflict, and the future consequences for Central African Republic society.


Zo Kwe Zo, “One man is worth another”