Life has changed a lot for Richard Ngueringu, a former militiaman in his early thirties who has witnessed some of worst things that humanity can offer.
Once a member of a so-called self-defence group, he says he has witnessed hundreds of killings, as well as atrocities, in Central African Republic’s years-long conflict.
Today, in the central town of Bambari, he has swapped his weapon for a bucket of corn meal, under an innovative scheme to help former fighters return to civilian life.
“Before the troubles began, I was a farmer. In fact I took over this farm, when my parents died. This is where we grew up,” says Ngueringu, a giant of a man who gestures at the walls with powerful, ditch-delver hands.
“I want to show what our fathers did to feed us, to help us and aid our families.”
– Poverty and instability –
Seen from the outside, such thinking may seem hugely ambitious, given CAR’s mountainous problems.
Deeply poor and chronically unstable, the country has been gripped by conflict since 2013.
Longtime leader Francois Bozize was overthrown by a mainly Muslim rebel alliance, the Seleka, unleashing a counter-offensive by so-called self-defence militias, the “anti-balaka.”
France intervened militarily and the UN has deployed one of its biggest peacekeeping forces to the country.
But most of CAR’s territory remains in the hands of militia groups and violence — committed in the name of ethnicity or religion — is common.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than 900,000 people displaced, almost a quarter of the total population.
In the midst of this gloom, Ngueringu and a group of other local fighters have chosen to try to return to ordinary life.
He has founded an agricultural cooperative called Kekereke-Ti-Ye, meaning “Our Future,” in the local sango language.
“If you remain locked in violent behaviour, you will have nothing to eat and you will suffer hugely,” Ngueringu says.
“I brought in young ex-fighters to help with the project. I explained to them the importance of getting together as a group to do farming, which was what we used to do before the troubles.”
The “troubles” lasted five years, when Bambari was used as a base for a militia group called the UPC — the Union for Peace in Centrafrique — drawn from the Fula people, also called Fulani.
Ngueringu was a “section leader” in the anti-balaka. Clashes in Bambari and the Ouaka region at the turn of last year left dozens of people dead.
– Fighters turn farmers –
Although violence continues in the region, his cooperative now employs 22 young men and eight young women, all of them former fighters.
“I couldn’t manage a farm all by myself,” he says.
Ngueringu’s farm has since been integrated into a UN programme after being spotted by the local NGO Esperance, meaning Hope.
“We see that people want to leave, they are tired of the fighting,” says Rosmon Zokue, with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
The FAO supplies the farm with so-called “installation kits” that includes vital agricultural items such as wheel barrows, spades, boots and veterinary kits.
The scheme is part of the UN’s peacekeeping strategy to reconstruct CAR through “disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration” — a process launched by the government in September.
“The goal is to train young people in techniques for growing vegetables and self-sufficiency. We have to boost their capacity for resilience,” says Grace-a-Dieu Sathe Demonkombona of the FAO.
The FAO aims to expand the scheme to involve some 1,300 young people in Bambari and a further 3,000 across the country.
– ‘Very bad things’ –
One potential new recruit is Ismael, a 17-year-old former anti-balaka member, who wants to become a pig farmer because the militia “do not pay you and you die unnecessarily”.
When asked about his past, Ismael says, several times, “I didn’t do anything.” But, eventually, he admits: “I went on patrols with my friend, and we did very bad things.”
One of the main challenges of the programme will be to engage fighters in agricultural work, but also persuade them to ditch their weapons forever, even if conflict again breaks out.
“The development of the town is going to go hand-in-hand with re-establishing peace and security and social cohesion,” says Bertrand Touaboy, CAR’s minister of entrepreneurship.
“Without it, this project will have developed nothing but words.”
The reporter asks Ismael if he would again take up arms if Seleka rebels returned to the town.
He hesitates, smiles and looks at his shoes before saying: “I gave up working for the anti-balaka”.