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Central African Republic: 'Why a grenade couldn't stop our music'

Central African Republic: 'Why a grenade couldn't stop our music'

Central African Republic: 'Why a grenade couldn't stop our music'
Emmanuel Ngallos sings one of his own compositions while sitting in the front yard of his family home in the Sango neighbourhood of Bangui.Image copyright Adrienne Surprenant
Image caption Musician Emmanuel Ngallos and his band use music to spread a message of peace

A deadly attack at a concert last year has only made Emmanuel Ngallos more determined to complete his "peace tour" of the Central African Republic, writes Brenna Daldorph.

It is 11 November 2017 - a perfect Saturday night for a party.

From his position on stage, keyboardist Emmanuel looks out at the excited crowd who have packed out the small bar to see his band, Nouvelles Écritures, perform.

The air is thick with anticipation. Band leader Ozaguin, one of the country's most popular musicians, is making a rare appearance in Bangui's volatile PK5 neighbourhood, notorious for numerous outbreaks of inter-religious violence between militia groups.

But the crowd feels hopeful because, unlike the rest of the country, the capital city has not witnessed serious violence for over a year.

In the bar, Muslims and Christians from different neighbourhoods dance together, a rare sight that makes Emmanuel think peace is possible.

A moment later, he sees something flying through the air towards him. It hits the speakers, bounces and rolls off the stage.

Then, it explodes.

'Condolences ca n't bring back the dead'

Emmanuel was lucky to survive.

"I'm the only survivor who actually saw the grenade," he says.

"When it rolled off the stage, it fell into a little hole. That's what saved me. I was hurt, but alive."

Four people died that day and more than 20 others were injured.

It is still not clear who was behind the grenade attack but rumours spread like wildfire, triggering reprisal attacks.

Several Muslim people were killed in retaliation, including a teenager who was dragged off his motorcycle by an angry mob. The Interior Minister later said the attackers had probably wanted to whip up tensions between communities.

Emmanuel, meanwhile, lay in his hospital bed consumed with horror by the events that were unfolding.

Image copyright Adrienne Surprenant
Image caption Emmanuel's family were at his bedside after the grenade attack

"I had expected a party and a good time, but it turned into the opposite," he said at the time.

"That's how terrorists work - they replace joy with sadness."

As chaos raged in the capital, Emmanuel had a series of important visitors including the Interior Minister, the EU ambassador plus a senior official from the UN's peacekeeping force in CAR, Minusca.

But these visits just made him angry. Like many Central Africans, Emmanuel blames the authorities for letting the conflict drag on.

"The government just comes to give their condolences," he says now, looking back. "Condolences don't bring people back to life."

Shrapnel wounds in his chest, stomach and back as well as the lacerations on his legs confined Emmanuel to hospital for days on end.

To pass the slow, painful hours in between surgery he began dreaming up songs with messages about peace. Whispering melodies to himself, he would improvise lyrics as he went along.

"A lot of blood has spilled in our beautiful country," he would quietly sing to himself, "we want peace".

What is happening in Central African Republic?

  • President François Bozizé was overthrown in 2013, when mainly Muslim rebels from the Seleka umbrella group seized power in the majority Christian country. A band of mostly Christian militias, called the anti-balaka, rose up to counter the Seleka
  • Violence has haunted the country since then, with mass displacements, reprisal attacks, ethnic cleansing, according to human rights groups
  • Half of CAR's population is in need of humanitarian assistance including food aid, according to international aid agencies
  • Seleka handed power to a transitional government in 2014 under international pressure but months of violence followed and the country was effectively partitioned, in spite of the presence of a UN peacekeeping force and a French mission
  • The current government holds little power outside the capital, Bangui. More than a dozen armed groups and local militias control about 80% of the countryside, running parallel administrations
  • Efforts to broker a peace deal between the rebel groups are being led by the African Union
  • Russia has been leading its own peace process, hosting a meeting with a number of CAR's rebel leaders in Khartoum in August with Sudan. The move has been criticised by France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian who said "there is no alternative that is either desirable or is likely to succeed"

Read more: Central African Republic profile

'The man who came back to li fe'

As the days passed, calm slowly returned to the capital. The streets bustled with market stalls, motorcycle taxis and pedestrians again.

Image copyright Adrienne Surprenant
Image caption Emmanuel was relieved to be discharged from hospital after a week

On a hot, sunny Thursday a week after the grenade attack, the horror seemed far away.

That day there was a party atmosphere in central Bangui where people gathered for a beer festival, talking and drinking. Emmanuel's band members prepared to go on stage for the first time since the attack.

Although Emmanuel was too weak to play, as he was still using crutches just a few days after leaving hospital, he could not resi st going along to watch.

A steady stream of friends and musicians greeted him with hugs and slaps on the back, calling him "le ressuscité" - the man who had come back to life.

Image copyright Adrienne Surprenant
Image caption Friends were delighted to see Emmanuel still alive

Emmanuel believes this whole experience was part of his fate. "Nothing happens by chance," he says.

"I have no hate for the Muslim community or anyone else. God knew something like this would happen and I would experience a shock."

More on Central African Republic:

  • Why is Russia cosying up to the CAR?
  • Central African Republic: The country where teachers have disappeared
  • The CAR town where only the UN is keeping the peace
  • Boris Becker: Central African Republic has bigger problems

'Our choice and passion'

Seven months after November's grenade attack, Emmanuel and his band Nouvelles Écritures set off on a peace tour of 14 different cities in CAR.

A UN-backed initiative to bring rival communities together - each performance has taken place under the watchful eye of by peacekeepers.

One of the band's newest songs, called Carrefour de la Paix after the name of the bar where the grenade attack happened, tells the story of the ordeal.

Translated from the original Sango, the lyrics include:

I gathered my musicians and we went to play

There was a good vibe, the people there could really dance

Suddenly, I heard a noise.

I thought the fusebox had blown

When I turned around, I saw everyone was on the ground.

The plastic chairs were broken.

That day, I cried so much.

I thought, it is my fault that the people there were injured and lost their lives.

Image copyright Adrienne Surprenant
Image caption Emmanuel has been struggling with trauma

Emmanuel says it was important to commit those difficult memories to song.

"Even after I was injured in the grenade blast, we didn't want to stop making music.

"It's our career, our choice, our passion. We'd rather be martyrs for peace in the Central African Republic than stop," he adds.

The trauma is something Emmanuel is trying to come to terms with.

"Whenever someone hits something or slams a door, I hear the soun d of the grenade in my head.

"At night, I can't sleep. When I close my eyes it's like I'm watching a movie of what happened."

The CAR is still locked in conflict, with 14 active armed groups fighting over land and resources.

The band had to cancel a scheduled appearance in the town of Bambari when clashes broke out there just hours ahead of the show.

The second half of the tour was meant to take place this summer but was suspended after a new outbreak of fighting across the country.

Image copyright Adrienne Surprenant
Image caption Emmanuel's band, Nouvelles Écritures, recently performed in President Touadéra's home town of Damara

Emm anuel says that despite everything he still thinks there is hope for peace.

In the meantime he'll keep playing. And, one day, he vows, he will finish the tour.

Source: Google News Music

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