BANGUI - A new peace deal between the Bangui government and 13 major rebel groups in the Central African Republic is being met with criticism and skepticism domestically.
The agreement signed Monday in Rome promised an immediate cease-fire in exchange for political representation for the rebels.
The new accord followed a series of peace deals signed by armed groups in the CAR during 2014 and 2015. All fell apart.
"As one of the armed group representatives said, 'We have signed a good paper,' " said Igor Acko, the U.S. Institute of Peace's national program specialist in Bangui. "But the only worry is that it can remain just a 'good paper.' "
Acko received word of the new deal while in Bambari in central CAR, and said he went directly to members of the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic, one of the country's major armed groups. The militia members told him they were not aware of the deal or its contents.
"So they are waiting for their representative to come back, and they will ask about the content, and they will think [decide] if they fully follow or they don't," Acko said.
Battle in Bria
Just hours after the accord was signed, fighting broke out in Bria, the country's center of diamond mining, nearly 600 kilometers from the capital. The town's mayor said more than 100 people were killed, and the medical charity Doctors Without Borders said 43 wounded people required hospital treatment.
With dozens of houses burned to the ground in Bria, more than 40,000 people are displaced and are relying on humanitarian assistance. Across the country, more than 100,000 people have been displaced since last month, when violence increased.
Since cycles of inter-religious and intercommunal violence began in 2013, hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted from their homes in CAR, a former French colony that is one of the world's poorest nations.
Lewis Mudge, who does research on the Central African Repulic for Human Rights Watch, said the fighting in Bria does not bode well for the accord signed in Rome. He noted that the previous deals all collapsed very quickly.
Members of civil society in CAR are most concerned about the new deal's failure to discuss issues of justice and accountability arising from the conflict. Some are concerned this could be a first step toward granting amnesty to the rebels, which would be seen as an affront to the victims of months of escalating violence.
Need for justice is 'clear'
Mathias Barthelemy Morouba , who runs the Central African Human Rights Observatory, said his group does not oppose a peace deal, but does not see the Rome accord as a substitute for justice.
"Those who committed these reprehensible acts must be brought to justice," Morouba said. "That's clear."
The new deal calls for establishment of a truth-and-reconciliation commission, but that assurance failed to sway Mudge of Human Rights Watch.
"Truth telling is all nice and good, but it can never come in the place of free and fair trials that hold perpetrators accountable," he said. "If we can stop the fighting, that's a very good thing, but I'm not convinced that this deal is putting accountability first."
The only way to break CAR's cycles of violence, Mudge said, is to "finally hold some of these individuals to account."
Morouba criticized U.N. peacekeeping forces in the country for not taking more aggressive action against rebel groups.
"Why aren't they protecting the civilian population?" he asked. "They have all the means to neutralize these bandits. Why haven't they done that?"
On the streets of Bangui, maintenance worker Kevin Vreka, 35, agreed, and said the U.N. force, known as MINUSCA, should be doing much more to stop the rebels' violent tactics.
U.N. peacekeepers "are there to secure the country," Vreka said. "They are in the countryside, but they do nothing. The United Nations, what did it come to Bangui to do? They do nothing ... except harass our women!"
'Nothing is going to change'
Carlos Bunju, a translator for a Chinese company in the capital, does not expect the peace deal to accomplish anything.
"Whatever they do, nothing is going to change," Bunju said. "Because some people, some armed groups, they want some part in the government, but other people, they're not going to allow them. They're going to fight over and over."
The armed groups are battling over CAR's natural resources, Bunju said: "That's all they want. They don't see the people. And even though they come and we allow them to be a part of the government, I don't think there's going to be any change. If they love this country, they're not going to fight anymore."
Iloua Banoua, 58, a tailor, had not heard about the new accord either, but for him, it's simple: "We want peace. We don't want violence. Peace is the purity of each country; without it, we can't live."