BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — For more than two years, even going to the cemetery to bury a loved one could get a mourner killed in Central African Republic. The threat of attacks from Christian militia fighters was once so high that Muslims here began burying their dead at home.
Now the capital's largest Muslim cemetery has reopened just ahead of the country's landmark presidential runoff vote Sunday with imams, the archbishop and ambassadors all gathering together to watch as the reddish earth was broken to once again receive the dead with palm fronds.
It's one tangible sign that intercommunal relations here are improving after the cycles of violence that have left nearly 1 million people displaced and an untold thousands dead. Central African Republic's future remains highly precarious and yet the barricade that once blocked Bangui's remaining Muslims from leaving their enclave no longer exists. Muslims who only several months earlier were afraid to walk on the streets, even in their own PK5 neighborhood, are now praying in public.
Many credit the November visit of Pope Francis, who met with Christian leaders and ventured in his open-air vehicle to the mosque where many have sought refuge since tensions exploded in late 2013. Whether these advances hold largely depends on the success of Sunday's historic vote that pits two Christians — both former prime ministers — against each other after a crowded first round of balloting. The two went head to head Friday night in a debate filmed at the headquarters of national television.
"We want these elections to take place as quickly as possible — we have waited long enough," says Polycarpe Bebongo-Congo, 40, who is supporting Faustin Archange Touadera, the second-place finisher in the first round.
The election is meant to end a two-year political transition that began when a Muslim rebel leader stepped aside under mounting international pressure less than a year after he deposed the Christian president of a decade. It comes as France prepares to downscale its military presence in its former colony, and as serious questions remain about the U.N. peacekeeping force that has helped secure the country but whose mission has been severely tarnished by allegations that peacekeepers sexually abused the country's most vulnerable — young children living in squalid refugee camps.
Only months earlier, many doubted whether a presidential election could even be held, with many polling stations and voter records destroyed during the conflict. The runoff vote then was postponed several times and the legislative vote was thrown out altogether because of concerns about irregularities.
Since independence from France in 1960 more leaders have come to power here through coups than through fair elections. Both presidential candidates are campaigning on pledges of strengthening unity and peace in the tumultuous capital where only two years ago Muslims were being decapitated in the streets and their limbs set ablaze. Pickup trucks carrying dancing supporters and blaring music from loudspeakers snake through a city still marked by burned out cars and homes reduced to rubble.
Front-runner Anicet Georges Dologuele says he is confident that his presidency could secure the peace, describing himself as someone who is connected to the international community and who can make difficult decisions.
He wants to create conditions that would encourage the hundreds of thousands who fled the country to return from refugee camps in neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Tens of thousands are expected to cast ballots there in Sunday's vote.
Dologuele emphasizes the economic origins of the conflict, which saw Christians pillaging the Muslim merchant class as they fled for their lives, and the work that must be done to improve livelihoods.
"The essential problem for Central Africans is poverty," he said. "When people are poor, they think it's their neighbor's fault."
Dologuele, who led the first round of voting in December with about 24 percent, has since been endorsed by the third-place finisher. His entourage already calls him "the president," and his billboards across town show him flashing the V for victory sign.
His opponent — who surprised many with a strong finish of 19 percent — is also campaigning on a slogan of "peace, security and reconciliation" and has cast himself as "man of the people." Supporters say he has strong grassroots support, including from influential local Christian militias known as the anti-Balaka.
"These elections are important, but they are not the only step out of this crisis," he said this week. "We have to create the conditions for dialogue between the two communities. We will do everything we can so that Central Africans can live together in the Central African Republic."