An escalating cycle of bloodshed has left tens of thousands dead and entire communities displaced in the Central African Republic. Peacekeeping forces have so far failed to stop the terror
The death records of the Bangui morgue in the Central African Republic read like a chapter out of Dante’s Inferno: page after page of people killed by machetes, torture, lynchings, shootings, explosions and burning. The overwhelming stench makes it impossible to stay there for long. On really bad days only the number of dead is recorded – not their names nor the causes of death – before the bodies are buried in mass graves.
The morgue is a terrible symbol of the toll of communal violence in the Central African Republic which has raged for months and claimed tens of thousands of lives, displacing even more. Recently, the Séléka, a predominantly Muslim group of fighters that seized Bangui, the capital, and toppled the CAR’s government in early 2013, have lost some ground – although they continue to terrorise wherever possible. In response Christian forces known as anti-balaka (balaka means ‘machete’ in Sango, the local language) have stepped up attacks against Muslim civilians in places where the Séléka no longer holds the sway it did a few months ago.
In hopes of quelling the situation, international peacekeeping forces are now in the country, and a new president, Catherine Samba-Panza – a former mayor of Bangui nicknamed Madame Courage –was installed in mid-January. She has promised that the country’s security forces will be reorganised to protect Muslims as well as Christians. But so far the violence has continued unabated. On January 29 two Muslim men were hacked to death and their bodies mutilated near Bangui’s international airport as onlookers cheered and filmed the scene.
The violence is escalating. Already many Muslim communities of Bangui and the north-western part of the CAR have been wiped off the map, their residents massacred and survivors forced to flee. For the Rwandan military deployed on the ground here as part of the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force, it brings back dark memories. ‘We remember what happened to us in 1994 when we see such killings,’ one Rwandan commander told me. ‘We are determined not to let that happen ever again.’
In January hundreds of anti-balaka captured a small town named Boyali from the Séléka and began to slaughter its Muslim residents. A few days later a woman named Fatimatu Yamsa was fleeing in a truck that was stopped at a checkpoint by Christian militia members. Knowing she was about to die, she handed her seven-month-old baby to a Christian woman next to her. The baby was saved, but Fatimatu was killed, along with three other Muslim women and their three children, hacked to death with machetes on the steps of a mosque. When I visited the mosque dried pools of blood marked where they had died. Red Cross volunteers were burying bodies and filling in wells where corpses had been dumped, leaving the water undrinkable.
This massacre was the latest horrific chapter in a sequence of tit-for-tat violence in Boyali. In a camp for displaced Muslim residents on the outskirts of Bangui I found Dairu Soba, 25, a survivor of the Boyali massacre, with a festering gunshot wound to his knee. He told me that 200 anti-balaka fighters had attacked Boyali on the morning of January 8 and had shot him. His older brother, Dibrila, had saved him by dragging him into a house. As the wounded Dairu watched, Dibrila, along with his father and uncle, were hacked to death outside. Thirty-four Muslims were killed that day, including the village chief. The same day Séléka fighters returned to Boyali to retaliate and wreak havoc on the Christian population. Some victims were executed on the spot, others shot while fleeing. The Séléka captured the Protestant pastor of the village, Pasteur Gabriel Yambassa, and cut his throat. They burnt 961 homes in Boyali that day.
At one burnt house surviving residents said that Séléka fighters had found Claudine Serefei, 28, a pregnant, physically disabled woman unable to flee. They had tied her hands and feet and thrown her into a fire. Now she lay before us, her hands burnt to stumps, and she was shivering from pain.
The massacres in Boyali are indicative of the Séléka’s waning power. Muslims make up about 15 per cent of the CAR’s population, and tens of thousands have been forced into exile. The tide began to turn against them in September, as anti-balaka began attacking poorly protected Séléka positions in smaller trading towns in the north-east of the country, killing Muslim residents. The French intervened militarily in early December, as the violence increased, with up to 1,000 killed in Bangui in a few days. One month later the Séléka’s self-appointed president, Michel Djotodia, was forced into exile by regional and international powers, and once-strutting Séléka generals now fear for their lives; they want to escape unscathed, while also avoiding justice for their crimes. One Séléka official told me, ‘Now it is every officer for himself. We are all trying to find our own way out of here.’
The arrival of French military forces, known as the Sangaris, was initially met with optimism. The French peacekeepers often seem stunned by the violence around them, and don’t appear to be doing much to stop it. Their original mission was to disarm the Séléka fighters, and they now face the much more difficult task of dealing with the Christian anti-balaka militias that are everywhere. On several occasions French officers have told me, ‘We cannot be seen to choose sides.’ However, there is a strong feeling that they could intervene to prevent some of the barbarity.
Since December defenseless Muslim communities left to face the wrath of the anti-balaka and the Christian civilians have been mercilessly slaughtered. In Bangui entire Muslim neighbourhoods face destruction. On January 28 residents fled the Muslim neighbourhood of PK13 (Point Kilometre 13). Hundreds of anti-balaka fighters arrived soon after, chasing away remaining inhabitants. Homes were systematically looted and dismantled. The main mosque was destroyed by a crowd of machete-wielding fighters shouting, ‘We do not want any more Muslims in our country. We will finish them all off. This country belongs to the Christians.’
In another Muslim neighbourhood, PK12, those who have survived massacres are preparing for the long and hazardous journey to refuge; their destination is Chad. Tensions are at a boiling point. After a Muslim man was recently lynched, anti-balaka fighters opened fire on his funeral with automatic weapons. Enraged Muslims began protesting against the French troops. One was shot by the troops, and another wounded, and the anger then turned on us, with a menacing crowd shouting that it was time for us to leave. As we made our way out, a Christian worker chased by a Muslim lynch mob ran for his life past us.
I requested a meeting with Colonel Dieudonné Oranti, one of the founders of the anti-balaka movement. He claimed that his men don’t kill civilians, then launched into a tirade against Muslims, saying that they had betrayed their country and sold it to terrorists, and so no longer belonged within its borders.
The anti-Muslim violence unleashed by the anti-balaka – and the Séléka’s response – has proved difficult to contain. Simply put, the underequipped AU troops and the 1,600 French troops are insufficient. Only a UN peacekeeping mission with some 6,000 to 10,000 soldiers would have a chance of stabilising the country. Such a mission would also bring police to patrol the streets, human rights monitors to report from the ground, and a political component that could help to re-establish order.
Pastor Koudougeret, a Baptist priest in Bangui, is looking after the orphaned baby of the woman killed at the roadblock in Boyali. For 10 years his church has supported the education of some 2,000 Muslim children, and he vigorously shook his head when I asked him if there was a religious war unfolding in the country. ‘The ultimate cause of our instability is not religious but political, because whoever comes to power makes his entourage commit abuses to stay in power,’ he said. ‘They treat the country as their private money-making business. We need a real democracy with politicians who have a vision to look after the needs of everyone.’
Amid the horror, there are small signs of hope. In the Séléka’s wake some Christian villages that were abandoned last month are slowly returning to life. Destroyed homes are being rebuilt. Unexpected bonds are also being formed, with examples of courage amid the carnage. In the town of Boali Father Xavier-Arnauld Fagba personally brought more than 700 Muslims who were under attack in his town to safety at his Catholic church in mid-January. He held Sunday Mass surrounded by the belongings of Muslims, including Korans that he had brought inside for safekeeping. He led his followers outside to exchange handshakes of peace with their Muslim neighbours. ‘We cannot be silent and cower in the face of injustice but must have courage,’ he preached. ‘To be a Christian is not just about being baptized, and true Christians live a life of love and reconciliation, not bloodshed.’
The world must act, and send more support to the CAR. And we must also hope that Father Xavier-Arnauld’s message is heard.