The Muslims of the Central African Republic Face a Deadly Purge – By Andrew Katz @katz Feb. 20, 2014

Eric Feferberg / AFP/ Getty Images
Chadian civilians in the PK12 district of Bangui climb on a military truck to go back to Chad on Jan. 15, 2014.

The anti-balaka have outgrown their name. These militias in the Central African Republic, once united under a moniker meaning “anti-machete” in the local Sango language, are exacting their own vicious revenge upon the mainly Muslim rebels who overthrew the government last March and waged months of terror against the Christian population. They are now accused of atrocities far worse than what first prompted them to take up arms.

An Amnesty International report on Feb. 12 said attacks on Muslims in January by anti-balaka militias, made up of Christians and animists, had amounted to “ethnic cleansing.” Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, has already opened a preliminary investigation into crimes against humanity, saying some “victims appeared to have been deliberately targeted on religious grounds.” A top U.N. official issued similar warnings during a recent visit to the ravaged capital, Bangui, telling reporters: “There is an ethnic-religious cleansing taking place. It must be stopped.”

The campaign of looting and murder in recent weeks has led to an alarming demographic crisis in the Central African Republic. About 1 million of its 4.6 million people have been displaced and at least 2,000 have been killed. Muslims account for 15 percent of the population, or about 690,000 people; Médecins Sans Frontières said in a conference call with reporters on Feb. 18 that at least 80,000 had already left.

Entire neighborhoods in Bangui and towns in the northwest have emptied as a mass exodus pours into neighboring countries Cameroon and Chad. Aid groupsfear the fleeing of Muslim traders and cattle herders, who are crucial to the country’s food production and distribution, may spark a famine.

The scene today vastly differs from last year. “If you drove across the country in November, you would have been impressed by the power of the Séléka,” says Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis adviser with Amnesty in Bangui, referring to the impact of the rebels’ offensive that began in late 2012. “Now if you drive across the country, you find anti-balaka everywhere. They are the people who are in control of the roads and the majority of the towns.”

William Lacy Swing, director-general of the International Organization for Migration and a young U.S. envoy to Bangui in the mid-1970s, was “shocked” by the scenes there during a trip in early February. “The Central African Republic that I knew at the time, this element now of inter-religious conflict was absent,” he told TIME, “and now it is at the heart of some of the problems.”

How political payback turned into a sectarian purge isn’t entirely understood. Experts gesture to spillover from conflicts throughout the region as well as the legacy of decades of poor governance in the former French colony.

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Central African Republic’s ‘Mother Courage’ fights to bring peace where the men have failed

Catherine Samba-Panza

Catherine Samba-Panza sits prior to her swearing-in ceremony at the National Assembly in the capital, Bangui, on 23 January, 2014. Photograph: Siegfried Modola/Reuters

When Barack Obama was elected US president in the depths of economic gloom, satirical news outlet the Onion carried the headline: “Black man given nation’s worst job.” The swearing-in last week of Catherine Samba-Panza as interim president of the Central African Republic (CAR) called to mind a sequel: “Woman given nation’s worst job.”

Even as Samba-Panza, wearing bright red, clutched the national flag and was saluted by a fanfare of trumpets in the heart of the capital, Bangui, its suburbs were going up in flames on a day that left at least 16 people dead.

The first female leader of CAR, and only the third in Africa, has inherited a hellish legacy that leaves her trying pull the country back from the brink of civil war. The emphasis on her sex is no mere media contrivance. Many Central Africans say that a woman, and mother, is best placed to bring reconciliation. “Everything we have been through has been the fault of men,” Marie-Louise Yakemba, a civil society activist, told the New York Times. “We think that with a woman, there is at least a ray of hope.”

But “mother courage”, as she has been dubbed, takes on a state that has been barely functional since independence from France in 1960. Its presidents, including Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who named himself emperor with a Napoleonic coronation to match, have found their writ seldom runs beyond the capital. Last March, the most recent of many coups brought a mostly Muslim rebel coalition to power over the majority Christian population, and conflict soon erupted.

With thousands dead and atrocities on both sides, UN officials warned that the cycle of reprisals was at high risk of degenerating into a genocide. Overwhelmed, Michel Djotodia, the country’s first Muslim president, walked away after nine dismal months. Enter Samba-Panza, 59. Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society in the UK, said: “In a such a time you might expect a macho man to create a dictatorship and take control. Instead they elected a woman and it might be the answer.”

Why did the CAR, where the level of early and forced marriage is above 60%, choose a woman to save it? One answer is that nations often do in their hour of need. Minna Salami, a feminist commentator on Africa, said: “We can observe the same old patterns. It is historically and globally the case that women are more prone to access institutions traditionally reserved for men during crises, for example the second world war, pan-African independence struggles, Burma, postwar Rwanda, Liberia. In that regard, it is no surprise that the CAR now has a female president. The country is facing a crisis and it is not simply Samba-Panza’s background but also her gender that is key.”

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Tent City in Central African Republic Swells as Violence Grips Capital – By ADAM NOSSITERJAN. 13, 2014

In less than a month, more than 100,000 people moved to a tent city by the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, because of the threat of violence. Siegfried Modola/Reuters

BANGUI, Central African Republic — The streets of this capital city’s center are nearly empty. A few citizens slowly walk the wide boulevards, outnumbered by French troops patrolling after recent deadly violence. The battered buildings remain, but much of the city’s population has disappeared.

It has rematerialized in a makeshift town by the airport at the edge of the real city. Almost anything can be bought in muddy paths of the impromptu market that has sprung up: flip-flops, dried fish, a haircut, yams, baguettes, gasoline, cheap handbags, okra, coffee, eggs, manioc fritters, clothes custom made by tailors sitting at old sewing machines. More than 100,000 people have moved to this rough, chaotic tent city in less than a month. In all, two-thirds of Bangui has picked up and moved, according to the United Nations.

The new city — grimly called the Ledger by its inhabitants after the five-star hotel on Bangui’s heights packed with government notables, including rebel generals and United Nations officials — is unmistakable evidence that the troubled Central African Republic is still in the grip of a low-boil civil war, despite recent steps toward a political settlement. A haze of smoke from a thousand cooking fires hangs over the camp, and the smell of raw sewage is thick.

People come here because they are afraid. Violence infests the adjacent capital’s ramshackle neighborhoods; looting and killing continue deep inside the labyrinthine alleyways. So magistrates, teachers, technicians, civil servants, doctors, students and housewives have all fled to the camp’s relative safety.

“Everyone has left Bangui; there is no work anymore,” said a camp resident, Steve Namsene, a firefighter in the military here.

The Central African Republic’s Muslim leader was forced out on Friday and flew the next day into exile in Benin, but his armed followers, the Seleka, linger and so does sectarian anger against them because of their nine months in power. The violence could break out at 1 o’clock in the morning, or 3 in the afternoon, pitting neighbor against neighbor, Christian against Muslim, rebel against militiaman. At least 1,200 people have been killed in sectarian tit-for-tat violence since early December.

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