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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Tens of thousands of Muslims flee Christian militias in Central African Republic – By Sudarsan Raghavan, Published: February 7

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BANGUI, Central African Republic – Tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing to neighboring countries by plane and truck as Christian militias stage brutal attacks, shattering the social fabric of this war-ravaged nation.

In towns and villages as well as here in the capital, Christian vigilantes wielding machetes have killed scores of Muslims, who are a minority here, and burned and looted their houses and mosques in recent days, according to witnesses, aid agencies and peacekeepers. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled their homes.

The cycle of chaos is fast becoming one of the worst outbreaks of violence along Muslim-Christian fault lines in recent memory in sub- Saharan Africa, tensions that have also plagued countries such as Nigeria and Sudan.

The brutalities began to escalate when the country’s first Muslim leader, Michel Djotodia, stepped down and went into exile last month. Djotodia, who had seized power in a coup last March, had been under pressure from regional leaders to resign. His departure was meant to bring stability to this poor country, but humanitarian and human rights workers say there is more violence now than at any time since the coup.

“Civilians remain in constant fear for their lives and have been largely left to fend for themselves,” Martine Flokstra, emergency coordinator for the aid agency Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement Friday, adding that the violence had reached “extreme and unprecedented” levels.

On Friday, thousands of Muslims hopped aboard trucks packed with their possessions, protected by soldiers from Chad, and drove out of Bangui, as Christians cheered their departures or tried to loot the trucks as they drove through Christian areas. At least one Muslim man, who fell from a truck, was killed by a mob. Meanwhile, thousands more Muslims huddled at the airport in a crowded hangar, waiting to be evacuated.

“They are killing Muslims with knives,” said Muhammed Salih Yahya, 38, a shopkeeper, making a slitting motion across his throat. He arrived at the airport Wednesday from the western town of Yaloke with his wife and five children. “I built my house over two years, but the Christians destroyed it in minutes. I want to leave.”

Christians have also been victims of violence, targeted by Muslims in this complex communal conflict that U.N. and humanitarian officials fear could implode into genocide. Several hundred thousand Christians remain in crowded, squalid camps, unable or too afraid to return home.

But attacks on Muslims in particular are intensifying, aid workers said.

Djotodia’s departure weakened the former Muslim rebels, known as Seleka, who carried out deadly attacks on Christians after they grabbed power in March, prompting the birth of Christian militias called the anti-balaka, or “anti-machete” in the local Sango language. The armed vigilantes have used the power vacuum to step up assaults on Muslims.

Now in disarray, the Seleka are no longer able to protect Muslims from the Christian vigilantes. The roughly 6,500 French and African troops authorized by the U.N. Security Council to intervene have been unable to stop the violence.

“In the northwest and in Bangui, we are currently witnessing direct attacks against the Muslim minority,” Flokstra said. “We are concerned about the fate of these communities trapped in their villages, surrounded by anti-Balaka groups, and also about the fact that many Muslim families are being forced into exile to survive.”

Fleeing to Chad

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 60,000 people, most of them Muslim, have fled to neighboring countries since Dec. 5, when violence erupted after an uprising by the Christian militias and former government soldiers. The number of departures escalated after Djotodia’s resignation. Muslims make up roughly 15 percent of the country’s 4.5 million people.

Most have fled to Chad and Cameroon, while others have gone to Nigeria, Niger and Sudan, according to IOM statistics. The numbers include foreigners who work in the Central African Republic as well as citizens. In this region, people often have social and economic ties across borders. Many families here, for example, have relatives in Chad, Cameroon and other neighboring nations.

IOM officials are concerned about those leaving. The vast majority, roughly 50,000, are headed to Chad, a mostly Muslim country that is also among the poorest in the world.

“What kind of support will they get from the Chadian authorities? Are they going to be able to reinsert themselves into society there?” said Giovanni Cassani, the emergency coordinator for IOM. “50,000 is a small town. And there is more on the way, and there will be more, unless the situation improves here.”

The Central African Republic, Cassani said, is already reeling from the economic shock of Muslims departing. Many are traders and shopkeepers who imported staples. They also ran the meat industry. “It’s going to have a massive effect on society here,” Cassani said. “Prices are going up. . . . It’s been extremely difficult to find beef in the capital.”

Many of the clashes have occurred in northwestern towns. In a village called Bozoum, 2,500 Muslims fled Wednesday, according to Doctors Without Borders. And Bouar, a Muslim town of 8,000 people, “remains effectively imprisoned” by anti-balaka militias, according to the agency.

Homes looted, taken apart

In Bangui, the capital, Chadian special forces and former Seleka rebels guarded the convoy of trucks carrying Muslims out of the city toward the Chadian border. The Muslims were picked up at the airport, at mosques and from an area called Kilo 5, one of the capital’s last remaining Muslim enclaves. In some cases, French and African soldiers had to fend off looters. A few trucks had to be abandoned.

The man who fell off one of the trucks was viciously slain by a mob that cut off his genitals and hands, said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch.

“The French keep trying to say the situation is stabilizing, but it actually isn’t,” Bouckaert said. “The only areas that are stabilizing are areas where all the Muslims are gone.”

Only two weeks ago, Bouacket said, the Muslim neighborhood of Miskine was untouched by the anti-balaka. Today, the area is deserted, mosques and Muslim homes looted and taken apart brick by brick. About 10,000 Muslims lived in the town of Bossangoa in December, he added. Only a few hundred are left.

At the airport, Muhammad Abdirahman, 62, was waiting to leave. His village, Jbawi, had been burned down by the anti-balaka and nearly everyone was dead, he said. Fortunately, he had left with his wife and 12 children before the massacre, and arrived at the airport this week. Originally from Chad, he has lived here for the past 50 years.

“I don’t even know Chad,” he said. “But what can I do? If I stay, the Christians will use every opportunity to kill me and my family.”

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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