Hatred festers as Muslims and Christians suffer in Central African Republic
Hungry and damaged factions are the agents of each other’s misery
Nearly 11,000 Muslims are living in difficult conditions in Boda, 140km from the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui. Photograph: Thierry Bresillon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Scores of ruined houses flank the road into Boda. The roofless, blackened walls and charred timber are the scars of a three-day rampage of mutual vengeance between Christians and Muslims which left some 100 people dead in late January.
Now Boda is the Central African Republic’s miniature Sarajevo, a once-wealthy town of diamond, gold and coffee traders, irrevocably marred by ethnic cleansing. The Muslims are surrounded, as they were two decades ago in Sarajevo, by a no-man’s land of gutted buildings, beyond which the Christian militia lie in wait. Under the watchful eye of French peacekeepers, the Christians are trying to starve out the Muslims.
The heart of the Muslim quarter, perhaps half a kilometre long, was spared. Muslim men wearing skullcaps and long robes mill about. Women in brightly coloured dresses sit behind tables stacked with plastic flip-flops, cigarettes, and tiny cellophane packets of salt and sugar. But there is no food.
A 100-strong unit from French peacekeeping force Sangaris is deployed on the hilltop, in former government buildings. Capt Benoit looks down through mango and palm trees at the rubble of Boda’s market. He believes there are 10,000 Muslims left, though they claim to number 14,000, living cheek by jowl in the town’s surviving houses.
Destroyed Christian quarter
A few hundred metres to the north lies the burned-out Christian quarter. Some 10,000 Christians remain in town, around the red-brick church and dispensary. Another 10,000 sleep rough in the bush, or in camps for displaced people.
The French confiscate the weapons they see, but the Christian anti-balaka militia hide their machetes and hunting rifles. “They make incursions into the Muslim quarter, to scare people,” Benoit says.
“If a Muslim ventures into no-man’s land to pick a piece of fruit, he’s shot dead. They’re watching all the time.”
The anti-balaka mistake themselves for gendarmes, he continues. “No Christian can sell to a Muslim, for fear of reprisals. Twice, we’ve had to liberate Christians accused of being in contact with Muslims. The anti-balaka locked them in houses.”
French tricolours hang from many of the buildings in the Muslim quarter; the Muslims’ way of saying thank you. “If the French weren’t here, we would all be dead,” says Ali Bouba, an imam who dabbled in the gold and diamond trade. “We know people insult them and throw stones at them in Bangui. Not here. Thanks to the French, we sleep at night.”
Lorries carrying supplies from the Muslims of Bangui, who are also besieged, sometimes sneak through the anti-balaka checkpoints by tagging along behind convoys of French or African peacekeepers. An eagerly awaited shipment from the World Food Programme is expected today. But it’s not enough. Many of Boda’s Muslim children suffer from malnutrition.