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.
Some 30 people live in the white-painted villa where I met Samira Hamidou (18), a mother of two whose husband, Mamadou, a diamond trader, had his throat slashed by the anti-balaka in December. Her father-in-law Abu Bakr was also killed. “There are people here who haven’t had a proper meal for two or three days,” Hamidou says. “Today, we had only little dumplings and coffee.”
Imam Ali’s mother was a Christian who converted to Islam when she married. “She got on well with her family, but she’s had no contact with them for two months now. One of her sisters took the risk of bringing her supplies, but it’s become too dangerous,” he says.
Torture or kill
Mobile phones and beer bottling are the only industries that still flourish in the Central African Republic. “The anti-balaka collect telephones in the camps and, if they find the number of a Muslim, sometimes they torture or kill you,” says Imam Ali. “I have a cousin who they knew was in touch with me. They beat her up and she had to move house.”
Imam Ali says the fighting at the end of January started when a sniper perched high in a mango tree picked off eight Muslims drinking coffee in a courtyard. “The anti-balaka descended on the market and burned the shops. The Muslims got angry and began to burn their houses.”
As we prepare to leave for “the other side”, Imam Ali asks my “fixer”, Rodrigue to bring back a bag of manioc, the white root which is the staple food in the Central African Republic. In the street outside, Muslims push empty bags and banknotes into our four-wheel drive, begging us to bring food.
We pass through an anti-balaka checkpoint manned by militiamen with glassy red eyes. Church bells are calling the faithful to worship. A tailor sews on a rickety machine beneath a flamboyant tree.
Fr Barnabé Badiwi tells me the Muslims started shooting first. He does not condone the actions of “so-called Christians” in the militia, but he understands them. “The Muslims are sleeping in their beds, while our people lost their homes.”
A crowd forms around us, and a skinny man in grimy clothes speaks up. “I and my wife and our nine children escaped with only the clothes on our backs,” says Jean-Marie Ezotade, a farmer. “There was a Seleka [Muslim militia] warlord called Barbodiaz who spread terror through the region. If he wanted your scooter or your car and you complained, he killed you. If you had a house or livestock, he made you pay tax. He never touched the Muslims.”
An anti-balaka called Victor Kifo steps forward. I ask why he wants to starve the Muslims. “The Muslims started firing on the Central Africans,” Kifo says. “When the Seleka were here, the Muslims showed their fangs and claws. Now we want all of them to leave, as soon as possible. If we catch them we will kill them.” The crowd nod in agreement.
‘They burned everything’
Pretty Thurise Dambale (13) has the same large, almond eyes as the widowed child bride I just interviewed on the “other side”. “I can’t forget. I can’t live with them,” she says. “They burned everything my father and mother and the local population owned. That’s why we want to be rid of them.”
A commotion breaks out a few metres away, between Rodrigue and the anti-balaka. At issue: the bags of food our driver has purchased to take back to the Muslim quarter.
“We counted how much manioc and avocados you bought, and when you leave town, we’ll check if you still have them,” Kifo shouts as I climb into the vehicle. “If there’s any missing, you’ll have a big problem.”
“It’s too risky. We’ll have to take the food to Bangui,” Rodrigue says during the brief journey back to the Muslim side.
But the men who gave us money for food refuse to take back their banknotes.
“Give me my merchandise!” one shouts imperiously, eyeing the bags in the back of the vehicle. “Do you want them to get killed?” a younger man from the Muslim quarter pleads. The stubborn merchant eventually relents. They apologise and wave goodbye, invoking God’s blessing for our journey.
We begin the 4½-hour trek back to Bangui, down a rutted dirt track. The anti-balaka checkpoint is wreathed in marijuana smoke, and we’re waved through, our cargo of forbidden food unchecked. We’ve escaped unscathed from our brief involvement in Boda’s conflict, but it still feels ugly.