Bangui, Central African Republic – Leave or die.
It’s come down to this for the Muslims of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
Muslims here once lived freely among the Christian majority, running businesses and praying in mosques. Now, many of the city’s Muslims have fled, and on Sunday about 1,300 Muslims from Bangui’s PK12 neighbourhood were evacuated to safety by peacekeeping forces.
Already one of the world’s poorest countries, CAR has seen a wave of upheaval and violence in the past 15 months. The 10-month reign of the Muslim-dominated Seleka rebel group inflamed intercommunal tensions in the country, and spurred the rise of Christian militias called the anti-Balaka.
Once the Seleka was forced out of power in January, the anti-Balaka rampaged, targeting Muslims across the country for their perceived support of the Seleka and its bloody excesses.
At the peak of the violence, mobs hunted down Muslims in mosques or pulled them out of taxis and butchered them in the street. In one incident, a group of soldiers listened to a speech from the newly installed interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, then lynched a Muslim man and set his body on fire after it was over.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dubbed the bloodshed “ethno-religious cleansing”.
CAR faces food crisis
‘It’s a kind of prison’
In the capital Bangui, the purging will soon be complete.
In PK5, the sole neighbourhood in the capital where Muslims are still safe, more than 1,000 Muslims from across Bangui and surrounding towns huddle around a mosque, weathering near-nightly violence and waiting to escape.
“It’s a kind of prison,” said Mahamat Babikir, the leader of an organisation representing the displaced Muslims, who call the dirt yard around the PK5 neighbourhood’s mosque home. “If you go far from the mosque, you can just be stoned or shot by the anti-Balaka.”
While a few business owners hold out hope of staying, most sheltering at the mosque speak only of a desire to flee. Even with French soldiers on patrol and African Union troops stationed at a school across the street, gunfire is a regular occurrence in PK5.
“Everybody wants to leave because of what’s happening here,” said Fatimata Wade, one of those sheltering at the mosque. “The anti-Balaka, they’ll kill Muslims for any reason.”
The Seleka stormed Bangui in March 2013, kicking out President Francois Bozize, who had himself taken power by force in 2003.
Many of those who ushered the Seleka’s President Michel Djotodia into office were from the country’s north, or mercenaries from neighbouring Sudan and Chad. Few had any affinity for the country’s south.
“If they perceived an area as being… a stronghold of possible opposition to their power, they would just attack that area abusively,” said Joanne Mariner, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. “The result of that, obviously, was to create enormous resentment and animus, and that ended up being vented on the Muslim population as a whole.”
The toll of that backlash can be seen a few streets away from PK5’s Muslim haven, where a gutted mosque and crushed houses stand as testament to anti-Balaka wrath.
It will be difficult to be together with Christians, because some Muslims here, it is difficult for them to forgive.
The militiamen who did this still roam the neighbourhood, coldly explaining how they use clubs and grenades to destroy homes, and pilfer roofs and doors for their own houses.
Some of the anti-Balaka characterise the Muslims as foreigners, a reference to the many Muslims of Chadian descent and the use of Arabic in the community, which is not one of CAR’s official languages.
“Those who are staying in the mosque, they need only to depart,” said Stanislas Nzale, an anti-Balaka. “Even if they were born here, there’s no need to stay.”
Others speak simply of revenge.
Once a civil servant, Sebastian Wenezoui said he joined the anti-Balaka after Seleka fighters burned his family inside a house. “If they see some Christians passing by, they’ll kill them,” Wenezoui said of the city’s remaining Muslims. “That’s why we kill them.”
Roots of the carnage
Earlier this month, the UN endorsed what was considered an option of last resort, announcing it would facilitate the evacuation of Muslims from enclaves such as PK5. Nothing of the sort has been done since the Balkan wars in the 1990s, said Tammi Sharpe, the deputy country representative in CAR for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Nobody’s comfortable about this relocation. Nobody feels that it is an ideal solution, that this the best way forward,” Sharpe told Al Jazeera. “It’s ripe with all kinds of questions that are going to come up. It’s also ripe with all kinds of questions if they stay where they are.”
Come Haroun, a deputy of the mosque’s imam, said the Muslims can’t hang on to PK5 any more. But that doesn’t mean they can easily put what happened there behind them.
“It will be difficult to be together with Christians, because some Muslims here, it is difficult for them to forgive,” Haroun said. “You can’t forgive this kind of situation.”