You feel it immediately. That uneasy tension when you drive into the mining town of Boda in the Central African Republic (CAR).
It’s a feeling that’s difficult to describe. It’s not like you are in a war zone where guns are going off and your instincts tell you to find a place to hide.
This is a different the kind of tension. You know there is no immediate danger to you, but you can’t turn your back on anyone. You never know who will take the first shot.
Rows and rows of brick houses have been reduced to rubble, the few people you pass on the street just stare at you, and you know they are trying to figure out if you are friend or foe.
Boda is one of the towns in the western CAR where there are still a few Muslims left.
We head to the mosque. It just makes sense to try and speak to the Imam or an elder in the community. We needed to get people here to trust us, so we can interview them and hear their side of the story.
We also worried about the light. It is getting dark, we won’t be able to film at night, and we have been warned lots of weapons are circulating in the town. The only way rival Christians and Muslims protect themselves.
We needed to hurry up.
The Imam looked tired. He said it’s because he is stressed. He stayed in the town when fighting broke out between mainly Muslim Seleka fighters and the Christian anti-balaka armed group, because he wanted to “protect” his people “the only way” he knew how. By leading prayers for Muslims trapped in the neighbourhood.
The imam doesn’t want to be interviewed on camera, but one of the elders said yes. He is angry, livid, because he says he is trapped here.
His name is Yousouf Baraka. He saw people kill and be killed outside the mosque. He said some of those who tried to leave the town and head to Chad never made it.
“That’s why we can’t leave,” he shouted. “We will all be killed. They will attack us along the road and chop us into pieces. It’s happened to other people before.”
Fear, anger and uncertainty
He is talking about the Christians, who live on the other side of town. In between them French and African Union (AU) troops have formed a buffer zone, keeping the two religious groups apart.
When we go over to the now mainly Christian side, the mood is the same.
Fear, anger, uncertainty hangs in the air.
Thousands of Christians are living in the church compound. Their homes were also destroyed during months of religious-based fighting. They also saw people kill and be killed. They say they also can’t leave because they are afraid they too will die if they come across an angry group.
I convince Sister Marguerite to speak to me. She didn’t want to at a first because she doesn’t want to put the other nuns and displaced families in danger by saying something wrong.
She is sad, disappointed and worried about the children trapped in her church. She came from the Caribbean Islands to Boda to help people. She never imagined things would get this bad.
“The priority is for people to go back to their homes to live in peace,” said Sister Marguerite. “When I see small children being born here, living in these tents, it breaks my heart. They are trying to cope but it is unacceptable. People shouldn’t have to live like this in Boda.”
This town seems more divided than any place in CAR I have visited. The scary part is the level of hate some people carry with them.
You can feel it in both the Muslim and Christian sides of town. This won’t just disappear because the two warring sides have signed a ceasefire some people believe won’t last long.
In the corner, a young girl scribbles in a notebook. I look over her shoulder to see what she is writing. It’s not in English or French so I ask her.
She speaks the local language Sango and I needed an interpreter. The old man spoke to her then smiles and said to me: “She is worried when she goes back home and back to school her teacher will get angry if she hasn’t finished her homework.”
I have seen and heard a lot of terrible things in CAR, but yet this seemingly innocent statement from this 12-year-old girl hit me hard.
I drove past her school on my way here. It was completely destroyed. The AU soldiers outside said some of the teachers and students were killed.
If this little girl ever gets to go home, how is she going back to school?