Tens of thousands fled the town of Bria after heavy fighting broke out this week in Central African Republic’s south.
Bangui, Central African Republic – At least 1,500 people, mostly Muslim civilians, currently stuck in a Catholic church in the country’s southeast, are growing increasingly desperate, a priest has told Al Jazeera.
The displaced people took refuge in the cathedral in the town of Bangassou after fleeing deadly violence in mid-May.
“The situation is not safe enough to leave, and so they cannot move from here,” said Father Alain Blaise Bissialo, the priest at the church.
“There are men who walk around town with guns.”
The crisis in Bangassou began between May 13-17 when Anti-balaka, a vigilante militia made up of mostly Christians, launched a series of attacks on Muslims in Tokoyo, a largely Muslim district of Bangassou.
Thousands flocked to a nearby mosque to seek refuge.
Yet, the mosque was subsequently attacked too, culminating in the killing of the local imam.
In an attempt to save civilians at the mosque, the Catholic bishop sent trucks to Tokoyo to transport as many civilians as possible back to the church for their safety.
“At last count, 150 people were killed during the violence since mid-May, but this number could rise,” Antoinne Mbao Bogo, president of the local branch of the Red Cross, told Al Jazeera on Friday.
Alidou Djibril, a displaced person at the church, said there was a shortage of food and clothes.
“It’s hard for us, we have to stay in the same place, we cannot move, and we are fasting,” he said.
Djibril said they only received food one week after arriving at the church, adding that the Anti-balaka were not allowing traders to bring food to them.
MINUSCA, the UN’s mission in the Central African Republic (CAR), said the security situation in Bangassou has calmed significantly, adding, however, that it was still not safe for the displaced to return home.
“Despite the MINUSCA patrols, the area is not safe enough and their homes and businesses have been destroyed, and so many have nowhere to go,” Vladimir Montiero, MINUSCA spokesperson, told Al Jazeera from Bangui.
“It is not safe for them to leave the church.”
Bob Libenge, acting president of the local branch of the Red Cross, told Al Jazeera that some people were sleeping inside the church and the rest were outside, on mats, within the complex.
Meanwhile, a number of nongovernmental organisations have come forward to assist with food and sanitation.
There has been an escalation of violence across central and southeastern parts of the CAR over the past two months, with armed groups clashing in Bria, Alindou and Bakouma in particular.
Earlier in the week, MINUSCA warned the Popular Front for Renaissance of Central African (FPRC), a group associated with the Seleka, to not attack Bangassou.
Sources at the UN say that MINUSCA is concerned that there would be revenge attacks on the Christian civilian population if the group entered the city.
CAR has been beset with violence since Muslim-led Seleka fighters unseated the country’s president in a coup in 2013.
Following a spate of abuses by the Seleka, a vigilante militia called the Anti-balaka, made up of Christians and animists embarked on a series of revenge attacks on the Muslim community.
While the CAR has no history of sectarian conflict, armed groups have increasingly manipulated religious fault lines to expand their influence.
In 2016, CAR held a successful general election. But a year later, President Faustin-Archange Touadera’s government wields little influence outside his capital.
At least 14 groups, including different incarnations of the Seleka, rule the countryside, monitoring roads, collecting taxes and policing the population.
The UN says that the country is facing a dire humanitarian crisis. More than 50 percent of CAR’s population requires humanitarian assistance.
At least one in five Central Africans are currently displaced, the highest proportion since the height of the crisis in 2014.