Central African Republic: Religious tinderbox

  • 4 November 2013
  • From the section Africa
Media captionCentral African Republic crisis in numbers

Concern is growing that the Central African Republic is sliding into religious conflict following the overthrow of President Francois Bozize in a rebellion in March, as the BBC's Laeila Adjovi and Abdourahmane Dia report.

Bossangoa, the birthplace of the deposed president, looks like a ghost town, with abandoned buildings, deserted streets and empty markets.

In some of the government buildings, vegetation has taken over.

But at the centre of Bossangoa, the Catholic Mission is bustling.

It almost seems like the whole town has moved in, turning the Catholic Mission into a huge market and camp for displaced people.

Tailors, hair-dressers and food- and cigarette-sellers are going about their business, next to thousands of blue tents covered with plastic sheeting with the logo of the UN children's fund, Unicef.

More than 35,000 Christians have sought refuge here, after their homes were attacked by a loose alliance of former rebels known as Seleka, who ousted Mr Bozize.

The figures are still rising and an estimated 1,000 people, mainly women and children, arrived last week, non-governmental organisations say.

But even as people try to get on with their lives, this is a community under siege.

People are too afraid to leave the Catholic Mission, even when their homes are just down the street.

First Muslim ruler

Nina Saragba was leaning against her shack and sobbing, when she spoke to the BBC.

She said she had just heard that her brother had been shot dead as he tried to go to town.

Fortunately, he was eventually found, badly beaten but alive.

Media captionThe BBC's Laeila Adjovi reports from Bossangoa

Residents say such attacks are common - as soon as they leave the Catholic Mission, they can be detained, beaten or shot and killed by Seleka fighters, if they are identified as members of a Christian self-defence militia called anti-balaka (anti-machete).

The thirst for revenge is great among some residents.

"I want to become a rebel and kill members of Seleka. We suffered too much. Muslims are our enemies," one 20-year-old man said.

The CAR has been unstable most of the time since it gained independence from France in 1960, with numerous military coups and civil wars.

However, the current conflict is unprecedented.

For the first time in this small country, described as the heart of Africa, religious tension is taking centre stage.

The Christian majority and Muslim minority always lived in harmony until March 2013 when Seleka leader Michel Djotodia seized power after his forces overran the capital, Bangui.

Mr Djotodia became the first Muslim to rule CAR, installing himself as interim president and forming a transitional government that he says will organise democratic elections.

The government denies targeting any group, but recognises the rise in inter-community violence.

It sees the anti-balaka as a new rebel group, created by Mr Bozize's sympathizers in his political heartland of Bossangoa, about 400km (250 miles) north of the capital Bangui.

Mr Djotodia has tried to reassure the international community by announcing the dissolution of Seleka.

Officials say most Seleka fighters have been disarmed and confined to military barracks.

In Bossangoa, there is fear on both sides.

At the Muslim Friday prayers, some people came into the mosque leaving their shoes outside but not their Kalashnikovs.

Peacekeepers needed

Khadija al-Hadj Abdou, the wife of a cattle herder, looked fragile and traumatised under her red and green veil, but her black eyes stayed dry when she told her story.

The anti-balaka militia raided her village in early September, she said.

She was shot in the neck, and fell to the ground. When she regained consciousness, she found the bodies of her father, husband and children, lying dead around her, Mrs Abdou said.

Image caption The government says Seleka fighters have been integrated into the army

She is now the sole survivor in her family.

Similar violence has taken place in the city of Bouca, about 250km from Bangui.

Moustapha Mohamed, a Muslim, says he saw the assassination of his father, a village chief, on 9 September.

He escaped, thanks to his Christians neighbours who alerted many Muslims that armed groups were coming after them.

On the same day, Muslims organised reprisal attacks against Christians.

Aukin Nountabaye, a priest in the Bouca diocese, says he managed to escape after his church was stormed by members of the Muslim community.

He fled Bouca, walking for four days to reach Bangui - where there is religious tension but no violence between the majority Christian and minority Muslim populations.

More than 200 people are said to have fled to Bangui since violence erupted in Bouca.

Both Mr Mohamed and Mr Nountabaye are influential members of the Association of Citizens of Bouca Living in Bangui, formed to improve relations between Christians and Muslims.

They say there is a crisis of confidence between the two communities that had co-existed peacefully until now.

The president of the association, Gourna Zako Justin, has called on the transition government to send to Bouca "a neutral force", implying the current army is not.

With growing insecurity and the government accused of lacking control over its troops, the international community is under pressure to protect civilians.

Last week, the United Nations approved a special 250-strong military force to protect UN workers in the CAR.

The African Union has 2,100 peacekeepers in CAR, but promises to increase the number to 3,600 have not been kept.

Nor have regional leaders come up with a peace plan to end conflict in CAR.

And yet the CAR borders six countries - Cameroon, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Congo-Brazzaville.

Many of these neighbours are already battling rebellions, which have displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

So a more unstable CAR could bring more chaos to the region.

Last week, the UN director of humanitarian operations, John Ging, described the situation in CAR as "chaotic".

"We are seeing the seeds of a profoundly dangerous development between communities," Mr Ging said.

"It's a tinderbox that can ignite into something very, very big and very, very bad."

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites