Central African Republic: Fears of sectarian genocide

The BBC's Paul Wood reports on the growing humanitarian crisis in CAR

The UN has warned that the Central African Republic is heading toward a humanitarian disaster, as people fleeing conflict between Muslim and Christian militias pack into overcrowded camps with poor sanitation. Paul Wood in the capital, Bangui, reports on fears that sectarian violence will end in genocide.

Men armed with knives and clubs were striding down the dirt road, purposefully. They were Christians and they had discovered that one of our drivers was a Muslim.

They stole the four-wheel drive vehicle he had and started to take him away.

They were vigilantes known as the anti-balaka, or "anti-machete".

One of them told me his whole village had been burned to the ground by gunmen from the mainly Muslim Seleka former rebel group. He wanted revenge. We thought the driver might be killed.

Lashed out

We were in the dense, makeshift camp that has sprung up near the international airport. Aid workers began pleading for the driver. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bangui happened to be visiting the camp. He joined the negotiations.

Bangui Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga is greeted by Catholic faithful as he visits an aid distribution point inside a makeshift camp housing an estimated 100,000 displaced people, at Mpoko Airport in Bangui Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bangui Dieudonne Nzapalainga has called on both sides to show restraint

Some of the anti-balaka were drunk. They were not listening to their commander. It was extremely tense.

A militia man lashed out at a boy of perhaps 14 or 15 who was standing around. The blow looked strong enough to break the boy's jaw. He screamed in shock and pain.

Eventually, they let the driver go and even returned the vehicle, the archbishop coming with us in the car to ensure safe passage.

Earlier, though, I had watched the anti-balaka man who said the village had been burned, as he shouted at the archbishop that Muslims should die.

Disease ridden squalor

"Revenge is never a solution to any problem," said the Archbishop, Monsignor Dieudonne Nzapalainga.

French army soldiers patrol a district in Bagui The tiny French and African force in the Central African Republic has no chance of stopping an outbreak of killings

On Thursday he is signing a statement with Muslim clerics, calling for reconciliation. He went on: "You kill someone, you kill another person, you just continue the cycle of violence. We have to end that cycle."

That will be difficult. The camp at the airport has grown from a few thousand a month ago to an estimated 100,000 today as the violence has escalated.

All here are Christians, preferring the cramped, disease-ridden squalor around them to the risks of going home to areas now controlled by the Seleka.

Elen Yassi told me how her 29-year-old son was shot dead in front of her.

"The Muslims knocked on our door and asked us: 'Do you have any guns?" she told me. "We said no, but they took my son out and they shot him. They shot all of our sons, one by one."

Then she went on to tell me that another son had gone back to their home that morning to retrieve their belongings. He too was killed, by the Seleka she said, though this time it was a machete.

Power seeping away

We heard many similar stories. How did this begin? The Christians accuse the Seleka of looting, raping and killing without restraint after their leader, Michel Djotodia, came to power in March 2013.

People wait to be allowed into a food distribution point inside a makeshift camp housing an estimated 100,000 displaced people, at Mpoko Airport in Bangui The camp at the airport has grown from a few thousand a month ago to an estimated 100,000 today

The Christians have done their share of killing too. The Seleka, though, are far better armed. They have heavy weapons and machine guns. The anti-balaka (from what we have seen) have knives, sticks, and only a few guns. That is why the camp near the airport now has only Christians.

However, aid workers with long experience here believe that power is seeping away from the Seleka, partly because some are from neighbouring Chad and are returning home.

One aid worker spoke of a growing Christian backlash against the Muslim population (a minority here) threatening truly awful bloodshed on a scale not yet seen.

The violence is increasingly neighbour against neighbour. The tiny French and African force in the Central African Republic has no chance of stopping such killings.

Into this explosive mix has been thrown the claim that President Djotodia will resign on Thursday and flee the country.

Rumours are sweeping Bangui that an unusually large amount of presidential luggage has been seen heading to the airport. His spokesman told us he was going to a summit of regional leaders and would not be stepping down.

The effects of a resignation would be unpredictable. Many Christians I spoke to told me their main demand was for the president to go.

If he leaves, it could take some of the steam out of the conflict.

But it might also trigger a power struggle engulfing the country in its worst violence yet.

Bangui, though it is under curfew, is bracing itself, uncertain and fearful about what comes next.

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