DAKAR, Senegal — The mob violence wracking Central African Republic imperils the future of the country’s Muslims, with tens of thousands fleeing the daily violence and untold numbers killed.
Bangui, the capital, is engulfed in an orgy of bloodshed and looting despite the presence of thousands of French and African peacekeepers.
“We are in a moment where immediate action is needed to stop the killings,” Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch told The Associated Press, calling for a full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping mission. “Otherwise the future of the Muslim community of this country will be gone.”
Muslims make up about 15 percent of Central African Republic’s 4.6 million people. More than 800,000 people have fled their homes —about half of those from the capital, according to the United Nations.
“There are some who don’t want Muslims in this country,” Prime Minister Andre Nzapayeke said on local radio Saturday. “But when the Muslims have left the country, what happens next? The Protestants will throw out the Catholics, and then the Baptists against the Evangelists, and finally the animists? It is time we regain control and stop ourselves from plunging into an abyss.”
Thousands of Muslims left Bangui in a massive convoy Friday that was jeered by crowds of Christians. One Muslim who fell off a truck was quickly killed by the mob. Muslim women who could not get on the trucks tried to hand their children to strangers aboard the vehicles. Whole neighborhoods are abandoned and Muslims who cannot leave are hiding inside mosques that have not already been set ablaze or destroyed by angry crowds.
Entire Muslim communities also have left towns in the rural northwest, sometimes only to come under attack from Christian militiamen and die while trying to get out of the anarchic country.
Across a wide stretch of northwest Central African Republic, Christian militiamen known as the anti-Balaka (or anti-machete) have driven tens of thousands of Muslims out of the area. Many are seeking refuge in Chad or Cameroon, as there are few corners of Central African Republic where Muslims are an outright majority.
The violence against the Muslims is in reaction to abuses perpetrated by the Muslim Seleka rebels during their 10-month rule that began last March. Seleke fighters tied their victims together and threw them off bridges to drown or be eaten by crocodiles, according to witnesses. Now that Seleka’s leader Michel Djotodia stepped down from the presidency last month and a precarious civilian interim government is in charge, it is the country’s Muslim minority that is under assault.
No one knows the true death toll from two months of the worst intercommunal violence in this country’s history: It is often too dangerous for crews to recover the corpses. More than 1,000 were killed during several days of fighting in early December, when a Christian militia attempted to overthrow the Muslim rebel government then in power.
A preliminary investigation into potential war crimes or crimes against humanity has been opened, Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Friday.
Babacar Gaye, the U.N.’s special representative to Central African Republic, has called for the murderers to be held accountable. Yet in a country where police officers long ago fled their jobs and courthouses are shuttered and looted, it’s not even clear where to begin.
Central African Republic was already one of the world’s poorest and most lawless countries even before the March 2013 coup by Muslim rebels from the north plunged the nation into deeper crisis. When the extra French troops first arrived in early December, more than 100,000 people sought refuge at the airport they guarded in the hope it would keep them safe. That displacement camp has become a city within a city now dubbed “The Ledger” after the city’s sole five-star luxury hotel.
French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio on Thursday the military is likely to extend its mission in Central African Republic beyond the U.N.-mandated six-month mission.
“We are going to avoid the worst,” Le Drian said. “By our presence we can lower tensions on the ground, to pave the way for a peaceful political transition.”
That still seems like a distant goal in Central African Republic, a country with a long history of coups, rebellions and failed peace agreements. Given the unprecedented nature of the violence, no one can say how this all will end.
In the lawless capital, a 19-year-old Muslim woman in the Kokoro neighborhood said a group of armed men this week had come to her house after midnight crying “It’s you Muslims!”
“They gave us a minute to come to the living room or else they threatened to throw a grenade,” she said. “Four of them ripped my clothes off and raped me one by one. Another raped my sister, who is only 14 years old. They asked where our father had hid weapons in the house and we told him we didn’t have any.
“After that, I cannot say that the situation is improving for us,” she said. “We are Muslims, yes, but we are also Central Africans. Where will we go? We were born here. This is our country.”