Muslim communities disappearing as violence in Central African Republic intensifies

Muslim families fearing militia attacks flee their homes in Central African Republic.Aurelio Gazzera | Caritas

Entire Muslim communities are being wiped out in attacks by anti-Balaka militias in the Central African Republic.

The CAR has been beset by violence since March last year, when a coalition of rebel groups, led by Michel Djotodia under the Séléka banner, drove out President Bozizé in a coup. The rebels had previously been fighting to gain power across the north of the country where the Muslim minority, around 14 per cent of the total population, is largely based.

Djotodia took control of a transitional government but eventually lost control of his Séléka soldiers. He officially disbanded the group in September, but its members have continued their attacks, which has resulted in a group of opponents forming against them under the name anti-Balaka, meaning anti-machete.

The violence has since spread throughout the country, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being internally displaced, while at least 20,000 have fled the country. Thousands have lost their lives.

Although CAR leaders contend that the conflict is political, not religious, Séléka soldiers are labelled as a Muslim force intent on establishing an Islamic state, while the anti-Balaka is widely known as 'Christian militia'. The media has perpetuated these labels, reporting that the country is splitting along sectarian lines with fears of an inter-faith genocide.

Recent waves of violence indicate that this could become a reality. Despite the presence of French and African Union peacekeepers in the northwest of the country, local Muslims are being repeatedly targeted by anti-Balaka forces.

Co-ordinated attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods have been taking place since September, with reports of Muslim civilians being lynched, mutilated and set on fire.

Thousands of mosques, community buildings and homes have also been torched and burned down across the north-west, and in other places, Muslims are starving to death as anti-Balaka forces have forbidden people to sell them food.

Many have been forced to flee, some over the border to neighbouring Chad and Cameroon.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the retributive attacks against Muslim communities is "misguided", and warns that the violence is likely to escalate.

"We are seeing entire Muslim communities that have lived in the Central African Republic for generations fleeing their homes," said HRW's emergencies director Peter Bouckaert.

"Muslims in the Central African Republic are contending with unendurable conditions and horrific violence, and the African and French forces there have not been able to protect these residents."

HRW is urging the UN to authorise a peacekeeping mission in the region, and calling on the EU to assist in the stabilisation efforts.

Muslim men sit inside the St. Pierre church where they and hundreds of other Muslims seek refuge in Boali, Central African Republic, some 80kms (50 miles) north-west of Bangui Thursday January 23, 2014.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Troops have been able to evacuate some towns and villages at risk of attack, though HRW reports that the weak and vulnerable are sometimes left behind. In the town of Bossemptele, 190 Muslims were evacuated but 65 women, children and people with disabilities were unable to climb onto the departing trucks.

In many communities, no Muslims at all remain. Anti-Balaka militias killed the last Muslim in Mbaiki – once one of the largest Muslim communities in the country - on 28 February. The town had previously been declared a "symbol of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation" by the CAR's interim president.

"The depth of the suffering caused by anti-Balaka violence is just unfathomable," Bouckaert laments.

"In a misguided attempt to avenge the destruction of the Séléka, anti-Balaka forces are committing horrific abuses against residents simply because they are Muslim."

HRW reports meeting with anti-Balaka commanders who believe the Islamic community is deserving of attacks.

"We have lost all of our homes because of the Séléka. They threw bodies down all of our water holes. And the Muslims are still living in their homes because they were with the Séléka – and now you ask us to tolerate their presence?" one commander said.

Aid organisations are looking to the international community to break the anger fuelling the crisis. They are calling for stronger intervention in what has spiralled into a humanitarian crisis.

"The humanitarian needs in the Central African Republic are dire, and if they are not addressed, they will contribute to further conflict," Bouckaert concludes.