BANGUI (AFP) – Hundreds of Muslims, among the last remaining in the Central African Republic’s capital after months of brutal sectarian violence, are trapped in a slum desperately hoping to be saved from militia attacks.
Some 1,300 refugees are thought to be holed up in the PK-12 neighbourhood — an area 12 kilometres outside the capital Bangui — having fled from all corners of the conflict-ravaged country.
Many have been here for months. Almost 100 were evacuated under international protection on Monday, but the rest are stuck, hemmed in by the mostly Christian “anti-balaka” militias that have launched fierce attacks against the Muslim community.
Once, Muslims and Christians and a variety of ethnic groups lived comfortably together in Bangui. But the cycle of sectarian violence that broke out last year has caused almost the entire Muslim population of the city to flee, leaving their houses abandoned.
The anti-balaka have taken a merciless vengeance on the community after the Seleka, a mostly Muslim rebel group, temporarily seized power in a coup in March 2013.
Anti-balaka means “anti-machete” in the local Sango language and refers to the weapon of choice wielded by the Seleka — but also taken up by the vigilantes.
- An endless agony -
Those stranded in PK-12 have only one wish: to slip quietly into a protected convoy of vehicles headed across the border to Chad.
“We came for two days, but we’ve been here for five months,” said Yaya Yougoudou, one of the community’s elders.
When the Chadian government decided to stop evacuation operations earlier this month — having already brought tens of thousands over the border — it left the families in PK-12 stranded and surrounded by anti-balaka.
Their days are a relentless agony. Emaciated faces betray the hunger and disease that run rampant in this slum, now reduced to just two or three rows of houses, where food is increasingly scarce.
“Look over there! The people waiting are anti-balaka. That little bridge is our limit,” said Abacar Hassan, one of the few original inhabitants of the area.
“Over there” is just 100 metres away on the road out of town, which marks a frontier between life and death. Any Muslim crossing that line would be lucky to survive more than 20 seconds.
To the south, on the other side of the road towards Bangui, a French armoured vehicle is the only thing protecting them.
Beyond that is nothing but destruction. A few walls are still standing, but all the roofs have collapsed. A small suitcase lies on the ground, ripped apart amid a few discarded plastic objects.
- ‘Reconciliation impossible’ -
PK-12 is permanently under siege from the anti-balaka.
In one of the slum houses, a wall is studded with impact marks. “They threw a grenade here on April 11. A women was killed. She was preparing porridge for her child,” said Abdel Hafiss, a teacher.
There are 22 new graves in the nearby cemetery, 18 of them for people assassinated by the anti-balaka since December, say residents.
The Christians, even the well-intentioned among them, can no longer pass through this Muslim enclave. The two communities are now like “two boxers” circling each other, says one humanitarian worker.
“Later, we might be able to talk of reconciliation. But for now it is impossible. The Muslims want to leave, the Christians want them to leave.”
On Sunday, a first convoy made up of 93 people and organised with help from the United Nations, left for Bambari in the centre of the country under the protection of international forces, arriving the following day.
“It was an operation of last resort. It would have been better if they could stay, but that was not possible,” said Maeve O’Donnell, a member of the International Organisation for Migration.
Those who left have stayed in contact by telephone with the people they left behind in Bangui.
“Over there, the site is perfect. There is room. They are comfortable, without facing threats. Some have even made a tour of the neighbourhood,” reports Oumar Issaka, the leader of PK-12.
The day of their departure was one of “complete euphoria, even for those who were staying”, says the humanitarian worker. “People saw that things were, finally, progressing.”
The rest still hope to follow, heading to Sido and Kabo, two camps near the Chadian border.
“The move has been planned, but not finalised. We are just waiting for the authorities to give the go ahead,” said O’Donnell.
But that green light from the government could still take time. On Monday, Central Africa’s Reconciliation Minister Antoinette Montaigne criticised the evacuation missions as giving a “de facto acceptance of the alleged division of our country”.
For those desperate to escape, that division is already a reality.