Muslim exodus in Central African Republic revives ethnic cleansing fears
Human rights groups are warning that there will be no Muslims left in theCentral African Republic (CAR) unless international peacekeepers take immediate action to stop Christian militias from “ethnically cleansing” entire communities.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on Wednesday urged the CAR government as well as French and African peacekeepers to protect the remaining Muslim population from horrific revenge attacks by predominantly Christian anti-balaka (anti-machete) militias.
The militias blame Muslims for the rise of the Seleka rebel group, which took power in March 2013 and committed abuses against the country’s majority Christian population over the past 11 months. The anti-balaka have carried out co-ordinated attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods since September, including on women and children. Anti-balaka forces have publicly lynched Muslim civilians, often mutilating their bodies and setting them on fire. The Seleka also continue to commit atrocities.
The UN security council deployed peacekeepers in December as sectarian violence spiralled out of control. They included about 5,500 African Union and 1,600 French troops, stationed within Bangui and in several towns north and south-west of the capital.
However, the international forces have failed to deploy to areas to protect civilians and have allowed anti-balaka militias to assert themselves, Amnesty said. As a result, further violence threatens to spread across the country.
“Anti-balaka militias are carrying out violent attacks in an effort to ethnically cleanse Muslims in the Central African Republic,” said Joanne Mariner, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty. “The result is a Muslim exodus of historic proportions. The urgency of the situation demands an immediate response. It is time for the peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic to protect the civilian population, deploy to threatened areas, and stop this forced exodus.”
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said: “At this rate … there will be no Muslims left in much of the CAR. People whose families have peacefully lived in the country for centuries are being forced to leave.”
Both organisations have recorded first-hand accounts of large-scale attacks on Muslim civilians. “They killed my children heartlessly,” one Muslim woman told Amnesty. Her four sons were killed by anti-balaka fighters last month. “The children were slaughtered in front of our eyes, both my children and my sisters’ children.”
The most lethal attack documented by Amnesty took place on 18 January in Bossemptele, where at least 100 Muslims were killed. Among the dead were women and elderly men.
Throughout January and the first week of February, thousands of families from towns with sizable Muslim populations – Bossangoa, Bozoum, Bouca, Yaloké, Mbaiki, Bossembélé and others – fled attacks.
Yaloké, a major gold trading centre, had an estimated Muslim population of 30,000 and eight mosques prior to the conflict. When Human Rights Watch visited the town last week, fewer than 500 Muslims and one mosque remained. Muslim residents gathered at the mosque, protected by French peacekeepers, while Christian militias and residents looted and destroyed their homes and mosques.
In Bangui, anti-balaka fighters, armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers attacked numerous Muslim areas, forcing the population to flee. These neighbourhoods are now ghost towns. Much of the Muslim population has fled to Chad, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
An estimated 50,000 Muslims – many of them CAR nationals – have been flown out of Bangui’s military airport on evacuation flights organised by Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Senegal. Tens of thousands have fled in road convoys, frequently attacked by anti-balaka forces.
After the Seleka ousted President François Bozizé, members of the Central African Armed Forces and the elite presidential guard who remained loyal to Bozizé joined the anti-balaka militias in their fight against the Seleka, providing the militias with military expertise and weapons. While most anti-balaka fighters carry homemade shotguns, and machetes and knives, some wear military uniform and have AK-47s and other automatic weapons.
Violence has seen many large traders and herders targeted and chased from the country, raising fears of a market collapse, which would worsen the food crisis.
The UN World Food Programme has begun an airlift of emergency food supplies. The first cargo plane carrying 82 metric tonnes of rice landed on Wednesday at Bangui airport, to be followed by daily flights for a month. In all, the WFP will ship in 1,800 tonnes of rice and cereal – enough to feed 150,000 people.
According to the UN, 1.3 million people, almost a quarter of the population, need immediate food aid, particularly in the camps of displaced people, where more than 800,000 have sought refuge from the violence.