It is eerily quit in Zèré. Until, in this empty village with burned houses in the west of the Central African Republic, the hammering of a piece of iron on a car rim tears apart the silence. The signal that the coast is clear. The village chief had told the team of Doctors without Borders – Holland (MSF-H) to ring a church bell, but there is no church, not anymore. Out of the elephant grass and from thick forest of mango trees people appear. First, one by one, and then large groups. Babies whose mouths had been gagged by their mothers start screaming. Men tap their foreheads against each other in greeting. Some of them carry machetes, spears, or an antique shotgun. After ten minutes, there is a cacophony of excited voices.
An old man grabs the arm of a MSF nurse. “We hide around the village, living like animals in the bush,” he wails. “We have no clothes, no salt, no soap, nothing to survive. The soldiers looted all our belongings. Our chickens, goats, our grain. “He shows me around. In the clinic, needles and pills lie in the grit. In the church charred roof beams have fallen on the pulpit. Some people were burned in their homes when, on the afternoon of 7 September, fighters set the village alight. Near the remains of a house lies a corpse partly eaten by pigs.
In the Central African Republic, a country lost in the heart of Africa, Militias have for several months been preying upon the population. This nation of four and a half million people is trapped in a cycle of revenge and crime. Several militias without any ideology are fighting each other and the population. It is chaos for personal benefit. Even compared to earlier nasty conflicts, like in Northern Uganda, Liberia and Sierra Leone, these thugs are motivated by sheer greed.
Marauding militias, looting gangs and foreign mercenaries fight for control of gold and diamond mines and squabble over villagers’paltry assets. Religious and ideological motives barely played any role when the fighting first broke out earlier this year, but after several months of chaos there appears now a dividing line between Christians and Muslims. The looters pulled a small Muslim minority – 15 percent of the population – gradually into their camp. Christians responded by setting up self-defence militias. They are increasingly out to eradicate Muslims.
A small and ineffective army of regional African peacekeepers fails to create even a semblance of order. Tens of thousands of civilians have been fleeing. They hide in the bush or seek safety in churches. Priests and imams warn of a potential genocide, if the fury among Christians against Muslims will further increase.
The Central African Republic has always been a chronically unstable country, with more coups and mutinies than elections. But residents have never experienced violence on this scale. The French ran their gold, diamonds and uranium-rich colony as a company. This fusion of state power and business interests created the precedent that the person in power has a licence to profit from the exploitation of raw materials.
After independence in 1960 African politicians ruled over a parasitic state plagued by poverty and crime. The coronation in 1976 of President Jean-Bédel Bokassa as emperor was a tragicomedy that gobbled up one year’s national budget. François Bozizé, ousted earlier this year, was the country’s president as well as the largest shareholder of a diamond company. He appointed relatives, including his mistresses to positions in government and parastatals.
More than half a century of bad government created a fertile ground for numerous armed robbery groups. When Muslim mercenaries from neighbouring Chad and Sudan joined in and together with their Muslim brothers in the Central African Republic created the military alliance Séléka, the conflict took on a religious character. This spring, Michel Djotodia, leader of Séléka, declared himself the president of the republic after his forces had entered the capital Bangui.
The Muslims of Zèré left on the eve of the attack by the Séléka. The village elder Pané Noumagbei becomes agitated as he tells his story. “We Christians always lived peacefully together with Muslims. But now they have betrayed us. On the day before the attack, the fighters of the Séléka came to pick them up and took them with all their belongings to the city of Bossangoa, 30 kilometres from Zèré. All Muslims are accomplices of the Séléka. I never want to see them again here”.
In a small camp for displaced Muslims in Bossangoa, Adidje Hassan gives a different version of events. She lived in Zèré. She blames the Anti Balaka, a Christian militia. “Warriors of the Anti Balaka attacked a village close to Zèré and cut two Muslims to pieces. Muslims in Zèré would be their next target, So Séléka fighters took us away. I do not trust Christians anymore and will never go back to Zèré”.
The population of the Central African Republic consists of 85 percent Christians and followers of traditional religions, the rest are Muslim. They lived in mixed communities all over the country but in the Northeast region the people are almost 100 percent Muslim. It is an isolated area with no schools, hospitals and roads. The Muslim population feels more connected with Sudan than with the government in the Central African capital Bangui. “The residents there are marginalized and they want a bigger share of the pie,” says a Catholic priest. “Now with the help of their brethren in Chad and Sudan, via the Séléka, they have appropriated the whole cake.”
The Séléka (which means “Alliance” in the local Sango language) sprang up in the rugged regions of the northeast, where foreign and domestic fighters and smugglers have been fighting for a long time for the control over diamond mining areas. As internal quarrels fractured the regime of President François Bozizé, feuding groups started working together. They formed the Séléka, led by Djotodia, a former consul for the government of the Central African Republic in the western Sudanese town of Nyala. Séléka started with 5,000 men, a force which during the march to the capital Bangui grew to 25,000 troops thanks to the recruitment of freed prisoners, mercenaries, poachers, diamond merchants, hundreds of child soldiers and Muslim fanatics. Only a small percentage comes from the Central African Republic itself. “Our country is occupied by foreigners,” complain residents of Bangui, which in March fell into the hands of the Séléka.
During its advance the Séléka had systematically attacked churches. Christian citizens started defending themselves. Raw hatred was given free reign. In September, the Christian Anti Balaka carried out an attack on Bossangoa, controlled by the Séléka. The Séléka hit back, killing Christians and burning their villages. Increasingly Christians and Muslims label each other as “the others“ and as “cockroaches “.
After a half hour, the MSF-H nurse diagnoses severe malnutrition in Zèré, with percentages indicating a state of emergency. But the team must leave soon. For weeks cars have barely driven here for fear of attacks. The inhabitants disappear again in the tall grass.
The dirt road back to Bossangoa leads past dozens of abandoned villages. In the bushes, we see shadows of Anti Balaka fighters. They raid trucks of Muslim traders and execute Muslim passengers. In Bossangoa, we come across a unit of Séléka fighters guarding a roadblock. It is late afternoon by now and they are slumped in a drugged daze. They let us pass unhindered. They usually have little sympathy for aid workers who travel to `rebel villages’ like Zèré. In October they tortured two aid workers to death outside Bossangoa, claiming they were spying.
In Bossangoa General Ya Ya and a group Séléka fighters are lazing stoned in the shade of a tree. The General’s chair is draped with chains of “gris gris” (charms), believed to keep bullets at a distance. “We tell villagers not to flee, but as soon as they see a car they disappear,” he says. “They are afraid of the rebels.” He means the Anti Balaka. Ya Ya and his soldiers speak only Arabic, not French or Sango, Central African Republic’s main languages. Of his unit of 250 men, eight members are from the Central African Republic, the rest come from eastern Chad and the western Sudanese province of Darfur. They are believed to get their weapons from neighbouring countries. Some Séléka wounded fighters are reported to have been treated in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. There is no hard evidence however that there is direct Sudanese government support for the Séléka.
By evening, the sky breaks open. This is a gift from hell for the 30,000-40,000 displaced Christians who have been living in the open air for weeks at the Catholic mission in Bossangoa. Their simple plastic shelters and the few hastily-built latrines overflow. Some of the displaced are less than a kilometre away from their homes but they don’t dare to sleep there for fear of the Séléka. A few soldiers of FOMAC, the small regionally peacekeeping force, keep the Séléka fighters of General Ya Ya outside the mission. A few hundred meters away, in the Ecole de Liberté, shelter a few hundred Muslims, afraid to go near the Catholic Church. That evening shots can be heard near the river.
Florence Ganazoui and her two children have just arrived in the hospital on the mission’s compound. “My village is 18 miles from here, but for weeks we have lived in the bush. I stay alive by brewing traditional beer. At four o’clock in the afternoon I was surrounded by customers when suddenly Séléka warriors opened fire with a grenade launcher. The most drunken customers died first. Then there were bullets and they hit my children”. Her hand rests on the shaking body of her son, whose foot has just been amputated.
The next morning I find a gloomy Father Frederie Tonfio amongst the displaced. He has just had a visit from an interfaith delegation from Bangui which included the Imam Oumar Kobin. Can the spiritual leaders defuse the heightened tensions? “Reconciliation does not work anymore,” he replies, “the situation is becoming more explosive by the day. The Séléka has turned the Muslims against us. But we Christians are more numerous. They cannot eradicate us all. ”
” It’s not too late,” says Imam Oumar. “Ex president Bozizé portrayed the Séléka as Muslim fanatics out to Islamize the country. That created hatred between the two religions”. Both clerics believe that the government headed by Séléka leader Michel Djotodia should restore order. But in Bangui there are few signs that anybody is firmly in control. Towards sunset all inhabitants rush home, fearing robbery and rape.
Corine Nadia works for a women’s organization in Bangui. She says that the number of reported rapes has increased by 35 percent since the Séléka entered Bangui. “This morning I met a 75-year-old woman, raped by a 17-year-old Séléka warrior who spoke Arabic. They want to humiliate Christians and townspeople. It is revenge by the illiterate from the bush. ”
Warriors of Séléka have fought among themselves and their commanders often ignored orders from the head of state. In the south east of the country Séléka is not in control at all, not being allowed in by Ugandan soldiers who are hunting for the Lord’s Resistance Army(LRA). “State authority has disappeared,” says Frederic Nakombo, of the Catholic human rights organization Justice and Peace. “Colonels and generals of the Séléka control the gold and diamond fields, transport the raw materials to Chad and Sudan and put the proceeds into their own pockets. The reaction of the Anti Balaka against this plundering of the country is becoming fiercer. Their fighters are determined to kill all Muslims”.
The lowest point has, it seems, not yet been reached. Everyone in the country is preparing for more violence, which could easily spread to chronic unstable neighbours like Congo and Sudan. And as the religious fanatics get their grips on the population, the country could even become a magnet for international Muslim extremists.
France is to send a thousand more troops (400 are already guarding the airport in Bangui), which will mean fighting the Séléka, that may withdraw into the bush and become a hardened guerrilla force. Lawyer and human rights activist Bruno Hyacinthe Gbiegba calls, like many in the country, for speedy UN intervention. “Without the help of foreign mercenaries the Séléka would never have taken Bangui,” he says. “The Séléka combatants are merely here for our raw materials and will get over our dead bodies if somebody pushes them out. We can’t count on them for our safety. A wolf cannot protect sheep”.
This article was first published in NRC Handelsblad, a leading Dutch newspaper, on 23-11-2013
Photo’s by Koert Lindijer: the displaced in Bossangoa