In Central African Republic, a town embodies the nation's conflict

Christians and Muslims used to mix freely in the town of Boda. But both communities are now under attack, and the devastation here speaks to the toll a violent year has taken on the nation.

By , Correspondent

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    Omar Djae, a cattle herder, shows off scars from when he was attacked with a machete by Christian anti-Balaka militias in Boda, Central African Republic.
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Three days after Saliou Yaya's mother was abducted while escorting his wife into Boda’s Muslim neighborhood, she was hacked to death with machetes, her body left in the bush outside this wartorn community.

“Why are you talking to the Muslims?” Mr. Yaya says Christian militias asked his mother, a Christian, when they captured her. “Why did you go to the Muslim neighborhood?”

Once, the bridges that connected the Muslim and Christian communities in this southwestern Central African Republic mining town were busy with people going back-and-forth. Indeed, Mr. Yaya’s family crossed religious lines: His mother was a Christian who married a Muslim, and he is a Muslim who married a Christian.

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But today, an attack from Muslim fighters loyal to the former Seleka government has leveled Boda's Christian neighborhood, and vengeful Christian militias, known as the anti-Balaka, have encircled the Muslim community, cutting of food and medical supplies and preventing people from leaving.

The devastation here is just one example of the toll a year of bloodshed and animosity has taken on the social fabric of the Central African Republic, drawing religious, ethnic, and political battle lines between communities that once lived harmoniously.

No one knows how many have died, but almost a million people have been displaced, and France and the African Union have sent peacekeepers. The United Nations last week approved a peacekeeping mission that is aimed at quelling the ongoing ethno-religious conflict that shows little sign of ending peacefully.

But in towns like Boda, many Muslims are preparing to leave their homes for good.

“I was born here, I was raised here. If there was a way to leave, I’ll leave,” says Omar Djae, who bears scars on his back and welts on his stomach from a machete attack inflicted on him by militiamen as he fled into Boda. A former herder who kept 1,000 cows in the bush, he now has nothing but the blue robe he was wearing when he fled, and is one of the between 9,000 and 12,000 Muslims who can’t leave the neighborhood.

On the other side of the creek, nearly 10,000 people, mostly Christians, huddle under plastic tarps and the eaves of the buildings of the Saint Michel Catholic parish. Their old homes are down the street, reduced to rubble by Muslim fighters loyal to the Seleka government.

The Seleka were a coalition of rebels who last March succeeded in kicking out President François Bozizé and installing Michel Djotodia as president. But Mr. Djotodia was unable to control the myriad rebel groups and mercenaries that made up the Seleka, and the fighters wreaked havoc for 10 months, executing alleged Bozizé associates and killing civilians with impunity.

In response, Christians began arming themselves, creating the anti-Balaka. Fighting between the two groups grew fierce, spurring the African Union and France to deploy peacekeepers. In January, Djotodia was forced to step down in favor of Catherine Samba-Panza, mayor of the capital, Bangui.

The aftermath

Boda had seen violence from the Seleka before, but nothing like what happened after Djotodia stepped down. Seleka fighters fled through the town in January, and along the way, they stopped to steal a car from the Catholic church. The anti-Balaka fought back, so the Seleka leveled the Christian neighborhood, torching houses and reducing businesses to rubble.

“It’s here that the problem started between Christians and Muslims,” says Adelino Brunell, a priest at the Saint Michel parish who observed the violence.

Not all Muslims supported Seleka, but Djotodia was the country’s first Muslim president, and the group was made up predominantly of Central African Muslims and mercenaries from Chad and Sudan. So Boda’s anti-Balaka began targeting their Muslim neighbors.

They set their sights on the cattle of herdsmen from the Puel ethnic group like Mr. Djae, and in one day killed 10 Muslims with machetes, Father Brunell says.

The arrival of the French and African Union peacekeepers in February and managed to halt the killing. But the Christians are still bitter about the loss of their homes, while the Muslims are running low on food and fearful of attacks from anti-Balaka who sneak into their side of town.

Brunell also says the anti-Balaka have split into two, with only one group favoring reconciliation. Those who want to continue killing can be found at the edge of the camp around the Catholic church. Their leader,  Dopane Firmin, is a university student from Boda, but he quit his studies to lead what he calls a “revolutionary group.”

“The goal of this movement is to make the people free. That’s why we chase all the Muslims,” he says. “If they don’t leave, even for 10 years, the same situation will continue.”

But Muslims aren’t the anti-Balaka’s only target.

Yaya's Christian wife was beaten by anti-Balaka when she tried to visit him in the Muslim community, so his mother decided to escort her across the bridge personally.

His wife somehow managed to get out of the neighborhood and back to safety. Yaya says he didn’t believe that the militia would kill his mother. But even with her gone, he’s not interested in revenge.

“To get the revenge, because I’m very angry, it’s not good,” Yaya says. “It’ll become a cycle, and go on and on.”

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