Central African Republic went ahead with a presidential runoff vote Sunday that many hope will solidify a tentative peace after more than two years of sectarian fighting left untold thousands dead and forced nearly 500,000 people to flee to neighboring countries.
Armored U.N. personnel carriers roamed the streets of the capital, Bangui, as residents headed to the polls on foot and by motorcycle not long after sunrise. Some 2,000 U.N. peacekeepers are deployed in the capital while 8,000 others are trying to secure the vote in the largely anarchic provinces.
Sunday's vote was absent the gunfire heard during earlier balloting, though many complained their names weren't on the list at their polling station while others were turned away for lack of photo identification.
Residents set aside painful memories of the chaos that intensified in late 2013 when Christian militia fighters known as the anti-Balaka attacked Bangui, unleashing cycles of retaliatory violence with mostly Muslim Seleka fighters. At the height of the violence, Muslim civilians bore the wrath of vengeance-seeking mobs that killed and dismembered victims in the streets.
The conflict at the time was a political dispute over who would lead Central African Republic, but it divided communities among religious fault lines: Hundreds of mosques and churches were destroyed, interreligious marriages unraveled. A new spasm of violence late last year effectively barricaded most of Bangui's remaining Muslims inside the PK5 neighborhood for several months, while scores of homes were razed in the Christian neighborhoods surrounding the enclave.
On Sunday, voters chose between two former prime ministers — both Christians promising to unite the country and bring the peace people here desperately want. Front-runner Anicet Georges Dologuele received about 24 percent in the first round and also was endorsed by the third-place finisher. However, Faustin Archange Touadera has strong grassroots support after placing second in the December ballot.
Whoever wins will face the enormous task of trying to exert their authority throughout a country where heavily armed rebel groups still control large swaths of territory. The next president also will be tasked with stamping out the impunity that has long existed in Central African Republic, a country where more presidents have come to power through coups than democratic elections since independence from France in 1960.
"Everything has a beginning and an end," said Noel Poutou, 74, a lifelong resident of the PK5 neighborhood, dressed in a deep green traditional Muslim tunic and white prayer hat. "For me, this is the end of the crisis. Everyone here has lost loved ones and friends. I ask God to bring peace so that people can forget and become a family here again."
A period of relative calm has taken hold in the months since the November visit of Pope Francis who pushed aside suggestions it was too dangerous to visit Central African Republic. The pope set an example for many, residents said, by coming to PK5 to meet with Muslim community leaders even as peacekeepers manned sniper points from the minarets in case the pope's entourage came under attack.
Sunday's vote, which was delayed several times, is designed to bring an end to the transitional government set up two years ago. Its formation was the culmination of a chaotic period during which the last elected president was overthrown by rebels, then the rebel leader forced to step aside as his fighters carried out atrocities against civilians.
Nearly 1 million people have been forced from their homes — about half of whom are in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Congo. Tens of thousands were casting ballots in refugee camps there on Sunday, officials said.
Junior Yangangoussou, 30, a finance administer in Bangui, acknowledges it's a delicate situation. While voting day was smooth, things may become tense once the ballots are counted, he says.
"We are somewhat afraid of the results, and we are praying to God for peace," he said. "The country has not been disarmed. Weapons are everywhere in every district of Central African Republic."
On Sunday, security was especially tight in PK5, where U.N. peacekeepers used portable metal detectors to search voters for weapons at polling stations. Tensions ran high as one polling station began to close, with dozens there saying they hadn't found their names on the voting list. Marguerite Yagoda, 80, had showed up at 4 a.m. and tried to make her case to a Rwandan peacekeeper as the station started to close.
"I was born here; I've lived my whole life here. It's my right to vote," she said, adding that she hadn't had anything to eat or drink all day as she waited. "This hurts my heart."
Among those who were able to cast ballots Sunday was Abduraman Hamaqiko, who left the Muslim enclave this past week for the first time since late 2013. His life has been shattered by the violence — his 12-year-old son was slain by Christian militia fighters in 2013 and then decapitated. His remains were never found.
Hamaqiko's wife, a Christian who had converted to Islam, left him and their five surviving children amid the fighting, their youngest daughter only 3 at the time. The 44-year-old used to be a bus driver, but now ekes out a living selling water. Still, things are improving in the neighborhood, and Sunday's election brings more optimism, he said.
"Today's vote was calm, and we are all hoping that there will be a lasting peace," he said. "Now we must await the results."