Central African Republic: thousands seek refuge with French troops

As mainly Muslim rebels clash with Christian militias, civilians in the Central African Republic’s capital flock to the French forces for safety from the rape, theft, and general violence.  

Jerome Delay/AP
Internally displaced people (IDP) wait for their rations at a World Food Program food distribution point, one kilometer from the airport where an IDP makeshift camp is set up in Bangui, Central African Republic, Friday, Dec. 13, 2013.

Along the airfield in the capital of the Central African Republic, a makeshift camp for the thousands fleeing brutal violence now sprawls. Men armed with machetes and whips made of rubber and string stand guard next to an open space that has turned into a busy marketplace. Youth haggle over cell phone SIM cards, pieces of wood, and plastic sheeting. Women crouch over sizzling pots of bean stew and deep-fried buns.

When the killings began, people fled to the only place where they knew they would be safe.

”Everyone knows the airport is watched over by the French forces. I came here with my family hoping that the soldiers would protect us,” says Henriette Yakosse, a mother of seven.

This poor desert nation and former French colony spiraled into chaos since mainly Muslim rebels known as the Séléka deposed President Francois Bozizé in March and seized power. That sparked retaliatory violence from "anti-balaka" militias formed by the Christian majority.

The violence sparked a military intervention by Paris, which deployed 1,600 troops who, along with a couple thousand African peacekeeping forces, are trying to tamp down the fighting and protect civilians.

Although daily life has resumed in some parts of the capital, Bangui is still very much a deserted city. Some 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes and more than 500 people were killed as the latest round of fighting in the city broke out last week.

Over the weekend the population in the camp at the Bangui M’Poko International Airport doubled to 40,000, and conditions are becoming dire.

“In town the rebels break into our homes, take everything we have, and threaten to kill us. So, we came here where we are safe,” says Benney Sanba-Panza, who says he has 22 children to feed but no money to pay for the goods on sale at the airport bazaar.

Lindis Hurum, of the relief organization Doctors Without Borders, says people were showing up with bullet and machete wounds, and she warns of growing potential for disease.

“Some stay [in] the camp for days before they see a doctor,” Ms. Hurum says.

“By that time the wounds are infected, which is to be expected in a place where there are not enough toilets and only two wells for tens of thousands of people,” she says.

Along one of the few paved roads in the capital, piles of clothes lie scattered in the grass, left behind by humanitarian workers who rushed to remove the dead bodies. Some shops have opened and gas stations are pumping for the first time in weeks.

Still, sporadic gunfire has people crouching behind metal shacks, or sprinting across the potholed dirt roads to safety, as pick-ups loaded with heavily armed men speed through the empty streets. As night falls, bands of Séléka rebels roam the city, attacking civilians, raping, and looting. Few people dare to break the 6 p.m. curfew.

Since leading them to power, the Séléka’s leader, Michel Djotodia, has reportedly lost control over most of his men, of which some are rumored to be mercenaries from neighboring Chad and Sudan, but also convicted criminals. The rebels opened the gates to the state prison at one point.

Last Thursday, “anti-balaka” forces attacked Bangui, an assault that was a well-planned demonstration of power, timed to a UN Security Council vote for a stronger intervention force, says Yves Nommay, a security expert in Bangui.

“The attack was not a coincidence,” Mr. Nommay says. “This was their way of saying we’re here and you should listen to us.”

Since the deployment of the French and African forces, there are fewer Séléka rebels in the street, though it has also led to resentment among some groups of the population.

Two French soldiers were killed earlier this week when they were attacked by gunmen close to the military camp at the city's airport. Between 3,000 and 8,000 militia members belonging to diverse alliances are still believed to be in Bangui.

It's clear that the armed men have not left the city, says Nassaire Pondos, a high school teacher.

“They have just changed their military gear for civilian clothes and put away their guns,” Mr. Pondos says. “In fact they continue to terrorize the population, looting shops and attacking civilians.”

The situation is made worse by retaliatory violence. In some areas, houses belonging to the city’s minority Muslim population have been razed to the ground. On Thursday several hundred people gathered outside a church in one Bangui neighborhood looking for an ex-Séléka general they believed to be inside.

”Kill him, kill him!” the crowd chanted as young men carrying huge rocks tried to break into the compound.

Around two hours later African peacekeepers rescued the men from the church, but only after they fired guns into the air to scatter the crowd, who then threw rocks at the military trucks. Dressed in traditional Islamic garb the men quickly climbed into the armored vehicle 

“People are frustrated. They want justice but with no government, no courts, and no police to protect them, they have little faith that this will be done,” says Philiber Ndongo, the African force commander. “So, they take justice in their own hands.”

The Security Council support for the current African force falls short of authorizing a UN peacekeeping force and the total deployment is smaller than the 6,000-9,000 initially recommended.

”The rebels need to be disarmed as soon as possible. However, I fear what will happen when they are integrated into the armed forces. Among the rebels are foreign mercenaries, but also convicted criminals”, says Oumar Kobine Layama, an imam and religious leader. “Imagine criminals protecting the population."

As many as a half million people, a tenth of the country’s 4.6 million population, are believed to have been displaced by the fighting, many of them hiding in the bush where they are an easy target for armed groups roaming the countryside.

”I fear the situation will get a lot worse, possibly turning into a civil war, before it gets better,” says Nazaire Goffe, a history teacher, adding that the population in Bangui had seen little improvement since the French reinforcements arrived a week ago.

The Security Council resolution leaves the possibility of deploying a full-fledged peacekeeping mission in the future, without specifying how much more violence would lead to a deployment of UN peacekeepers.

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