Few Safe Places for Central African Republic’s Muslims
BODA, Central African Republic — There is only one neighborhood in Boda where Muslims are safe from the bullets and machetes of Christian militia fighters. Many who ventured out were killed, their throats slit or their cars showered with gunfire.
Even the dead must obey: Muslim bodies are buried behind an old warehouse because the traditional Muslim cemetery is now off limits.
Boda is home to one of the largest Muslim communities left in the Central African Republic. About 4,000 Muslims are trapped here, and they say they are suffering and just want to leave after months of being harassed by the militia. Throughout the country, others share their plight.
One resident, Aliou Alidu, 18, stays inside the boundaries of Boda’s Muslim neighborhood even as his arms and legs throb from deep burns, he said. Days earlier, a Christian mob set his home on fire, and he survived only by crawling out a window. There is no pain medicine here. The only doctors live on the Christian side of town, and he is too afraid to go there.
There used to be a man who could link the two neighborhoods — a Christian who had long ago converted to Islam. But he is now dead, and hopes that the communities may reconcile have faded.
“For generations, our families lived together and even intermarried,” said Mahamat Awal, Boda’s mayor, who is among those stuck in this town 100 miles southwest of the capital, Bangui. “Now you want to kill us all?”
Mr. Awal meets regularly with the French peacekeeping forces in town and members of the Christian militia. At each meeting the militiamen make their point clear: Every Muslim must leave the town, without exception.
Nearly 300,000 people already have fled the sectarian violence that began in the Central African Republic in early December when anger erupted against the Muslim rebels who had overthrown the government. When international pressure forced the rebel government to step down in January, Christians turned on their Muslim neighbors, accusing them of having collaborated with the brutal rebel authorities.
Despite the mass evacuations, the United Nations warned that about 15,000 Muslims remain blockaded “in an extremely dangerous and untenable situation” like the one in Boda.
As a result, peacekeepers and humanitarian agencies face “terrible dilemmas such as choosing between unwillingly aiding the ‘cleansing’ of confined Muslim populations, or leaving them — against their will — in places where they are in real danger of being slaughtered en masse,” said Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, after a recent visit to the capital.
In Bangui, where several thousand remain, Muslims say they do not step outside their neighborhoods, and even then some have been killed hundreds of yards away from the local mosque. And in the southwest, about 1,000 Muslims are still sheltering at a Catholic church, too scared even to let their children play soccer for fear that a stray ball could lead them outside where Christian militiamen could attack them.
“People are desperately wanting to leave because they’re in fear for their lives, and they haven’t been able to leave initially because they couldn’t afford it, and now there’s no transport whatsoever,” said Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis adviser with Amnesty International.
Ousmane Nana, his wife and his six children are among those in Boda who say they just want out no matter what. Born and reared in the town, Mr. Nana, 49, said he never felt fear until Jan. 29, when the Muslim rebels fled the town after months of brutal rule.
That was the night a group of 30 people armed with rifles and machetes attacked him, shooting him and leaving deep gashes across his back. More than a month later, the bullet wound to his left arm is still healing. Now he waits for the day peacekeepers will evacuate Muslims from Boda and take him to Cameroon.