Aminatou Bello a 24-year-old Muslim, who was attacked by Christian Anti-Balaka forces, lies on a bed in Boda, Central African Republic.
When the Seleka, a group of mostly Muslim rebels, led a successful coup in the Central African Republic in March 2013, one of the world’s poorest countries was plunged into turmoil as Christian militias targeted the nation’s minority Muslim population in what amounts to genocide.
The Seleka were ousted from power in January 2014, and the country has since been embroiled in a civil war between the Seleka and an armed coalition called the Anti-Balaka.
While the entire civilian population has suffered enormously throughout the conflicts in the Central African Republic, perhaps no group has suffered more than the country’s Muslim minority.
For those who have heard about this ongoing but largely overlooked atrocity, many can credit the work of Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. In March of last year, he wrote about what he called the growing “nightmare for Muslims” in the Central African Republic. He reported on the vicious revenge enacted by the Anti-Balaka Christian militia against Muslim civilians. Thousands were killed, and many thousands more fled the country.
The conditions were shocking, even then. He described what he found in the community of Bossemptele, about 185 miles north of the capital Bangui:
“For paper-thin Halima [a 25-year old Muslim resident], who had stopped eating, dying seemed to be the only option left. ‘There is no one to help me,’ she said, crying. ‘I did not have the strength to climb on the trucks, and no one helped me. I kept calling after them to take me, but they left without me.’
All around us were the abandoned. Ten-year-old Mikaila and his sister, Zenabu, 15, both paralyzed by polio, said that their parents had dropped them at the Catholic Mission after a January attack and had not returned. Al-Hadj Towra, 70, his hands and feet wasted away from leprosy, had been left bedridden in his home, where a priest found him two days later.”
According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2015, the violence in the country has gradually decreased, but by the end of last year, some 800,000 people had been displaced. Of the total, about 415,000 people, mostly Muslims, became refugees in other countries.
“It was only a few months ago that visiting officials were shocked by the fact that there are barely any mosques left in the country,” Yasmin Khatun told MintPress News via email. “Thousands have been killed, with many more displaced.”
Khatun, a journalist and broadcaster, has documented the crisis in the Central African Republic. She says she’s not sure why this conflict has received far less attention than others in the media, such as Yemen’s civil war or the battle with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“I find it difficult to believe that’s it’s not given more attention, but maybe it’s simply that the politics of the situation don’t serve the interests of those shaping what we see,” she assessed. “The Central African Republic has been abused by corruption and plagued by violence and we’ve seen little to change that from the international community. I’m not the only one saying this, ask the aid workers at camps where assistance doesn’t arrive.”
“There’s a reason the crisis in CAR is called the Forgotten Conflict,” she said.
“Holding civilians captive, killing children, and sexually enslaving women and girls”
Anti-Balaka Christian militiamen stand in the Combatant district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Tuesday Feb. 4, 2014. (Photo: AP)
Khatun emphasized the fragile state of the remaining Muslim population.
“For these families and individuals [that remain], they are now an even smaller minority community trapped in enclaves from which they can’t escape. The Anti-Balaka are still on the roads and have not been contained,” she told MintPress.
Speaking with Human Rights Watch last week, members of one family that was rescued earlier this month described the horrors they endured during 14 months of captivity in Pondo, a village in the southwest. According to their accounts, the Anti-Balaka Christian militia killed two boys, ages about 6 and 7, and raped three young women and girls, one of whom fell ill and died in captivity. Her one-year-old baby died of malnutrition. The surviving family members were rescued on April 4 and 5.
“Holding civilians captive, killing children, and sexually enslaving women and girls are shocking tactics by these anti-balaka and amount to war crimes,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “UN peacekeepers and government officials who have already taken bold steps to free one group of ethnic Peuhl should urgently intervene to free the others and arrest their captors.”
France24’s Emerald Maxwell and Elise Duffau reported on Monday that “more than 35,000 Muslims are trapped.” In their video report, France24 visited a Catholic church in Carnot, located northwest of Bangui, which has become a prison for the local Muslim population. In a bid to stop the mass exodus, the government now prevents any remaining Muslims from leaving. Though the government claims it’s for their safety, they are now trapped in conditions of shocking poverty and squalor.
Although the Anti-Balaka are responsible for the worst acts of genocide, even African Union peacekeeping forces from Chad and the Republic of Congo have been implicated in serious abuses.
The indigenous population has not been spared, either. Newsweek recently published a profile of Louis Sarno, an American ethnomusicologist, who has lived among the Ba’aka as a member of their community for the past 30 years. In 2013, the Seleka targeted the Ba’aka in the belief that they held the secrets to “red mercury,” a highly prized but mythical substance.
“Seleka climbed a viewing platform in the national park and sprayed bullets through the families of bathing elephants, killing 26 animals and hacking off their tusks. They also ransacked Sarno’s house, tearing apart his notebooks containing work from 30 years, destroying recordings, stealing medicines and crunching beneath their boots the last authentic example of the [Ba’aka’s traditional] mbyo flute known in the world. It had been bequeathed to Sarno by its last maestro, who had since died.”
The Ba’aka’s village of Yandoumbé now exists in uneasy safety thanks only to the protection of armed government guards.
Critical stage for the peace process
French President Francois Hollande, second from right, inspects weapons confiscated from ex-Seleka rebels and anti-Balaka militia by the French military during operation Sangaris, as they are displayed at a French military base in Bangui, Central African Republic, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. (Photo: AP)
The United Nations reported earlier this month that hopes for peace in the nation are at a “critical stage.”
“Restoring security, promoting an inclusive political dialogue and completing the transition is just the beginning of the CAR’s long journey towards stability and sustainable development,” said Babacar Gaye, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative. “The international community has a moral obligation to help the CAR and its people stay the course towards peace and reconciliation. It is our collective responsibility.”
But Simon Allison, writing for Daily Maverick, cautioned that the peace process depends on cooperation from Francois Bozize and Michel Djotodia, the former president and the leader of the Seleka, respectively.
“Anyone who thinks it’s a good idea for Bozize and Djotodia to be part of peace and reconciliation in the country knows very little about the country. Two arch-enemies so concerned about returning to power they’ll bury the hatchet they put into each other to get back into power in Bangui,” David Smith, director of Okapi Consulting and an expert on conditions in the Central African Republic, told Daily Maverick. “Letting these bandits back in to decide on the future of the CAR is a massive step backwards.”