Heavily armed African and French peacekeepers escorted some of the last remaining Muslims out of Bangui, the volatile capital of the Central African Republic, on Sunday.
More than 1,200 people, who for months had been trapped in their neighbourhood by violent Christian militants, left their homes in a convey of lorries. Within minutes of its departure, an angry swarm of people descended upon the area’s mosque in a scene of total anarchy.
Tools in hand, they swiftly dismantled and stole the loudspeaker once used for the call to prayer and soon stripped the house of worship of even its ceiling-fan blades.
One man quickly scrawled “Youth Centre” in black marker across the front of the mosque. Others mockingly swept the dirt from the ground in front of the building with brooms and shouted: “We have cleaned Central African Republic of the Muslims!”
Armed Congolese peacekeepers stood watch but did not fire into the air or attempt to stop the looting. Soon teams of thieves were stripping the metal roofs of nearby abandoned Muslim businesses in the PK12 neighbourhood of Bangui. “Pillage! Pillage!” children cried as they helped to cart away wood and metal.
“The Central Africans have gone crazy, pillaging a holy place,” said one peacekeeper, as the mosque came under attack from anti-Balaka militants in their trademark wigs and hats with animal horns.
Yesterday’s Muslims exodus from PK12 further enforces a partitioning of the country that has been under way since January, when a Muslim rebel government gave up power nearly a year after overthrowing the president.
The United Nations has described the forced displacement of tens of thousands of Muslims as “ethnic cleansing”. The crisis has prompted fears of genocide since it intensified in December, when Christian militants stormed the capital. They soon began attacking Muslim civilians accused of collaborating with the much-despised rebel government.
Earlier this year, mob killings and mutilations took place on a near-daily basis in Bangui. Tens of thousands of Muslims were escorted to neighbouring Chad, though convoys were fraught with violence.