Three words come up in any conversation among Bangui’s residents about the state of their city: “le cinq Decembre”. That was the day, 5 December 2013, when the capital of the Central African Republic was ripped apart by fighting between Muslim and Christian militias.
Bangui’s Christians and Muslims had long worked, studied and traded together. But nine months earlier, the Seleka, a mostly Muslim coalition, had swept into the country and forced the then-President François Bozizé into exile. On that day in December, Christian militias known as the anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) launched an assault to drive the Seleka back out of the city, triggering months of sectarian warfare.
By early last year, mixed communities had ceased to exist. Only now, slowly, is the city beginning to pull itself back together.
“In the months after 5 December, if a Muslim crossed from the third to the fifth arrondissement, he was dead; if a Christian crossed from the fifth to the third, he was dead,” says Sinai Guitimo, a 25-year-old geology student who fled the city and now lives in a refugee camp of mostly Christians at Bangui’s airport, at the edge of the city.
It is true that most of Bangui’s Muslim minority continues to feel protected only within the limits of the western neighbourhood known as KM5. “I’m staying here. There are anti-balaka towards the fourth,” says Drahman Mahmat, who spends his days outside the city’s Central Mosque.
But the idea of a future in which Bangui’s Christians and Muslims once again live alongside one another is no longer dismissed as the fantasy it would have seemed 18 months ago.
Not only is the population of the makeshift refugee camp at the airport down from more than 100,000 to a little over 18,000, but some of the departed Christians have moved into the Central Mosque district where, for much of last year, venturing out would have been to invite a death sentence.
Reconciliation is not likely to be an easy process. The Seleka were brutal during their months in control – particularly towards the Christian minority. Villages were destroyed, homes looted and women and girls raped. Those who resisted the militia were killed.
“The Seleka changed the way that Christians see Muslims,” says Zainaba Idriss, a mother of four who is herself a Muslim. She blames both sides for the enduring scars of sectarianism in the Central African Republic. Before the Seleka took control, she says, Muslim locals “used to do business, lots of business, without problems with the Christians”.
When the Christian militias first arrived, Ms Idriss was shown mercy by one fighter who had spotted the small baby on her back. Her husband was less fortunate. He was caught unaware in his parents’ village by the suddenness of the onslaught. Racing back to Bangui to look for his family, he was stopped and slaughtered by a mob wielding machetes.
The Christian militias soon routed the Seleka and surviving Muslim rebels quit the capital for the north. There was no respite for Bangui’s Muslims, however, and the Christian militias’ mission evolved into emptying the country of Muslims altogether. “The Seleka abandoned us,” Ms Idriss says.
Few of Bangui’s Muslims have a positive view of the Seleka, who they believe contributed to the rifts between the country’s two religious communities.
Ibrahim Ganr, an unblinking, intense man in his mid-40s, drives an Oxfam lorry with aid supplies to Muslim families that live in tents and huts within the compound of the Central Mosque. He pinpoints the Seleka’s arrival in March 2013 as a disastrous development for Bangui’s community relations. “Before they came, Christians could see there was a difference between ordinary Muslims and the Seleka,” he says. “It was a bad moment for both Christians and Muslims.”
His extended family were killed in the subsequent violence, his brother-in-law “decapitated by fellow soldiers in the national army”, he says.
The Central Mosque area became a refuge for Muslims threatened by the Christian militias. Many more simply fled the city entirely; thousands were subsequently escorted out to safety by international peacekeepers.
The district, dotted with minarets, has a notably different feel to other areas of Bangui, with men wearing robes and women headscarves and with signs written in Arabic. Among the residents is Mohammed Ahmed, who spent a year in a refugee camp in neighbouring Chad before returning to Bangui last month to sell flip-flops – a sign, however small, that normality may be returning.
The fortunate few whose houses were not devastated have been able to come home; others spend the day in the market, buying and selling merchandise before returning to the security of the airport at night. One group of refugees say they don’t like to be in the city at night because of violent crime, pointing to the fate of a young man shot for his motorbike the previous day.
That their main fear is banditry – rather than explicitly sectarian violence – may actually be a sign that things are improving in Bangui.
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