(Bangui) – Thousands of residents in the last remaining Muslim neighborhoods in the Central African Republic’s capital have been under repeated attack. They are neither safe enough to remain peaceably in Bangui, the capital, nor to travel to other areas. Since March 22, 2014, anti-balaka fighters and others dressed in the uniforms of the national army have killed at least eight Muslim residents and injured several others.
The government, with additional support from the international community, should rein in forces responsible for these attacks and increase efforts to create safe living conditions for the country’s Muslim minority. The European Union should urgently deliver on its pledge to bolster peacekeeping efforts in the country.
“Many residents feel trapped – unable to stay, but also unable to leave,” said Philippe Bolopion, United Nations director at Human Rights Watch. “They risk being lynched or attacked on the street if they try to go to another neighborhood or to move outside of Bangui.”
Muslims have faced massive displacement since anti-balaka forces attacked strongholds of the mostly Muslim Seleka forces in Bangui on December 5, 2013.
International forces in the capital should increase security around the Kilometre 5 and PK 12 neighborhoods, in particular, and provide escorts to residents choosing to leave town with their possessions.
The anti-balaka forces are seeking revenge for brutal attacks by the Seleka coalition, which took control of the country in a coup in March 2013 and was forced from power in January 2014.Anti-balaka fighters repeatedly attacked the Kilometre 5 neighborhood on March 22. During one of the attacks, the anti-balaka killed four men, including the son and brother of the neighborhood mayor, Atahirou Balla Dodo. The mayor’s relatives had joined other residents in trying to repel the attack. Fighters shot dead Abdouraman Dodo, 33, and Chaibou Dodo, 28.
A witness, Hassan Mahamat Bako, told Human Rights Watch: “We were about 60 people, walking back from a roadblock, when we heard several shots. They just fell in front of us.” Saddam Djali, 21, and Fayçal Sadjio, 25, were also killed in the attack.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that some assailants were armed with Kalashnikovs and wore amulets associated with the anti-balaka, while others were in the uniforms of the national army, the Forces armées centrafricaines (FACA). Muslim residents protecting the neighborhood said they were mostly armed with machetes, bows, and spears. However, some residents have admitted to Human Rights Watch that they were armed with rifles. They also said that the defenders used at least one grenade on March 22, and that some residents had killed an anti-balaka fighter.
A resident of Kilometre 5 told Human Rights Watch: “An anti-balaka fighter hid in a house and tried to shoot at us but someone threw a grenade. He was injured, and we finished him off with clubs and knives.”
Bangui is very tense, with anti-balaka forces regularly blocking the roads to the airport or attacking the French and African troops who are trying to confront them. At least four African peacekeepers were injured by anti-balaka forces last weekend, an African Union (AU) official said. On March 25, Human Rights Watch staff heard sustained shooting near the airport and saw people looting houses in emptied Muslim neighborhoods.
Dodo said that only a few thousand Muslims inhabitants are left in Kilometre 5, a neighborhood of an estimated 124,000 Muslims before violence flared up in January. Humanitarian officials put the current number of Muslims in Kilometre 5 at close to 10,000.
Since December 5, 2013, residents of Kilometre 5 have been unable to reach the Muslim cemetery in another section of Bangui. As a result, they are forced to bury loved ones on their properties. Human Rights Watch confirmed five new graves near homes throughout the neighborhood, including three adjacent to the mayor’s house.
One resident told Human Rights Watch that he was attacked two weeks ago when he ventured out of the neighborhood to buy vegetables. Aliou Housseini, 62, an imam and director of a Quranic school, said he was attacked by a group of “street children” and young men wielding machetes, sticks, and stones. AU peacekeepers eventually rescued him.
On March 21, 2014, a mob tried to lynch Saoudi Abdouraman and two of his family members at a bank in Kilometre 0, one of the safest areas of Bangui. Abdouraman told Human Rights Watch that a mob formed outside the bank, which was protected by African Union peacekeepers.
“They were shouting that they would kill all the Muslims and wanted to set our car on fire,” he said. “One FACA told me that if we paid 300,000 CFA Francs (US$630), we could leave safely. I recognized these guys. I used to play soccer with some of them. In the banks, some customers were laughing and alerted the crowd outside when we tried to escape through a back door.”
Alaldji Oumar, a local official who had been asked by authorities in Chad to help confirm the nationality of people seeking repatriation to Chad, told Human Rights Watch that the neighborhood’s businessmen had prepared 100 large trucks to leave with their merchandise.
“We can leave our houses and furniture behind, but not our merchandise,” he said. “Otherwise we'll be left with nothing wherever we go. But we are ready, and many people from Kilometre 5 want to leave.” However, they were still awaiting escort by international forces and government authorization to leave.
“The anti-balaka and its allies in the national army have almost accomplished their goal; the country is quickly losing its Muslim population,” Bolopion said. “The international community and the new government have largely stood by while an important minority that was part of the country’s fabric has been forced to leave.”
Residents have established an improvised displacement camp around the neighborhood’s central mosque. Many of those in the camp are Muslims from other neighborhoods in Bangui who fled to Kilometre 5 to seek safety. Camp residents said they lacked adequate food, sanitation, and health care.
One displaced resident from the Miskine neighborhood told Human Rights Watch: “Things we built up over 30 years were destroyed in one day. We cannot get out, I cannot go to my university, and here we have very little food and no doctor to treat us. They want to take over this neighborhood.”
A youth from Kilometre 5 told Human Rights Watch that his former basketball teammates attacked him with a machete, stole his money, and threatened to kill him: “They were [once] like my cousins. They said I was a spy, that I wanted to kill Christians.”
Three thousand Muslims are also trapped north of the city in a makeshift displacement camp in the PK12 neighborhood. Although peacekeepers from France and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are stationed a kilometer away, anti-balaka fighters have repeatedly been able to attack the Muslim residents. The peacekeeping troops can respond to clashes, but cannot always prevent them, Human Rights Watch said.
In PK12 a displaced Muslim leader said that the number of people hiding in the neighborhood had decreased from 10,000 in January, when trucks from Chad were taking people to the border, to 2,400 in early March, when the trucks stopped transporting people to Chad. Since then, the remaining displaced people have been trapped. He said the anti-balaka attack daily: “There is a constant threat. We are encircled by the anti-balaka and only have bows and arrows to defend ourselves.”
Demonstrating how desperate Muslims are to leave Bangui, there was mayhem when the final trucks for Chad passed through PK12 on March 7. Families were separated in the chaos, and five children, roughly ranging in age from 3 to 6, were crushed to death by baggage. One displaced woman told Human Rights Watch: “We all ran for the trucks when they passed through. It was total disorder.”
“The new government and international forces must be much more active in patrolling Muslim neighborhoods and holding to account anyone who commits abuses against residents,” Bolopion said. “While they should not encourage exile, international forces should protect the lives of both those remaining in the country and those determined to leave.”