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Dispatches: Satellite Images Reveal Systematic Destruction of Muslim Neighborhoods

On April 27, 2014, heavily armed African peacekeepers evacuated the last remaining 1,300 Muslims in the PK12 neighborhood of Bangui, in the strife-torn Central African Republic. Mobs immediately began looting and destroying the neighborhood's mosque, shops, and homes, perpetuating a now familiar trend.

Satellite imagery recorded over the capital city provides a grim picture of the scale of the destruction since January 2014. As depicted in the map below, Human Rights Watch identified the skeletal remains of over 4,000 homes, shops, and mosques destroyed during several waves of organized violence, systematic looting, and arson during this time.

Damage to buildings in the center of the city is heavily concentrated in the neighborhoods of Kilometre 5, Kokoro, Miskine, and Bouca, all neighborhoods that had predominantly Muslim residents. In the north of the city, almost 2,000 mostly residential buildings have been gutted and stripped of their roofs, with some of the stolen materials sold in neighborhoods around PK12 and PK13. The satellite images below, comparing images taken in October 2013 and March 2014, show the extent of the destruction.

Muslim residents had occupied temporary shelters near the PK12 and Kilometre 5 neighborhoods because of the ambush risk faced by fleeing Muslims along the main routes leading out of the capital. But now the majority of those residents have been escorted beyond the city, many heading for refugee camps in Cameroon or Chad.

Although international peacekeepers and Chadian troops assisted in the evacuation of some of the 120,000 Muslims who fled the capital over the past four months, foreign troops were unable to adequately protect Muslim neighborhoods from sustained attack, massive looting, and the destruction of thousands of homes, businesses, and mosques.

The interim government, headed by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, lacks policing or military capacity to effectively protect, and has not shown a lot of political will to confront anti-Muslim violence.

Bangui is now a capital city almost entirely cleansed of its Muslim population, with whole neighborhoods in ruins. Despite the presence of international forces, more than 100,000 Muslim residents have fled the Central African Republic since late 2013.

The anti-balaka, who are primarily Christian and animist, have launched vicious attacks against the country’s Muslim population since August 2013, in reaction to massive human rights abuses by the Seleka, a predominantly Muslim rebel group that seized control in March 2013 but was forced from power in January 2014 after a murderous reign.

As Human Rights Watch has documented on the ground, anti-balaka violence droveMuslim residents to temporary camps, looted their housing and businesses, and often left incriminating graffiti to take credit for these criminal actions, which may constitute crimes against humanity.

The conflict represents a challenge of the highest order for both the people of the Central African Republic and the international community to return the Muslim population, reintegrate Christian and Muslim communities, rebuild destroyed neighborhoods, re-establish functioning political authority, and bring those responsible for these crimes to justice.

This is a major task for the UN peacekeeping mission that was recently approvedby the Security Council. The UN force should learn from its predecessors’ limitations and act boldly to start preparing the return of the hundreds of thousands of people who were forced, over the course of a catastrophic year, from their homes.

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