Refugees at the Kadei River, which marks the CAR’s border with Cameroon.

Refugees who fled from brutal violence in the CAR can look across a river border and see the men who still want them dead. Will they ever be able to return home?

EASTERN CAMEROON — Aboubakar Goton, 40, used to be wealthy and influential. Just over a year ago, Goton, a Muslim, was the mayor of Bossemptélé, a trading center of 22,000 residents in the Central African Republic (CAR). He owned one of the town’s biggest shops and had a large herd of cattle, a traditional sign of wealth in the mostly rural country.

Today, none of that remains. I met Goton in the sprawling Gado refugee camp in Cameroon, home to some 18,000 people. He showed me the tiny tent he shares with a fellow refugee he barely knows and the handful of belongings he still owns. He sleeps on a mat on the floor. Every day, he looks for work digging holes for tent frames for newly arrived refugees. He tries to get by on two meals a day, to save enough money to keep his kids in school nearby. Only the pride of his former status remains: As he walks through the camp, people come up to greet him as “Monsieur Le Maire,” or Mr. Mayor, occasionally joking that he’s lost a lot of weight since those glory days.

A disaster has befallen the Muslim population of the CAR after horrific violence destroyed most of their communities in the western part of the country. The bloodshed was committed by animist and Christian anti-balaka militias, who rose up in fury against mostly Muslim Seleka rebels, a group that in March 2013 overthrew the government of President Francois Bozizé. The Seleka ruled viciously, indiscriminately killing civilians and burning down countless villages in an attempt to stamp out any opposition. Faced with mounting international outrage against their brutality, however, the Seleka retreated — and, in the case of top leadership, left the country — last January. Muslim civilians then faced the full wrath of the anti-balaka, whose fighters often wield machetes. In just a few months in early 2014, the anti-balaka forced most Muslims out of the western part of the country, including the capital, Bangui. (Some of the anti-balaka also turned on their own communities, attacking, looting, and even committing sexual violence in hopes of gaining power, money, and other resources.)

In April and May, I traveled throughout western CAR to survey the aftermath of the devastation. In town after town, all the Muslims were gone. On several occasions, local residents led macabre tours of their villages, pointing out the human remains of their Muslim neighbors in destroyed neighborhoods.

Some Muslims do remain, but only in only a few pockets of the west. And they are heavily guarded by international peacekeepers, because they are still at risk of anti-balaka attacks every time they leave their enclaves. (In the eastern part of the country, which is still under the control of the Seleka, many Muslims remain — but the conflict continues to creep in that direction.)

Between December 2013 and October 2014, 187,000 people fled the CAR to seek shelter in neighboring Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville). All told, some 850,000 people, or about 20 percent of the country’s population, have been displaced either internally or as refugees. Cameroon hosts the bulk of the refugees — more than 135,000, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Those who have fled to Cameroon mostly arrive in desperate circumstances, suffering from malnutrition, disease, and untreated wounds. “They were in such a pitiful, dreadful condition when they began arriving, and they kept arriving in such great numbers,” a senior humanitarian official told me. “At first, we could do little more than try to save as many lives as possible, but it was a real struggle.”

The refugee camps are in the most remote regions of Cameroon, many hours’ hard driving from the nearest towns.

In October, on another trip, I drove through seemingly endless forests before suddenly finding myself amid white plastic tents stretching to the horizon. I was in one of a dozen or so large camps, the ethnic profiles of which provide perhaps the starkest evidence of just how sharply targeted the anti-balaka’s brutal campaign has been. The Muslim Peuhl, an ethnic minority who traditionally live as nomads, were estimated before the current conflict to number only 300,000 in the CAR, out of a total population of 4.5 million — or less than 10 percent. (The entire Muslim population comprised less than 15 percent of the total.) But in almost all of the refugee camps in Cameroon, they make up over 90 percent of the population. At the Timangolo camp, according to UNHCR, Peuhl make up 98 percent of a population of 6,200. At the Mbile camp, home to more than 9,500 refugees, 93 percent are Peuhl. Almost all others people in the camps are Muslim traders of Arab origin.

At the Gbiti camp, I met 33-year-old Mamadou Bouba, a Peuhl cattle herder from Bossemptélé. His body bears the scars of his encounters with the anti-balaka: a deep gash across his skull and several more across his back. His thumb was slashed off as he tried to protect himself from machete blows, he said. He told me he fled Bossemptélé with his 50 cows in January in a group of about 100 people, after the anti-balaka first attacked the town and killed about 80 of his neighbors. During their flight through the bush, the group was repeatedly attacked, but most of them managed to make it to the Kadei River, which marks the CAR’s border with Cameroon.

It was at the river crossing, however, that they found themselves surrounded in a final ambush. They were forced to hand over all of their belongings as well as the rudimentary knives and bows and arrows they had used to defend themselves. As Bouba sat disarmed, a group of 10 anti-balaka fighters began attacking him with their machetes, he recalled, leaving him bloody and badly injured on the ground. The attackers left, abducting his wife and children and taking his cattle. He spent two weeks alone, trying to recover from his wounds and regain the strength to walk on, before other fleeing Muslims found him. He was ultimately reunited with his family, who managed to escape their captors.

When asked if he could ever imagine returning home, Bouba shuddered and then chuckled quietly at the bizarre suggestion. “Never,” he responded. “I can’t even think about returning. I’ve escaped from that nightmare. I will not return to it.”

The Kadei River is just a few hundred meters from where I met Bouba. As we approached it one day, refugees pointed to a man in a red T-shirt across the water, and we noted the homemade shotgun slung across his shoulder. A few moments later, his commander, whom the refugees identified, came to take a look at the foreigners across the river. The two sides stood watching each other — refugees on one side, anti-balaka on the other.

***

“I was born among the cows, and the cows represented everything in my life,” Al-Hadji Abakar Abdullai Druj, a Peuhl elder from the village of Boboua in southwestern CAR, told me after we rediscovered each other in the Gado refugee camp in Cameroon. A few months earlier, in May, I had met Abakar among some 500 Peuhl trapped on a hilltop in the CAR town of Yaloké, where they had sought safety after a hellish three months fleeing the anti-balaka. Indeed, I knew why they were there: I had visited Boboua in April, just days after the anti-balaka slaughtered the village’s Muslim mayor, his son, and another elder in front of the population. Muslims and Christians in Boboua had wanted to live together, but the event shattered their coexistence. A group, including Abakar, left the village with at least 7,000 head of cattle; after repeated ambushes by militia fighters, none were left. In Yaloké, they came under the “protection” of African peacekeepers.

Abakar and his fellow Peuhl had told me in no uncertain terms that they did not want to remain stuck on a hilltop, unable to move outside the camp. But the peacekeepers refused to allow them to board commercial trucks heading to Cameroon. In front of me, in fact, the commander of the troops told the Peuhl that he would shoot them if they tried to board the vehicles, pointing his finger at them and making a popping sound to make sure they understood.

For the interim government of the CAR and its international supporters, the plight of Muslims remaining in the country presents a quandary. 

 

Many Muslims want to flee, but government authorities are equally desperate to prevent them from doing so, lest the anti-balaka achieve their odious goal of a country cleansed of Muslims. In fact, when U.N. humanitarian agencies, together with a French military intervention force and African peacekeepers, finally agreed in April to evacuate the besieged Muslim community of PK12, a district in Bangui, following heavy international pressure, interim officials were enraged; they said the evacuation had not been approved. They insisted — and still insist — that there should be no further evacuations.

 

Abakar eventually found his way to Cameroon. When I asked him how he had managed to escape, he shook his head in disgust. “Those African troops, they demanded money for us to get on the trucks. The first time, I gave them all I had, and they promised to let me go, but when the trucks were leaving the next morning, they told me to get back to the camp,” he said. “I had to borrow money to bribe them again, but so many [other Peuhl] remain.”

Abakar’s scars include one across his face, a deep slash from a machete, delivered at the outskirts of Yaloké, when the anti-balaka took the last cattle he had managed to save. “All my life, I was taught that our cattle represented our wealth, and our safety,” he said wearily. “Whenever we had any problem or need, we would sell a cow or two, and they gave us milk and meat. Our lives were calm; we lived out in the bush looking after our cows. There were no complications.” His eyes teared up as he continued: “But then, when we came to be attacked, I learned it was a lot more difficult to run away with a herd of cattle than with your money in your pocket. I was a wealthy man, but my mistake was to put all my faith in my cattle.”

***

The reason why the anti-balaka have focused their violence on Muslims, and particularly the Peuhl, resides partly in the brutality with which the Seleka ruled the CAR: burning villages to the ground, perpetrating massacres, forcing people to flee. This unleashed furious backlash against Muslim communities when the Seleka movement collapsed and its fighters began to retreat. But the roots of the conflict lie deeper still. The Peuhl are a very distinct and insular minority, set apart by their distinctive features, dress, language, and nomadic lifestyle. Other communities in the CAR see them as “foreigners” who do not belong. It is not uncommon to hear Christian and other communities in the CAR say that “the Muslims should just go back home.” This deep-seated discrimination, together with endemic corruption and an underrepresentation of Muslims in the government, contributed to the grievances that led to the Seleka rebellion in the first place.

Additionally, the Peuhl’s nomadic lifestyle puts them at odds with the more sedentary farming communities that dominate the CAR. For generations, Peuhl nomads have migrated through countries such as Chad, Sudan, Cameroon, and the CAR searching for space where their cattle can graze; today, many are relatively settled, living in cattle camps and moving more locally. But the combined effects of population increase, land scarcity, and desertification have brought them further south and into ever-greater conflict with farmers, and authorities have been unable to adequately monitor and police the Peuhl’s movements. The migrating cattle damage crops and tensions quickly rise, aggravated in more recent times by the availability of automatic weapons — which are used by both sides.

Indeed, guns have made conflicts between the Peuhl and sedentary communities much more deadly. Sometimes Peuhl men have been the aggressors, leading to counterattacks by farmers. Peuhl from Chad, known as the Ouda or Mbarara, who often are heavily armed and have hostile relationships with local communities, are particularly feared and reviled by some farmers. As an anti-balaka leader in southwestern CAR told me, “The Peuhl never forget. If they get attacked by us on the way down [in their migration], they will come on their return and burn the village.”

Some armed Peuhl have joined the remaining Seleka fighters in attacking villages, seeking revenge for violence committed against Peuhl camps. It is a dispiriting and seemingly endless cycle of tit-for-tat killings born out of the government’s failures to better regulate the Peuhl’s migration and also resolve tensions with farmers well before the current conflict. Strife between nomadic cattle herders and sedentary communities is not unique to the CAR, but other countries in the region, such as Chad, have taken measures to regulate the movement of nomads in order to mitigate violence. With the support of the international community, other governments have secured cattle migration paths, enforced a pastoral code of conduct, protected fields, and mediated conflicts to allow communities to coexist. Similar efforts are essential to halting the CAR’s violence, in which civilians — Peuhl and non-Peuhl alike — make up the vast majority of victims.

Although their persecution by the anti-balaka has been particularly severe, the Peuhl are not the only Muslims that militias have targeted. The CAR is also home to a significant Muslim population whose primary language is Arabic and who specialize in commerce. Some belong to Arab tribes indigenous to the country, like the Gula, an ethnicity particularly identified with Seleka leadership, while others descend from migrants who came from Chad, Mali, Sudan, and other African countries. Many Muslim Arab businessmen were extorted by Seleka to provide financial support for fighters, while others welcomed and supported Seleka as fellow Muslims.

The wealth of the Muslim Arabs as traders, as well as their relative control over the CAR’s lucrative gold and diamond trade — much of it illegal — caused resentment in desperately poor communities. Muslims were criticized for the dangerous working conditions and low wages in mines. When anti-balaka violence began in earnest, their wealth and association with the Seleka made them immediate targets.

***

The crisis in the CAR is quickly falling off the international agenda, as the world’s attention turns to the tensions in Ukraine, the brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the devastating Ebola crisis in West Africa. The country briefly grabbed international attention when Muslims were being lynched in Bangui in early 2014, but there appears to be little appetite at a global level to address the fundamental causes of the conflict, or to deal with the consequences. This even following the decision to deploy a 12,000-member U.N. peacekeeping mission.

For Peuhl refugees, the future looks discouraging. They have lost their livelihoods, and the prospects of returning to their traditional lifestyle are bleak, as their vast and irreplaceable cattle herds have been slaughtered. Their prospects of simply crossing back into the CAR are no better: In most of the western part of the country, vast areas remain no-go zones for Muslims, given the still-strong presence of the anti-balaka. Indeed, the day when U.N. peacekeepers will re-establish security seems very far away.

Humanitarian groups, underfunded and overstretched, are doing a commendable job trying to make the refugees’ lives as dignified and comfortable as possible. Camps are laid out and organized carefully in an effort to ensure security; endeavoring to prevent gender-based violence, for instance, requires safe sanitation facilities, safe spaces for women and children, and the incorporation of female representatives into camp management decisions.

But the challenges left untackled are immense. The vast majority of Peuhl are illiterate and uneducated, so trying to put their children — many of them teenagers — into school for the first time is a difficult process. There are deep concerns among humanitarian groups that child marriage rates, already an endemic problem in the CAR, will explode in the camps. Humanitarian aid providers also face the difficult job of ensuring co-existence between refugees and the already-deprived communities that host them, to prevent conflicts over a host of basic resources.

Most importantly, though, there remains a pressing need to create conditions that will enable the refugees to return home safely and voluntarily. For that to happen, violence in the CAR must be brought under control. The U.N. peacekeeping mission, supported by French and European Union forces, will need to act forcefully to protect civilians, standing their ground when the Seleka or anti-balaka threaten civilians. They face a difficult task, with almost no local security forces with which to work. Former soldiers of the national army and local gendarmes have left their posts; many have joined the anti-balaka, whose top leadership is almost completely made up of former army and police commanders. But reorganizing and rearming the army is considered too risky a solution at the moment.

Many Seleka soldiers want to join a newly constituted army, but their own horrific record of abuse and the hostility they are likely to face from the population means that integrating them will be difficult. Any effort to establish a new security force in the country, essential as it is, would require vetting and excluding people who have committed crimes.

In a similar vein, a return to normality in CAR requires justice both for the crimes committed over the last two years and for historical crimes. For decades, corruption and human rights abuses have marred the country. In 2004, the government referred the situation surrounding a 2002 coup to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Today, the ICC is trying the former vice president of neighboring Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose troops were called in 2002 to assist the then-president of the CAR and who committed grave crimes, including widespread sexual violence, against civilians. Aside from this ongoing prosecution, however, there has been complete impunity for those responsible for wrongs committed in the CAR over more than a decade.

CAR Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza referred the current conflict to the ICC in May, which was followed by the ICC prosecutor’s announcement in September that her office will open an investigation in the country for grave crimes committed since August 2012. This is one of the best hopes for victims of the conflict, but given the limited capacity of the ICC — which has active cases from seven other countries, can only handle so many cases at a time, and has recently struggled with pressure and criticism surrounding its handling of 2007 violence in Kenya — it cannot be the only answer.

National prosecutions will be essential. The national justice system needs to be restarted and strengthened with international experts to try war crimes and crimes against humanity — which requires a long-term commitment. The interim government, along with international partners, should take the necessary steps to ensure that the justice system can investigate crimes committed by all parties in an impartial, effective, independent, and secure manner. This will have the secondary effect of rebuilding trust in the rule of law and national institutions, which the people of the CAR lost.

Realistically, it will take years to heal the scars of the brutal violence the people of the CAR have suffered over the last 18 months, and to bring about a semblance of stability that will allow for the safe return of refugees. In the meantime, in Cameroon, refugees are still coming to grips with the horrific violence they have survived in the past year. Many are still in disbelief that they made it out alive.