UN peacekeepers at the national cathedral in Bangui, CAR on November 24, 2015 during final preparations for the visit by Pope Francis. 

© 2015 Anthony Fouchard

(Nairobi) –At least 100 people have died in brutal sectarian violence around the Muslim enclave of Kilomètre 5 in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, since September 25, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. Pope Francis is due to visit the city on November 29 and 30.

Many of those killed were civilians, including women and the elderly. They were stabbed to death, their throats were slit, or they were shot at close range. Using satellite imagery analysis, Human Rights Watch identified at least 1,075 structures destroyed during the violence in the neighborhoods to the northeast and southwest of the enclave between September 26 and November 13. An estimated 35,000 people have been displaced.
 
2015 Human Rights Watch

“The Muslim enclave of Kilomètre 5 has become the fault line of the bloody sectarian violence gripping Bangui,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Pope Francis’ visit to Bangui is a critical moment for a senior religious figure to condemn the violence by all sides, urge tolerance, and call for those responsible to be brought to justice.”

Pope Francis is to visit Bangui on his first trip to Africa.  The pope is scheduled to visit the Koudoukou central mosque in Kilomètre 5 and an internal displacement camp. He also plans to hold a prayer vigil at the city’s cathedral and a mass at the main sports stadium.

Men praying at the Koudoukou central mosque in the Kilomètre 5 neighborhood of Bangui, CAR. Some 3,000 people sought shelter on the grounds of the mosque after fleeing anti-balaka attacks in January 2014. 

© 2014 Stichting Vluchteling/Joris Hentenaar

In a letter to Pope Francis on November 16, Human Rights Watch urged the pontiff to stand with the victims of human rights abuses and call for justice and accountability for serious international crimes by all those responsible, no matter their ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, or position. Impunity for serious crimes in the Central African Republic has led to repeated cycles of violence over more than two decades.

Kilomètre 5 is the last remaining Muslim enclave in Bangui, with a population of about 15,000. Some 122,000 Muslims lived in the capital before the conflict began in March 2013, when the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted the government of then-President Francois Bozizé. The Seleka’s rule was marked by widespread human rights abuses. In mid-2013, the mostly Christian militia called the anti-balaka organized to fight against the Seleka and carried out large scale reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians in Bangui and western parts of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians fled the country or sought shelter in enclaves.

Many of the recent killings in Bangui have been by members of Muslim self-defense groups attacking Christians and others after Muslims were targeted. Anti-balaka groups also participated in the recent violence in the capital, though on a lesser scale. Outside of Bangui anti-balaka militias continue to attack Muslims and others who oppose them.

The most recent violence in Bangui started on September 25, when a 17 year-old Muslim motorcycle taxi driver, Amin Mahamat, was killed. In revenge, Muslim self-defense groups from Kilomètre 5 began to attack Christian and other neighborhoods north of the enclave. Anti-balaka groups, some assisted by soldiers from the national army, fought back and set up barricades preventing United Nations peacekeepers from accessing the areas of violence. Human Rights Watch documented the deliberate targeting of at least 31 civilians between September 26 and October 1. Seventy seven bodies were registered at morgues, possibly including fighters.

On October 26, four political representatives of the the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (l'Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC), a former Seleka group, were ambushed in a taxi by anti-balaka in the Combatants neighborhood. Credible sources told Human Rights Watch that two of the UPC members managed to escaped, but two others–Hamat Nejad and Abouba Yussafa–were dragged away and executed.

When they heard of the ambush, Muslim fighters from Kilomètre 5 took their revenge on non-Muslims in the enclave. Three employees of Aqua Bangui who were delivering potable water to the enclave–Guy Blaise Nganoussoua, Simon-Pierre Bombele, and Jonathan Dongobe–were taken from their truck at gunpoint and executed.

On October 28, in an effort to halt the violence, the head of the Coordination of Muslim Organizations in the Central African Republic, Ali Ousman, apologized on behalf of the people of Kilomètre 5 for the killings, calling them unjust, and promised to assist in identifying those responsible.

On October 29, in the increasingly tense environment, two young Muslim men from Kilomètre 5, Bachirou Mega and a man from Boda known as Amat, were killed by presumed anti-balaka just south of the enclave in Fatima, where they had gone on a motorcycle. Their deaths unleashed another wave of violence. In revenge, members of the Muslim self-defense groups attacked Kina, Kattin, Fatima, Béa-Rex and Kpéténé neighborhoods, just to the southwest of the enclave. At least 15 people, possibly more, were killed.

A hospital director interviewed by Human Rights Watch just after the violence said, “Many bodies are now just buried where people are killed. People don’t see the point of bringing bodies to the morgues anymore. It is becoming difficult to know how many are dying.”

The victims included Gabriel Ndetongo, a 76-year-old man from Béa-Rex, who had gone out to work in his field on the morning of October 29. His body was later found on the road between Kina and Fatima neighborhoods, with his throat slit. Yvette Toutoumaka, a 45-year-old mother from Kina neighborhood was shot in the head while trying to evacuate her children from her home, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
 

Marie Doloko is a 95-year-old blind woman who Muslims fighters tried to burn alive in her home. She was saved by her granddaughter. 
 

© 2015 Lewis Mudge/Human Rights Watch

Marie Doloko, a 95-year-old blind woman in the Kina neighborhood, was alone in her home on October 29 when two men came in and asked for money. When she said she did not have any, they set fire to the house. “I started to feel the heat so I turned and pressed myself against a wall,” she later told Human Rights Watch. “It became difficult to breath and I thought I was going to die. Fortunately, my granddaughter came and rescued me.” Neighbors of Doloko, who were hiding, told Human Rights Watch that the two men who set fire to her house were young Muslims from Kilomètre 5.

In the days that followed, isolated killings continued around Kilomètre 5. On November 9 a Muslim, Aliou Sissoko, was abducted while on his way to the bank outside the enclave. His mutilated body was later found decapitated.

An official from the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, told Human Rights Watch that peacekeepers were conducting more patrols around Kilomètre 5 to enhance civilian protection and restore freedom of movement, among other measures. On September 30 MINUSCA officials established a joint task force, putting the military in charge of UN police in Bangui.

“People who live in and near Kilomètre 5 desperately need better protection from national gendarmes and international peacekeepers,” Mudge said. “Justice and accountability are urgently needed if the repetitive cycles of brutal killings are to end.”