Last winter, thousands of Muslim families living in the Central African Republic abandoned their homes and fled across the border into neighboring Chad and Cameroon in just one month. According to a new report by Doctors Without Borders released on Wednesday, one in three didn’t make the crossing intact.
Instead, they lost family members in a severe bout of anti-Muslim violence that engulfed the nation last December when predominately Christian militias launched what they viewed as reprisal attacks against Muslims living in the capital of Bangui last December. With the death toll now far exceeding past estimates and militants on both sides continuing to terrorize the civilian population with impunity, the country’s civil war is continuing to spiral out of control.
Families living in a refugee camp in Sido, Chad told Doctors Without Borders — also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) — about the 2,599 relatives they had to leave behind. Nearly eight percent of their total numbers never had the chance to complete the route of tens of thousands of Muslims who fled Bangui under the protection of a Chadian military convoy in January. 250 were killed while trying to complete the escape.
For refugees who cross the border today, the situation is even more bleak. Chad officially closed its borders to refugees in May, forcing those still fleeing violence in the CAR to search for poorly guarded spots to cross over. Others, after trekking for weeks without sufficient food or water, come under fire when they attempt to leave persecution in their home country behind. Still, for many Muslims, taking such a risk may be the only option. According to Doctors Without Borders, 1,700 took the risk of crossing the border into Sido in June alone.
Muslims who remain in western the CAR are now trapped in isolated ghettos protected only by international forces. Largely cut off from the outside world and continually harassed by armed bandits, living conditions in these communities are rapidly deteriorating. Most are too afraid to even go outside. While the border with Cameroon remains open, its government is lagging on supplying enough aid to accommodate the new arrivals, many of whom suffer malnourishment after enduring weeks of displacement.
CAR’s current crisis began after the predominately Muslim rebel coalition known as the Seleka swept into Bangui and overthrew the CAR’s longstanding president, Francois Bozize, in April 2013. While the Seleka initially promised democratic reform, their practice of granting supporters a blank check to loot and pillage ushered in months of destruction and terror for civilians. Local militias known as the anti-balaka — or anti-machete — began retaliating against the Seleka’s abuses, but their self defense quickly devolved into a situation that has been called “ethnic cleansing” campaign against CAR’s Muslims. Over the past year, the tide turned against the Seleka and the anti-balaka militias gained the upper hand. With the CAR’s weak interim government lacking any real power, anti-Muslim violence and reprisals from the remaining Muslims has become the norm. Some 390,000 people have now fled the CAR and over one million have been driven from their homes.
“The shocking levels of violence documented in our study should not leave the impression that the worst is over,” said MSF’s president Dr. Mego Terzian. While the international agency has been working in the CAR for over a decade to combat disease and improve public health, since the civil war teams of medics have been working in the capital and across the country to treat thousands of wounded. MSF Doctors continue to work in communities even as anti-Muslim violence walls off the few thousand who remain.
“The bare minimum that can be done for this population that has suffered incredible violence, lost family members, and been uprooted from their homes, is to provide them with humanitarian assistance” added Dr. Terzian. But food shortages continue to affect refugees of the conflict, and according to the U.N., 2.2 million people within the cou ntry remain in dire need of aid.
Not all recent developments spell disaster. The U.N. announced Thursday that a 2,500-strong peacekeeping force with join French and African forces working to limit sectarian violence in two months. While the head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, said the international deployment will ensure “significantly superior” levels of security, for the time being perpetrators of atrocities on both sides still go unchecked by the law. Last week, Amnesty International demanded that those guilty of human abuses be punished in a report detailing the most notorious offenders.
“Those responsible for leaving hundreds of thousands of innocent people with nowhere to hide from their murderous violence must be given nowhere to hide from justice,” said Christian Mukosa, Amnesty International’s Central African Republic researcher. “Only by ending impunity can the cycle of violence that has gripped CAR be stemmed.”
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.