Some of the last Muslim families were escorted out of the Central African Republic’s capital on Sunday, completing a months-long process that has seen the country split between its Islamic and Christian communities amid waves of violence between the two.
French and African Union peacekeepers guarded the approximately 1,300 Muslim civilians as they packed the last of their belongings onto trucks and made their way out of the PK12 neighborhood of Bangui, the Central African capital city, where they had been trapped in for months. The exodus is the culmination of months of communal violence that exploded into prominence last December, as long-standing neighborhood defense militias — known as the anti-balaka — began launching deadly attacks against the former rebels that were pillaging their communities. The battles between the two groups, mostly Muslim and and entirely Christian respectively, soon spiraled out of control, leading to lynchings on the street and what little remains of the state in the CAR after last April’s coup unable to halt the violence that has killed thousands.
The result has been the total breakdown of a society where the two religions once lived harmoniously side-by-side. As the Muslim families fled, the remaining Christian population of Bangui celebrated their departure, defacing property in the now empty neighborhood and mockingly shouting “Allahu akbar” as the 22 truck convoy passed. “We have cleaned Central African Republic of the Muslims!” a group shouted while sweeping the dirt in front of a newly deserted mosque, according to the Associated Press. The mosque’s loudspeaker system was quickly dismantled and spirited away along with the blades of its ceiling fan. The Wall Street Journal reports that several youth “bludgeoned a kitten found under the local imam’s house ‘because it’s a Muslim cat,’ as one explained.”
International observers, including the United Nations, have for months now described the partition of the Central African Republic as ethnic cleansing. “Massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned back in February. “It’s tragic and inexcusable that the situation was allowed to fall apart so that in the end evacuation was the only way to save people’s lives,” Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis adviser for Amnesty International, told the AP. “Much more should have been done to prevent ethnic cleansing in December and January, before tens of thousands of Muslims had fled.”
Though the Muslim community is currently bearing the majority of the violence, neither side has clean hands in the ongoing crisis. After the Seleka rebel movement took control of the country last year, it was the Christian communities of the CAR who bore the brunt of their campaign of looting, murder, and rape. Since then, revenge killings have prompted a continuing spiral of death that shows little sign of slowing, even as the United Nations prepares to take over the peacekeeping mission on the ground in September.
As the killing has continued, the refugee situation has correspondingly grown more dire — more than 60,000 Central Africans are currently camped out at an airport that has become a makeshift displacement camp. But even those seeking to care for the displaced aren’t safe from the violence, as an attack on Sunday against a Doctors Without Borders facility in the northern town of Boguila — far from the reach of the peacekeepers currently deployed — proves. Sixteen civilians, including three Doctors Without Borders national staffers, died in the assault. At least 40 armed Muslim rebels demanded money from the facility, where the aid workers inside were meeting with local village chiefs, before opening fire.
“We are extremely shocked and saddened by the brutal violence used against our medical staff and the community,” said Stefano Argenziano, MSF Head of Mission in CAR, said in a statement. “Our first priority is to treat the wounded, notify family members and to secure the safety of our staff, patients and the hospital.” Doctors Without Borders had previously slammed the international community for its inaction in CAR.
Rwandan members of the African Union peacekeeping force confirmed that the convoy of fleeing Muslims was attacked en route. A grenade lobbed at a truck killed two people and wounded another six.