All photos and video by Robert King
They went to the airport when the massacres began.
Residents of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, knew that French soldiers were stationed at Bangui M’Poko International Airport. And so when the latest round of fighting in the city began last week, they fled to the airport, hoping the soldiers would offer them protection. We landed at M’Poko five days later.
The latest round of sectarian fighting that has led CAR, one of the poorest countries in the world, to the brink of collapse began last March when Michel Djotodia and his loose rebel alliance (known as the Séléka) stormed Bangui and ousted President François Bozizé. Djotodia appointed himself president and tried to integrate the Séléka into the armed forces, but it didn’t work. Even Djotodia admitted that he didn’t have control over most of the rebels, many of whom are said to be mercenaries from neighboring Chad and Sudan.
Bands of mostly Muslim former Séléka rebels are now terrorizing the majority Christian country, raping and murdering civilians as they roam. Civilians have formed their own “anti-balaka” militias — balaka means machete or sword — to fight back. Meanwhile, many of those who aren’t fighting have sought refuge in the only places they consider safe: houses of worship. And the Muslim civilian minority face continuing reprisals—both looting and killing—by the anti-balaka forces after nine months of Séléka rule.
It’s important to note that many people with firsthand knowledge of the war have told us that the religious aspect of the conflict — Muslims vs. Christians— is overblown. They say this is not an ideological war, but rather a war of identity that goes back generations. Regardless of the root causes, the United Nations and other prominent NGOs speculate that the situation could become far worse.
“A Logistical Nightmare”
In fact, the situation may already be far worse outside the capital, far from the relative protection of the French military and the medical help provided by NGOs. But the country is so large and the population so spread out, the true extent of the violence is unknown. Many villages lie deserted, their residents having fled to the bush to escape. Malaria and malnutrition have followed them.
“It’s a logistical nightmare,” said Romain Gaduchon, who organized a recent European Community Humanitarian Office ECHO Flight into the country to deliver aid. He described the CAR as the least accessible country in Africa, owing to its lack of infrastructure and seaports, and its dense jungle.
In addition to delivering aid, the ECHO flight also delivered otherwise stranded journalists — including us. Halfway through the flight, we received a briefing from one of the ECHO employees: The area around the airport was not secure. The night before, two French troops had been killed. In response, Christians had looted Muslim neighborhoods and killed civilians.
As we landed, we could see makeshift shanty towns and IDP (internally displaced persons) camps surrounding the perimeter of the airport. French soldiers were everywhere. Refugees held signs denouncing Djotodia as they chanted, “Thank you President Hollande. Thank you French army.”
French journalists at the airport told us that sentiment toward the media had seemingly changed overnight. That day, while in Muslim neighborhoods, the journalists received glares, and some civilians made throat-slitting gestures at them.
When we ventured out the following day, however, we were received warmly. We traveled to the Monastery of Bliss, which, like many places of worship in the city, had become an informal IDP camp. Father Yeelen Waongo told us there were 15,000 people staying in his compound. He blamed the fighting solely on politics, saying that religious fervor is being manipulated by people using it to gain power.
Emmanuel Teka, a law student seeking refuge in the monastery, blamed the problems on the current president. “The French troops need to get the weapons away from the Séléka and the anti-balaka,” he said. And what of revenge? “It’s not good, but people here want to do it.”
Teka said it was up to the president to foster peace. Elsewhere in the camp, women and children sang songs calling for his removal.
“We've Always Had Peace”
Bangui is still very much a city on the edge, though the situation appears to have stabilized somewhat today. Shops are still closed, but people are walking the streets and going about their normal lives, which is a big change from the previous week. We saw few Séléka forces. Some young men on the street called out “Peace, peace!”
That said, at a French checkpoint in the dangerous PK 12 neighborhood, things were still tense. When we arrived, a young man lay on a makeshift stretcher, bleeding profusely from his leg. His friends told us he had been hacked with a machete by ex-Séléka rebels. They screamed for revenge.
Dr. Andre Gombako then approached the men, informing them that his brother had been killed by the Séléka a few nights ago. He stressed the need for forgiveness, and admonished everyone to remain nonviolent despite the attack. “I have no anger in my heart,” he said. “We’ve always had peace in this country between the Christians and Muslims.”
Gombako said the country needs two things to recover from the violence: A general disarmament, and the expulsion of the foreign fighters who came in with Djotodia from Chad and Sudan.
Later at the checkpoint, a single pickup truck full of heavily armed Multinational Force of Central Africa (FOMAC) peacekeeping soldiers pulled up. Murmurs went through the crowd, and some angry words were exchanged. Residents told us that some of the Chadians who had entered the country with the Séléka forces had blended into the FOMAC ranks, and they worried they would soon attack.
Past a roadblock, in a Muslim neighborhood, we found residents who dismissed claims that the Séléka were from Chad and Sudan. They said the French troops targeted Muslims indiscriminately, but didn’t disarm any of the anti-balaka forces, which left Muslims vulnerable to reprisal attacks. “The French troops aren’t going after the Christian community, only the Muslims,” one person told us. “We need the United Nations.”
Opinions of the Séléka were mixed amongst Muslim civilians. But once again, people stressed that everything had been fine between Muslims and Christians before the Séléka showed up. “We don’t know why we are having this problem,” one man said.
Muslims tended to blame the violence on the anti-balaka, and said that the portrayal of them as a defensive force formed by villagers was misleading. The anti-balaka were, they said, loyalists of Bozizé who were being manipulated by political forces. “The Christians lost the power, but they don’t want to accept defeat,” a man named Ali told us.
All over the city, fingers are pointed in many different directions: The anti-balaka started it. The anti-balaka rose up against the Séléka, who started it. Longstanding religious tensions have boiled over. Religious tensions are brand new. The Chadians are to blame. Or the Darfuris. Or the French.
In other words, no one has any real explanation for why longtime neighbors began killing each other, or why more than 100,000 people in Bangui no longer feel safe in their homes.