Thousands of civilians fled a town in northern Central African Republic (CAR) after gun battles erupted between Chadian forces and local militias last week, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said in a statement.
The Chadian troops had been in the country as part of an African Union peacekeeping force, but — because of their evident partiality to Muslim elements in CAR and penchant for violence — they were withdrawn. The Chadian military confirmed to the BBC that none of its forces remained in the country as of April 13.
The fighting broke out Friday night as the Chadians were escorting 540 Muslims from the chaotic city of Bossangoa through a town in the north called Boguila, according to Reuters.
“We witnessed the majority of the population fleeing in panic to the bush,” said Stefano Argenziano, MSF head of the mission in CAR. Over 7,000 civilians fled in panic, with many others seeking refuge in an MSF-run hospital.
CAR has devolved into a state of lawless sectarian fighting over the past year as international troops from France and the African Union have failed to stop internecine clashes from breaking out. The worst of the violence started in March of 2013, when a mostly Muslim rebel group known as the Seleka overthrew the government of François Bozizé, a Christian who had been president since 2003. As the Seleka began to wreak havoc on the country, predominantly Christian militias, called the anti-balaka (balaka means machete in the local language), formed and began committing atrocities of their own. In the past few months, with the Seleka’s power waning, the anti-balaka militiamen have grown more aggressive and have frequently targeted fleeing Muslim refugees — and the Chadian forces that have protected them.
The withdrawal of Chadian forces was catalyzed by criticism from the international community for attacks on unarmed civilians. Though Chadian forces had been documented as colluding with and assisting the Seleka, a recent incident in which 30 civilians were killed after Chadian troops fired into a marketplace provoked a firestorm. Dismayed by what it considered unfair criticism, the Chadian government then announced the withdrawal.
Though Muslim civilians, whom the Chadians often protected, have expressed fear that now they will be more vulnerable to attacks, many international observers see the withdrawal of the Chadians as a positive development. Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis adviser for Amnesty International who has spent considerable time in CAR since the conflict broke out, said the Chadian forces were often problematic.
“They were aggressive in protecting Muslims; the problem is they were indiscriminate in attacking Christian civilians. They’re not the type of peacekeepers you want in the country,” she told Vice News. “I think the manner of their exit was characteristic of their entire tenure in the Central African Republic, which is that they were abusive and their use of lethal force was consistently indiscriminate.”
Boguila, where the attack occurred, has been a stopping point providing refuge for Muslims heading north to Chad — and hoping to escape the violence. Other refugees fleeing west into Cameroon have suffered similar fates. The United Nations recently reported that the anti-balaka is blocking roads used by Muslims refugees in the West — and attacking civilians indiscriminately. “The recurrent clashes between armed groups force people to flee into the bush on a regular basis, thus exacerbating their vulnerability and reducing their access to medical care,” said Argenziano in the statement. “With the approaching rainy season the displaced [people] will be particularly exposed to malaria which remains the first cause of mortality in the country.”
In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Monday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the dire situation of Muslim civilians trapped in CAR. He wrote, “In a few scattered places, vulnerable communities have gathered in camps and protected zones, but they are in danger of attack and seized with one objective above all: escape.”
Meanwhile, in the center of the country, the AP reported that former members of the Seleka overran the town of Grimari early this week and killed civilians there. On Wednesday, the UN and other aid groups launched a campaign to raise $274 million to help people fleeing the violence. Nearly 1 million people have been displaced in the fighting, with over 200,000 fleeing to neighboring countries since December.