UN troops patrolled the streets of Central African Republic's capital Bangui on Wednesday, keeping the peace during presidential and legislative elections that many voters hope will end more than two years of violence between Christians and Muslims in the country.
Authorities have repeatedly delayed the polls due to safety concerns, particularly after a wave of violence that spread through the Bangui in September following the alleged murder of a Muslim taxi driver. Seventy people were killed and hundreds injured during the clashes, and hostilities have continued to simmer in the months since. During a referendum on a new constitution earlier this month, gunmen attacked voters in the capital and elsewhere.
The polls were originally scheduled for December 27, but were postponed over fears that polling stations would not receive election materials in time.
Thirty candidates are competing in the presidential election, a major milestone in the transition to democracy for the former French colony of 5 million people that has seen periods of unrest since independence. Meanwhile all of the National Assembly seats are being contested. Many doubt militia groups at the heart of the country's conflict will accept the results of the election if it goes against them.
Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has held office since May 2014, but she is barred from running in this election. Current National Assembly members are also blocked from running again. A list of approved candidates without connections to rebel groups was posted earlier this year. It's difficult to predict the winner without opinion polls, and the vote will likely only narrow down presidential candidates for a runoff this spring.
The current crisis began in March 2013, when the armed Seleka group, which largely aligned itself with the CAR's Muslim minority population, ousted President Francois Bozize. On December 5 of that year, rebel anti-Balaka fighters, who associate with the Christian majority, overran the capital and waged a brutal fight against the Muslim population.
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In the months that followed, more than 400,000 people fled their homes, seeking refuge in local churches, the airport, and other locations. International agencies supplied tents and food as the crisis continued. Nearly half a million others fled to neighboring countries. A peace agreement was signed in July 2014, but the violence has persisted. The Seleka have disbanded into separate factions, and several other rebel actors and criminal outfits have strongholds throughout the country.
UN peacekeepers positioned armored personnel carriers at voting stations across Bangui on Wednesday, and lines formed as voters waited to cast their ballots, including in the city's mainly Muslim PK-5 neighborhood.
"I've been dreaming of this election for two years since the day armed men killed my father and my brother in Bangui. I voted for peace," said Ahmat Abouna, who fled to the Cameroon border town of Garoua-Boulai and voted along with thousands of other refugees.
Leading presidential candidates include former prime ministers Anicet-Georges Dologuele and Martin Ziguele, who received a boost on Tuesday when anti-balaka militias who have formed the Central African Party of Unity and Development said they would support his candidacy. Other candidates include former Foreign Minister Karim Meckassoua and Bilal Desire Nzanga-Kolingba, the son of a former president.
"All the candidates are on the same footing. The outgoing president has not supported anyone," said Ziguele as he voted.
The Seleka withdrew from Bangui after their leader Michel Djotodia stepped down from the presidency in 2014 and the group's remaining factions, now referred to as ex-Seleka, have entrenched themselves in the northeast, leaving the country effectively partitioned. Some have flirted with secession, and convincing them to cede control may not be easy if the new president is deemed a threat to Muslims.
The economy will present another task for the future leader. Central African Republic has struggled for years, with uranium deposits undeveloped, the cotton sector in trouble, and gold and diamond mines under the control of militias.
Polls close at 5pm (1600 GMT). Provisional results will be announced in the following days and the constitutional court must give final results 15 days after polling day.
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