Since we last left the Central African Republic, the horrific cycle of violence has continued unabated despite the presence of even more French troops and African Union peacekeepers. The Seleka, a mostly Muslim rebel alliance that seized power in March, has mostly been neutralized in the capital of Bangui. The anti-balaka, however, the mostly Christian self-defense militias that rose up, have now been terrorizing the country and forcing Muslim civilians to flee. Amnesty International released a report on February 12 referring to it as ethnic cleansing.
VICE News’ Robert King arrived back in the Central African Republic on Tuesday, and we caught up with him Sunday night.
VICE News: Hey Robert, what’s changed on the ground since you last left?
Robert King: There are fewer mosques. There’s also more normalcy than there was before, there are people in the markets, but a lot of the Muslim neighborhoods have been pretty destroyed. People just fled their homes and went up North. They’ve left the city and they’ve gone up north where the Seleka still hold some power.
VICE News: What are you seeing in the streets?
Robert King: The day I got in, the anti-balaka were blocking the roads from the airport to prevent any Muslims from leaving the city. That’s kind of the tone that’s going on here; they are cleansing the area from its Islamic population. In PK 12 (a Muslim neighborhood), I was interviewing a community leader today who said it’s gone from a population of 30,000 to 2500.
VICE News: When the French first got there, they were pretty well received by most of the population. What are the feelings now?
Robert King: There’s a pretty big anti-French sentiment among both the Seleka and the anti-balaka. The anti-balaka are really mad at the French. They just want them to go. The French are trying to bring order and the anti-balaka are not an organized unit, they’re just people who came from the hills, the mountains into the city, and God knows what they were promised. So they’ve started to pillage and terrorize the local population.
VICE News: Wait, so the anti-balaka aren’t just attacking Muslim neighborhoods, they’ve attacking indiscriminately?
Robert King: Our fixer (a Christian) has already been cut by a knife. They’ve come to his house every other day. It kind of went from a liberation movement to an eradication movement. The people wanted to be liberated from the Seleka, but then it was the people themselves, a large group of Christians who aren’t even anti-balaka, that are helping to cleanse their city of the Muslim population.
VICE News: What do you see happening in the future?
Robert King: One of the community leaders of Muslims in PK12 is threatening to march all the inhabitants of a neighborhood out to where they consider to be a safe area, but it would require them to go through anti-balaka, where they would be slaughtered. They’re also calling out for African jihadis, like Al-shabaab and Boko Haram, to come help them.
VICE News: That sounds pretty terrible.
Robert King: It is. Inevitably, they’ll come. It’s terrible.
VICE News: Are the French not doing enough or are they just overwhelmed?
Robert King: The Muslims believe that the French are actively working with the anti balaka and that they’re in on it. I think they’re just overwhelmed. They just don’t have enough boots on the ground. They don’t have enough soldiers.
VICE News: Were they unprepared for what was going to happen?
Robert King: I would say so. They definitely didn’t anticipate this. I think they thought they would be viewed as liberators from the Seleka but they didn’t take into account the collective hatred now shared by the Christian community. Something is definitely going on, but it’s hard to pinpoint what it is, and exactly how much control anyone has over it. It seems very organic, like the people just sort of flipped out. The question is, is the legacy of operation of Sangaris (the French mission) going to be tainted by the fact that large amounts of Muslims have been forced from their homes? There are rumors that in 2-3 weeks time there wont be any Muslims left.
VICE News: There are also reports of an impending food crisis.
Robert King: There are still major problems with food. People are hungry. They’re definitely concerned with food. There’s not that much in the markets, I don’t see much. And people are still living in the churches and the airport even though the Seleka are mostly gone because now they’re getting looted by the anti-balaka.