ALINDAO, Central African Republic — Solange pleaded with her husband, Bruno, to run as she heard screams and smelled neighbors’ homes burning. But he decided to lock the family in the house instead — the gunshots were too close.
The men were fighters from the Union for Peace (UPC), a predominantly Muslim armed rebel group in the Central African Republic. They were going house to house, searching for members of “anti-balaka,” the term used for their enemies, Christian self-defense militias.
Bruno insisted he was a volunteer with the local Red Cross, not a fighter. But the men killed him anyway, in front of his wife and children.
“They shot him, killed him, and threw him in a pit, with his Red Cross clothes on him,” Solange Yanga-Kotto, a 35-year-old mother of seven, said, detailing the events of May 9, when UPC fighters staged neighborhood raids, reportedly in response to the presence of anti-balaka fighters nearby. Rumors that anti-balaka groups were reforming had captivated Alindao, months after the UPC had claimed the village as their new home base.
Like many in Alindao, Solange lives in a makeshift camp for the internally displaced, wondering where her family’s next meal will come from and doing her best to keep them outside the reach of warring militias that have taken over her town.
The once-sleepy rural city in eastern Central African Republic had managed to escape the interreligious fighting that plunged much of the country into chaos from 2013 to 2015, but it’s become the center of a new wave of violence characterizing a multifaceted conflict that defies the usual distinctions of civil war. The crisis today cannot simply be chalked up to lingering Muslim-vs.-Christian tensions, analysts say. Instead, individual armed groups operating with their own interests, and absent allegiances, are increasingly defining the battlegrounds.
“The violence is much more based around armed groups controlling trade routes and resources.”
“Over 50 percent of the country is controlled by armed groups that don’t feel accountable for the abuses they continue to commit,” said Lewis Mudge, a senior researcher at Human Rights. Today, “the violence is much more based around armed groups controlling trade routes and resources,” he added.
Over half a million Central Africans are internally displaced, and in the last six months, over 60,000 new refugees have fled across the river that divides CAR and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The U.N. peacekeeping force in CAR managed to stabilize the capital, Bangui, after several years of vicious sectarian fighting, but with government-led disarmament initiatives stumbling, former armed groups are taking control of huge swaths of territory and killing hundreds in the process. Across the country — in the northwest and southeast, particularly, where valuable resources are there for the taking — violence has erupted.
Factions of Muslim ex-Seleka groups, like the UPC, and anti-balaka have mostly given up their ideological reasons for fighting and former enemies now form unexpected alliances to protect their resources. They clash over control of key access roads and resources from diamond and gold mines.
In Alindao, the UPC controls the main road to a nearby artisanal diamond mine. Roadblocks set up by the UPC and rival armed groups have rendered the city and nearby villages almost totally inaccessible to international aid agencies and leave IDPs unable to their lives and work.
Former fighters are taking up arms again, responding to new threats and a void left by the government. Jean-Claude, a former anti-balaka fighter who went through a disarmament program in 2015, lived in Alindao as a farmer until recently. He told VICE News he was compelled to re-arm when the UPC began their attacks.
“The government of our country let us down,” Jean-Claude said. “We have fallen in a total insecurity. We do not have militaries [or] armed forces to defend ourselves. What should we do to defend ourselves?”
As attacks sweep the countryside, civilians are increasingly vulnerable, caught up in the fighting and exposed by the lack of national forces and state institutions outside the capital.
Josue Bacaha Nguerendji, a 43-year-old pastor and recent arrival to a smaller IDP camp at the Protestant church, says his family faces a grim choice: stay in the camp indefinitely or risk being killed trying to return home.
“Living in the camp is a prison. We can't circulate freely, we can't go where we want to. I would like my village to be free so that we can move and do our jobs normally. Now we can't go to the farms in fears of meeting a bad group who can harm you,” he said.
His fears are justified.
His 9-year-old grandson, Dondedieu ( “Given by God”), went back to his village in September with his two older brothers to get some belongings they’d left behind when they fled.
As they ran through a field back toward Alindao, they were ambushed and shot by UPC fighters, according to his grandfather. His older brothers died instantly. Dondedieu suffered three gunshot wounds and lost his arm. He’s still being treated in the city’s only hospital.
Josue doesn’t know if or when he’ll leave the camp, but he’s waiting for news of calm in the villages nevertheless.
In November, there was reason to hope that calm would return, after news of a peace deal between two ex-Seleka groups and the leader of former anti-balaka militias.
But in the first week of December, the deal fell apart in a burst of deadly fighting in Ippy, a city at the nexus of main roads and gold mines.
According to HRW’s Mudge, an emphasis on peace deals and disarmament has so far been ineffective in guaranteeing what should be the central goal of the government and MINUSCA (the UN peacekeeping force in CAR): basic protection of civilians.
“Civilians are exhausted. [And] the principal ways to stop the killings, and not just move them from A to B, are: MINUSCA must protect civilians, and secondly, armed groups’ leaders must know they will be held accountable for their actions.”
Josue agrees. “It’s the civilians who suffer, like blades of grass caught between fighting,” he said. “They must put their weapons down. I don't have anything else to say.”
Julia Steers is an East Africa-based reporter and producer covering politics and human rights. Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.