Neither Christian Nor Muslim Is Safe In Central African Republic

Feb 13, 2014
Originally published on February 13, 2014 1:53 pm

Last year, Muslim militias helped overthrow the country's Christian president of the Central African Republic and marauded through Christian areas. Today, the circumstances are reversed, with Christian militias terrorizing Muslim communities and prompting a mass exodus.

French and African peacekeepers have mostly failed to stop the violence as the isolated country of 4 million continues to unravel.

Wazili Yaya, a Muslim, has witnesses the recent violence.

He has been custodian of the Ali Babalo Mosque in the capital Bangui since a wealthy merchant built it 19 years ago. Its painted arches are a testament to a Muslim community that makes up a minority of the population in this mainly Christian country — yet account for the vast majority of its traders and merchant class.

An unlocked door opens on a low white basin. This is where we prepare the corpses, he says. There were 40 this week. He pulls out his cell phone to show photos.

All the bodies show signs of violence far beyond what was needed to kill: castrations, decapitations, machete wounds to the head.

Each time he gets a body, he takes a photo of it.

Even in one of the poorest countries in Africa, the ubiquity of camera phones means the wounds live on after bodies are buried. They're texted and shared and become part of the terror driving tens of thousands of Muslims over the border to become refugees in Chad or Cameroon.

Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis adviser for Amnesty International, has been driving around the country talking to survivors.

"Those who are stating their determination to get rid of the Muslim population are making good on their threats," she says. "What we are seeing is the Muslim civilian population paying the price for the atrocities committed by the previous regime."

A Muslim Takeover

That regime, called the Seleka, came to power last March in a coup led by militias from the mostly Muslim northwest of the country.

It wasn't a religious takeover — there wasn't any talk of Islamic law — but it did feel to many Christians in the capital like their city was being overrun. The mostly Muslim fighters committed atrocities against the mostly Christian population, and many in the country accuse Muslim civilians of supporting the assault, even joining in to loot and kill and rape their Christian neighbors.

French forces arrived in December and forced the Muslim fighters to retreat. The Muslim president, who had been in power for just a matter of months, stepped down. The Muslim civilians were then exposed to a Christian majority bent on revenge. That's why in every grainy videos of Muslims being lynched, the sound of bystanders cheering is audible.

Horrific Acts

One of the most viral videos is just 19 seconds long. It shows a young man posing like a rapper and holding a burnt human leg. He mugs for the camera, brings the leg up to his mouth and bites with staged relish into the thigh.

"The cannibal," as the press referred to him, told reporters that he killed one Muslim stranger to avenge three Christian relatives. However, mob justice also has been cover for settling private grievances. Ethnic cleansing can mean getting to loot a neighbor's television, or kill a former boss.

Neither African peacekeepers nor French troops now patrolling this city have been able to stop the violence. Human rights workers say that French troops have observed lynchings without intervening.

"What we can see is inaction," says Rovera, of Amnesty International.

She says that peacekeepers were deployed last year to protect Christians from Muslims, and were caught unprepared when Muslim civilians became the main casualties.

"The greatest mistake is the failure to recognize how fast things were changing on the ground," she says.

Recently, Rovera says, there's been an awakening. On Wednesday, the French defense minister flew to the country to call for the protection of Muslim civilians as well.

But Rovera says the Christian militias are already expanding their targets, killing Christians they say are "Muslim sympathizers," which could mean simply residing in majority Muslim areas.

"Today their primary aim is to get rid of the Muslim population," Rovera says. "But what will they do next?"

And the longer these groups are running the streets, the harder it will be for international peacekeepers to dislodge them.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's a phrase the United Nations uses to describe what's happening in the Central African Republic: They call it ethnic religious cleansing. That troubling phrase sums up a crisis in a country the size of Texas. A coup last year led to chaos and Muslims massacring Christians, after which Christians turned on Muslims. Nearly one-fourth of the country's people have fled their homes. French and African peacekeepers have mostly failed to stop the violence.

Our colleague, Gregory Warner, is in the Central African Republic. In this important report, which lasts about four minutes, he is going to describe some of what is happening. And we should warn you that some people will find the facts and disturbing.

(SOUNDBITE OF A METAL GATE)

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Wazili Yaya has been custodian of the Ali Babalo Mosque in the capital Bangui since it was built 19 years ago by a wealthy merchant, its painted arches a testament to a Muslim community that makes up a minority of this mainly Christian country, but the vast majority of its traders and merchant class.

(SOUNDBITE OF A METAL GATE)

WARNER: An unlocked door opens on a low, white basin.

WAZILI YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: This is where we prepare the corpses, he says. There were 40 this week. Wazili pulls out his cellphone to show me photos.

YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: All the bodies show signs of violence way beyond what was needed to kill.

YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: There he's been decapitated...

YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: ...with a machete wound to his head.

YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: So, every time you get a body, you take photographs?

YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Even in one of the poorest countries in Africa, the ubiquity of camera phones means the wounds live on after bodies are buried. They're texted and shared, and they become part of the terror that's driving tens of thousands of Muslims over the border to become refugees in Chad or Cameroon.

DONATELLA ROVERA: Those who are stating their determination to get rid of the Muslim population are making good on their threats.

WARNER: Donatella Rovera is a senior crisis advisor for Amnesty International. She's been driving around the country talking to survivors.

ROVERA: What we are seeing is the Muslim civilian population paying the price for the atrocities committed by the previous regime.

WARNER: That regime, called the Seleka, came to power last March in a coup led by militias from the mostly Muslim northeast of the country. It wasn't a religious takeover. There wasn't any talk of Islamic law. But it did feel to people in the capital like their city was being marauded. The mostly Muslim fighters committed atrocities against the mostly Christian population. And many here accuse Muslim civilians of supporting the assault, even joining in to loot and kill and rape their Christian neighbors.

When French forces arrived in December and forced the Muslim fighters to retreat, and the Muslim president stepped down, the Muslim civilians were exposed to a Christian majority bent on revenge. That's why in every grainy video of Muslims being lynched - remember, those camera phones are everywhere - you hear bystanders cheering.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: One of the most viral videos is just 19 seconds long. It shows a young guy posing like a rapper, holding a burnt human leg. He mugs for the camera, brings the leg up to his mouth and then bites with staged relish into the thigh.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: The guy who showed me this video on his phone is Azulo Fahti. He says he knows this little man, as he called him.

AZULO FAHTI: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: He's a laborer, an off-loader who used to unload large trucks for Muslim traders. Though the Cannibal - as the press later called him - told reporters that he killed one Muslim stranger to avenge three Christian relatives, mob justice in this country has also been cover for private vengeances. Ethnic cleansing can mean getting to loot your neighbor's television or kill someone who looks like your former boss. And neither African peacekeepers nor French troops now patrolling this city have been able to stop the violence.

Human rights workers say that French troops have observed lynchings without intervening.

ROVERA: What we can see is inaction.

WARNER: Donatella Rovera, from Amnesty International, says that peacekeepers got mixed up. They were deployed last year when the situation was different. They were supposed to protect Christians from Muslims. Then they were caught unprepared when Muslim civilians became the new victims.

ROVERA: The greatest mistake, I think, was a failure in recognizing how fast things were changing on the ground.

WARNER: She says recently, there's been an awakening. Yesterday, the French minister of defense flew here to call for the protection of Muslim civilians, as well. But Rovera says the Christian militias have already expanding their target, killing Christians they call sympathizers.

ROVERA: Today, their primary aim is to get rid of the Muslim population. But what will they do next?

WARNER: And the longer these groups are running the streets, she says, the harder it will be for international peacekeepers to dislodge them. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Bangui. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.