After months of worsening violence, the United Nations voted Thursday to send French and African troops to the Central African Republic in an attempt to restore stability.
Brutal sectarian violence has engulfed the mostly Christian country since March, when the first Muslim leader assumed power after a coup.
Armed gangs of Muslim extremists joined by mercenaries from neighboring countries now control most of the country. Armed Christian forces are fighting back. Slaughter, rape and torture are widely reported.
A regional force has been in the country for months, but it’s untrained, outmanned and outgunned. U.N. and Western officials say they fear a possible genocide.
At a Catholic mission in Bossangoa in the country’s north, more than 35,000 people are squatting in squalid conditions. Bundles of filthy rags are piled high in the seminary, and people have to pick carefully through the scant plastic sheeting and debris in a site far too small for the number of people. They have fled from the armed Muslim gangs known as Seleka, which means “alliance” in the local Sango language.
Everyone has a tale of horror. Women tell of seeing children executed, drowned or burned, and of seeing husbands shot, hacked to death or bundled in weighted sacks and thrown in a river.
Dofio Rodriguez, one of the newest arrivals, says Seleka militants gunned down three of his relatives on the main highway leading south to the capital, Bangui, in September. A month later, he says, they slaughtered his brother at the local police station, which the Seleka gunmen are using as a torture center.
“I saw with my own eyes, people, including my little brother, butchered at the police station,” Rodriguez says. “I went to see him in jail here in Bossangoa, but they’d already slit his throat and thrown him in the river.”
Rodriguez fled to a small gold mining village but says Seleka fighters attacked there too, killing 30 people, including five children under 5.
Evodie Soumieboy was one of those who escaped. She also fled to Bossangoa’s church for safety.
“The militia from the Seleka group went to the gold mining area in the evening, but we didn’t know it was them until at 5 a.m. the next morning when they started shooting, killing women, kids, men, old people, everyone,” Soumieboy says.
“There were a lot of injured people. Then they made the women carry all they looted to the main road, then told us to go back and tell our husbands they better start dancing, so we ran for our lives up to here,” she says.
But it’s not just Christians fleeing violence. Bossangoa’s displaced mirror the nation’s growing divide.
Just yards from the Catholic mission is an abandoned school now home to more than 1,000 Muslims who have fled reprisal attacks by largely Christian armed groups.
The Christian factions call themselves anti-balaka, or anti-machete, and are armed with primitive weapons such as poisoned arrows. They are taking on the heavily armed Seleka gunmen, but have not spared Muslim civilians.
Khadija Umani is one of the only survivors of an anti-balaka attack on a truck carrying people from Bossangoa to Bangui in October.
“The anti-machete [fighters] came and got us all off, then they told the Muslims to stand to one side. They threw me into the bush but I watched them kill the men,” Umani says. “They slit all seven of their throats. We had to bury them ourselves.”
Seleka fighters reportedly have swollen to 25,000 strong since a few thousand helped former rebel leader Michel Djotodia seize power. Djotodia says he no longer has any control over them.
The U.N. estimates at least 400,000 people — nearly one-tenth of the population — have been displaced. Rape is rampant. UNICEF says thousands of children are being forced to fight.
The country has suffered numerous coups, mutinies and conflicts since independence from France in 1960. But Muslim and Christian communities had co-existed peacefully — until now, raising the specter of genocide.
The U.N.’s top peacekeeping official, Edmond Mulet, has called on local and international leaders to intervene, and fast, lest the conflict spread.
“This is not only a situation related to the humanitarian needs of the population; it’s not only an internal conflict,” he said. “But if we do not address this issue right now, this could have consequences for the whole region, and therefore for the whole continent.”