It is almost impossible to buy soap anymore in most small towns in the Central African Republic. Same with sugar, powdered milk, batteries, baby formula. Up until January, these kinds of imported goods — in the stratified society of this country — almost always would have been sold to you by a Muslim.
But for the past few weeks, bands of Christian militia groups called anti-Balaka have waged war on Muslims and their property.
Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled a violent campaign of what United Nations officials and Amnesty International now call “ethno-religious cleansing” in the country.
Now the United Nations has a dilemma: Does it help the rest of the Central African Republic’s Muslims to escape?
Hidden In A Mosque
Here in the town of Bouar, thousands of Muslims who didn’t have the chance or the means to flee have been pinned down around the mosque. They are guarded by a couple of dozen U.N. peacekeepers. And when darkness falls each night, they squeeze as close as possible to the walls of the mosque to stay within the zone of safety.
It’s here I meet Fatimah William, wearing a brown hijab with little sequins that glint in the bright sun. It’s her only piece of clothing, she says.
The armed men looted everything from her house while she was camped here, she says. Even the furniture, even the children’s clothes — even the 3-year-old’s. They stole the cows and the delivery truck her husband drove for work. Next to her, men show me wounds from machetes and homemade shotguns.
Not surprisingly, Fatimah’s one wish is to take her family on an hour’s drive west, over the border to Cameroon where her older sister lives. But that hour’s drive is impossible these days for Muslims without a heavily armed escort to protect them.
“We can’t stay here,” she says. But she also can’t leave.
The militias terrorizing Fatimah have their origin in a popular resistance movement. Last year a coup by Muslim-led rebels called the Seleka ushered in an oppressive regime, where fighters who were mostly Muslim committed atrocities against civilians who were mostly Christian. When those fighters were swept out with the help of the French army, the anti-Balaka Christian militias started attacking the country’s entire Muslim minority.
George Okoth-Obbo is the Africa director for the UNHCR, the U.N. agency that deals with refugee protection and political asylum. He’s been going around talking to Muslims who are hunkered down in mosques and friendly churches.
“The one appeal that all these people are making to all of us is to be helped to leave the country,” he says.
But he is concerned about how it looks if U.N. troops and U.N. trucks are used to offload one ethnic group out of a country, even if that group itself is pleading to go.
“In helping people find safety, are we at the same time making possible ethno-religious cleansing? That is the dilemma,” Okoth-Obbo says.
It would further rend the social fabric of the country, making reconciliation less likely. And it destroys the economy if those stores stay shuttered.
This debate in the U.N. headquarters in Geneva can feel academic among the people at the mosque in Bouar, which feels like a bus stop where thousands of people are waiting for a bus that isn’t scheduled. Ali Aoudou Mommin, the town’s former mayor, is here among the displaced.
“We Muslims are like birds plucked of our feathers,” he says, and slouches his shoulders to illustrate. He says that they don’t want to depart forever, just go to Cameroon and “get some air,” and then return when there’s peace.
But Okoth-Obbo says even the departure of Muslims wouldn’t stop the anti-Balaka Christian militias, which are using looted riches to get better weapons. He says there are still hundreds of thousands of Christians displaced in camps around the country.
Their main fear about going home is being attacked by the anti-Balaka, their own supposed defenders.