More than 90 per cent of the western Central African Republic’s Muslim inhabitants have fled violence in the past few months. Armed international forces are protecting the last Muslims in a few enclaves under very precarious conditions.
In front of the Catholic Church in Carnot, in the western part of the Central African Republic (CAR), Muslims are kneeling to pray. Cameroonian soldiers from the African Union forces guard the gate.
Inside the Church compound, nearly one thousand people of different ethnicities, but all Muslim, are crammed in very precarious conditions on an area the size of half a football field.
These internally displaced persons (IDPs) were brought here by the MISCA (French acronym for the African mission supporting Central African Republic) troops in order to ensure their protection.
Exposed to atrocious reprisals
The rest of the city is controlled by anti-balakas, self-defence militias mainly composed of Christians that took Carnot early February, following the resignation of the President Michel Djotodia on January 10th. Djotodia had gained power in March 2013 by a coup led by the Seleka, an alliance of rebel Muslim groups.
The vast majority of the Muslim communities left following the Seleka retreat because they became exposed to atrocious reprisals, regardless of whether they were migrant workers, nomadic pastoralists or Central African citizens. The exact toll is difficult to establish but it is believed there were several thousand victims.
'They mutilated the corpses'
Stepsisters S. and Z. are both 20 years old.
“On 5 February, the anti-balakas attacked Guen, our village. There were a hundred of us grouped in a big house. They separated the men and boys, 45 people in total including our husbands, and executed them in front of us,” Z. said.
“Then they mutilated the corpses,” she said, pointing to her ears.
S. continues: “The Cameroonian soldiers brought us to Carnot Church. It’s been really harsh here. My baby died from an infection. He was one month old.”
Moving away from the enclave risks grave danger, as D. found out ten days ago. He learned that a 9-carat stone was discovered at the diamond mine that he normally manages.
“I went to collect my share. Anti-balakas attacked me with machetes less than 500 meters from the church,” he said. D. was treated by MSF and now hopes to find a way to join his family in Cameroon.
Medical facilities not spared by the violence
MSF has been supporting Carnot Hospital since 2010. Today it is the only place where it is possible for Christians and Muslims to be staying together. However the killing of 18 people inside a MSF hospital in Boguila on 26 April remains a tragic reminder that medical facilities are not being spared by the violence.
Overpopulation has also become a public health issue within the walls of the church. Half of the displaced are children under 15 years. The rainy season has started and diseases like malaria and diarrhoea are rampant.
A daily challenge to provide basic sanitary care
“We provide medical care, food and drinking water and we built latrines but it is a daily challenge to maintain minimum sanitary conditions in such a situation,” said Fabio Biolchini, head of MSF activities on site. “Another solution must be found quickly.”
IDPs settle on mats inside the church. On Sunday, they vacate the space for the mass.
“We hear insults and threats every time,” said a community representative who has resigned himself to leaving soon for Cameroon, where more than 100,000 refugees have already fled.
“The hate is still too strong for reconciliation. Our children are sick and our women are afraid. Ramadan is approaching and nobody wants to celebrate in such conditions. Our only option now is to go and wait for peace.”