By Susanna Flood, Amnesty International’s Director of Media
There is hatred in their eyes as they spit their words out at you: “Djotodia doit partir”, Michel Djotodia, transitional President of the Central African Republic, “must go”.
These same words were emblazoned in graffiti on walls around a small unremarkable mosque near the Assemblée Nationale, on the Avenue de l’Independence – one of Bangui’s principal roads that is heavily patrolled by the French, African (members of the Multinational Force for Central Africa – FOMAC) and ex-Seleka troops, where a revenge mob had gathered.
They had burned the mosque, as well as the Imam’s house. And they were running riot, removing anything that could be taken from the building.
They pulled the corrugated iron from the roof and fled with their trophies into the neighbouring quarter of Fouh.
Others, men and women together, gathered in the dusty grounds, shouting encouragement to the mob, beating at the walls with whatever instruments they could find or writing their graffiti in large letters on the remaining walls, declaring their hatred of the president.
Even worse were those writing “Tuer les musulmans” – “Kill the Muslims” – on the wall of the already-defiled mosque.
Members of the mob revelled in any attention they could get, happily performing for the few cameras that had braved the crowd and the ongoing insecurity to record what was going on.
To any sane observer, it was an utterly meaningless attack. But this is what’s growing in Bangui today, fuelled by what feels like a shocking escalation of anti-Muslim rhetoric within the Christian community.
Language that would, in normal times, be unthinkable is being used to describe their fellow man – neighbours rising against neighbours – all on the basis of religion.
People in Bangui are angry and frustrated. This is a city where normal life has come to a complete halt. The ramshackle stores and restaurants that line the sides of the city’s roads are all deserted or, even worse, looted or destroyed. Small numbers of people can be seen wandering aimlessly in groups.
But most are in hiding, having either joined the masses taking refuge in the various camps that have sprung up around the city or staying in their homes with the doors firmly locked, unable to go out even to buy food.
All shops and small businesses are closed. No one is going to work or to school. Only a few hospitals remain open but without the daily stream of the sick and unwell who would normally arrive seeking treatment.
Anger and resentment are growing day after day. People want revenge and are not willing to sit back and wait for the French troops or for the Multinational Force of Central Africa (FOMAC) forces to protect them.
Unspeakable acts of inhumanity are being carried out on a daily basis in the Central African Republic.
We have seen children who were brutally attacked, by men wielding machetes. These were not random attacks: the children were hit directly in the head.
We have spoken to people who feel safer in the squalid conditions of displaced peoples’ camps than in the safety of their own homes.
“I was born here. My father was born here. So was my grandfather. How can they tell me I am not Central African?” more than one person has said this to me.
And yet Muslims in Bangui have become the focus of much of the rage that is sweeping the city, declared as outsiders by the predominantly Christian community.
When we visited the central morgue in the city, we were told that all of the hundreds of bodies stored there were Christians.
“How do you know?” we asked. “Because they don’t have dark marks on their foreheads,” some told us, a reference to marks some are said to develop as a result of the Muslim act of prayer.
The majority of those killed in Bangui since last Wednesday may have been Christians but the way the tide is turning against the Muslim community is deeply worrying.
We are hearing increased reports of disturbing revenge attacks against Muslims around Bangui. One man was killed when he returned to his home in a mostly Christian neighbourhood to collect some personal belongings.
It is not unreasonable to fear what will happen next in the Central African Republic. Stability, state authority and rule of law urgently need to be re-established.
Peace needs to prevail and the killing must stop. But then comes the much bigger challenge of re-building trust between communities torn apart by the bloodshed and brutality.
Central African Republic: International community must ensure effective protection of civilians (News story, 9 December 2013)Bangui, besieged by violence and fear (Blog, 6 December 2013)
Central African Republic: UN must not let peacekeepers fail (News story, 5 December 2013)
Central African Republic: Violence of security forces now out of control (News story/report, 29 October 2013)