Counting bodies in the Central African Republic
By Donatella Rovera
The body of a 10-year-old boy, shot dead, whose hand had been cut off with a machete.
The remains of the sons of a 76-year-old man who narrowly escaped death after anti-balaka fighters shot him three times and left him for dead.
The lifeless body of a six-month-old baby, brutally murdered alongside 12 of her relatives in front of her cousin, who was forced to witness her father being decapitated.
“They killed my children heartlessly. They were slaughtered in front of our eyes,” cried a Muslim woman whose four sons were killed by anti-balaka fighters in late January.
Welcome to life in the Central African Republic.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been travelling around the country as part of an Amnesty International delegation. We visited the capital, Bangui, and towns in the north-west of the country, investigating case after case of mayhem and death.
Hundreds of people, mostly Muslims, have been brutally murdered by Christian anti-balaka militias over the last few weeks.
Their homes and shops have been looted and burned; their mosques have been reduced to rubble. Those still standing are covered with offensive graffiti.
The situation is now so desperate that tens of thousands have fled their towns. Many formerly Muslim neighbourhoods are now empty.
“Everyone wants to leave,” a neighbourhood leader in Bouar told me. “We’re all just waiting for the opportunity.”
Some flee by car or motorcycle, joining long convoys that are escorted out of the country by Chadian or international troops.
Others carry what they can in their arms and on their backs, jumping on dangerously overcrowded trucks. Some attempt to escape on foot, knowing that anti-balaka militias could attack at any time.
On 16 January, for example, some 20 civilians, including several children, were shot and hacked to death as they were trying to flee the town of Bohong. In another case, anti-balaka fighters stopped a truck at a checkpoint in the town of Boyali, forced all the Muslims to get off, and killed six members of a single family.
But even those lucky enough to make it out of the Central African Republic alive face an extremely precarious future. The reception centres in Chad are overcrowded; food and water is a luxury, shelter extremely hard to come by and medical care almost non-existent.
There’s no question that the exodus of Muslims from the Central African Republic is a tragedy of historic proportions.
What is shocking, however, is that despite the desperate situation, the international community has failed them.
The deployment of 5,500 African Union troops and 1,600 French troops in the capital, Bangui, and towns to the north- and south-west is inadequate. Brutal murders and other attacks happen every day.
The sectarian violence against Muslims in recent weeks was predictable, and Amnesty International was already sounding the alarm last December.
Yet international peacekeeping forces have failed to stop the ethnic cleansing. Obviously they could not be expected to be everywhere or to have a soldier in front of every house, but they could and should have done more. For the tens of thousands of Muslims who have already been forced out of the country, it is too late, but others are still in the country and at risk.
There is a real need for urgent action to protect the Muslim men, women and children who remain in the country. International peacekeeping forces must break the control of anti-balaka militias and station sufficient and well-supported troops in towns where Muslims are threatened.
They must also be deployed to protect civilians in other parts of the country, notably in areas east of the capital, where the former regime’s Seleka forces are now regrouping and where there is a risk of a renewed outbreak of sectarian violence.
Anything less will simply be disastrous.
A version of this blog was first published in The Independent on 12 February 2014.