Central African Republic: Muslims Forced to Flee

By Uhrra February 12, 2014 17:12

The minority Muslim population in the Central African Republic is being targeted in a relentless wave of coordinated violence that is forcing entire communities to leave the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The Central African Republic government as well as French and African peacekeepers should take urgent steps to protect the remaining Muslim population from revenge attacks by predominantly Christian militias and allied residents.

The anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) militias are increasingly organized and using language that suggests their intent is to eliminate Muslim residents from the Central African Republic. The anti-balaka blame the Muslim population for the rise of the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebel group, which took power in March 2013 and committed horrific abuses against the country’s majority Christian population over the last 11 months. The Seleka, which have not publicly used religious language in justifying their actions, continue to engage in atrocities.

“At this rate, if the targeted violence continues, there will be no Muslims left in much of the Central African Republic,” said Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “People whose families have peacefully lived in the country for centuries are being forced to leave, or are fleeing the very real threat of violence against them.”

Throughout January 2014 and the first week of February, thousands of Muslim families from towns with sizable Muslim populations – Bossangoa, Bozoum, Bouca, Yaloké, Mbaiki, Bossembélé, and others in the northwest and southwest – fled horrific anti-balaka attacks. Yaloké, a major gold trading center, had an estimated Muslim population of 30,000 and eight mosques prior to the conflict. When Human Rights Watch visited on February 6, fewer than 500 Muslims and one mosque remained. Muslim residents gathered at the mosque, protected by French peacekeepers, while Christian militias and residents looted and destroyed their homes and mosques.

In Bangui, anti-balaka fighters, armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and grenades attacked numerous Muslim areas, forcing the population to flee. PK 12, PK13, Miskine, and Kilo 5 – all former Muslim strongholds in Bangui – are now ghost towns, devoid of Muslim residents. Some anti-balaka militants have told Human Rights Watch that they would kill any Muslims remaining in these neighborhoods.

At the abandoned Muslim neighborhood of PK13, Human Rights Watch researchers observed Christians claiming the looted and abandoned homes and marking them as the property of anti-balaka leaders. At the entrance to the neighborhood, a sign read “Attention: Antibalaka zone.”

Much of the Muslim population has fled to Chad, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. An estimated 50,000 Muslims—many of them Central African Republic nationals—have been flown out of Bangui’s military airport on evacuation flights organized by Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Senegal. Tens of thousands more have fled on road convoys, frequently attacked by anti-balaka forces on the way.

Elite Chadian military forces, sometimes assisted by the Chadian component of the African Union peacekeeping mission (MISCA), have also evacuated many thousands of Muslims from towns that have fallen under the control of the anti-balaka. The anti-balaka militias have not yet targeted Muslim populations in the northeastern part of the country, where Muslims are a majority.

The anti-balaka have conducted coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods since September 2013. The attacks include horrific and brutal assaults, including on women and children, against Muslims trapped by fighting or trying to flee. Anti-balaka forces have cut the throats of Muslim civilians, publicly lynching, mutilating, and setting their bodies on fire. Human Rights Watch researchers have witnessed some of these atrocities.

Armed men within Muslim neighborhoods, including some remaining Seleka fighters, have attempted to fight back, but have been unsuccessful in warding off the assaults, which have also overwhelmed French and African peacekeepers.

“Whether the anti-balaka leaders are pursuing a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing or exacting abusive collective punishment against the Muslim population, the end result is clear: the disappearance of longstanding Muslim communities,” Bouckaert said.

“Ethnic cleansing,” although not a formal legal term, is defined as a purposeful policy by an ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.

The anti-balaka militias arose from village self-defense groups organized to fight banditry, but reemerged to fight against Seleka abuses. Anti-balaka members are drawn almost exclusively from the Christian and animist population. They swear an oath of secrecy and carry “gris-gris” amulets they believe make them immune from bullets and protect them from harm.

After the Seleka ousted President François Bozizé, members of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) and the elite Presidential Guard who remained loyal to Bozizé joined the anti-balaka militias in their fight against the Seleka, providing the militias with military expertise and weapons. While most anti-balaka fighters carry homemade shotguns, machetes, and knives, some appear in military uniform with AK-47 assault rifles and other automatic weapons. Human Rights Watch has observed the increasing presence in Muslim neighborhoods of anti-balaka forces attacking with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and grenades.

On February 7, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that her office had received sufficiently serious allegations of crimes within the ICC’s jurisdiction to trigger the opening of a preliminary examination. Her office will conduct a fuller inquiry to determine whether to initiate a formal investigation, the next step toward bringing a new case.  Her office already has one case pending in connection with crimes committed in 2002-03 in the country by Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, a Congolese national and former vice-president of the DRC who was invited to CAR in 2002 to help resist a coup attempt by Bozizé.

To provide effective civilian protection, particularly for the vulnerable Muslim population and its property, the African Union, European Union, and United Nations should immediately deploy additional peacekeeping troops throughout the country. Whenever possible, they should bolster their presence to protect at-risk Muslim communities from anti-balaka terror. Their troops should actively confront anti-balaka forces and leaders responsible for attacks against Muslim civilians, and make clear that abuses against civilians will not be tolerated.

The new president of the Central African Republic, Catherine Samba-Panza should publicly and forcefully remind her constituents that the Muslim minority is part of the fabric of the country and that anyone exacting revenge on Muslim civilians for Seleka crimes will be held accountable. Publiclynchings such as the one following the reinstatement of the national army should be promptly and visibly investigated.

“The international community should respond promptly and robustly to stop these coordinated and targeted atrocities,” Bouckaert said. “There is an urgent need for the provision of humanitarian aid and for helping the government to set up programs for reconciliation, tolerance, and justice so that Central Africans can rebuild their tattered lives.”


By Uhrra February 12, 2014 17:12

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