Zongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Edgar* looks exhausted. He has just reached the Zongo office of the National Commission for Refugees in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo after crossing the Oubangui River hours earlier to escape the carnage in his native Central African Republic.
He is with his wife, two children and a sister and niece. They have all lost close relatives in the mindless sectarian violence across the river. Edgar lost his parents, while his sister Annie's husband was killed. But the 28-year-old market trader, a Christian, says he would never have escaped without the help of his Muslim neighbour.
Some others tell similar tales of being helped by those resisting efforts to fan religious extremism in a country where sectarian violence had never been a major issue in the waves of unrest and instability that have swept the Central African Republic since independence in 1960.
The landlocked country's latest problems began just over a year ago when the rebel Seleka movement took up arms against the government of President François Bozizé before capturing the capital, Bangui, in March.
Before and after that victory last year, Edgar lived peacefully with his predominantly Muslim neighbours in an area close to the Kina Market in Bangui's third district. But after fresh fighting flared in December, the Muslim Seleka fighters and the Christian Anti-Balaka militias began to target civilians on the basis of religion.
It was all so unexpected, said Edgar, who had just returned from a business trip to Douala, the commercial hub of neighbouring Cameroon, on the eve of the fighting. "On the Thursday morning [December 5] when I wanted to go to the market, the Anti-Balaka people came from the east and the north by foot. They started killing people and targeting the Muslims," he recalled.
He said that the Seleka responded by killing civilians at random. "They killed with weapons and knives . . . They killed all the Central Africans of the area, if you are young, if you are old, they kill you," Edgar explained.
Edgar said he was lucky because a Muslim friend hid him in his house. "He helped me and I was hiding in his house. He covered me. He helped me get out of the area, gave me shoes and the clothes of the Muslims and told the Seleka that I was his brother," he said, adding that he crossed to a Christian area and started to look for his wife, three-year-old boy and daughter, aged 13, who had been in his house with his parents when the violence began.
As Edgar's wife, Lucie,* explained, the Seleka came to the house. "I fled but my husband's parents stayed in the house. A friend helped me. I was hiding in her house. She helped me get out and escorted me to [the office of the Roman Catholic charity] CARITAS," she said.
"In my area now you cannot walk without a veil. Men also cannot walk without the boubou [a flowing robe] of the Muslims. My friend gave me a veil and helped me out of the area," added Lucie. She said she had discovered her husband was still alive because CARITAS let her use a mobile phone and she called him. But his parents were both killed and the house torched.
Despite joint appeals from Muslim and Christian religious leaders in the Central African Republic for an end to the violence between faiths, sectarian killings have continued and scared civilians have risked their lives to flee to neighbouring countries, especially to the DRC.
Once reunited, Edgar and Lucie followed this route across the Oubangui to Zongo, along with his sister Annie,* whose husband and brother were killed as they tried to flee. She and her infant were helped to escape by a Muslim friend.
Finding a place to cross was difficult as armed men patrolled the bank on the Central African Republic side. "We spent the night in an abandoned house in the forest. After the curfew ended at 6 a.m., we found a fisherman - I negotiated with him and he helped us cross. We then walked 10 to 12 kilometres to get here," Edgar said. "I have lost everything."
Edgar and his sister also mourn the fact that Christians have been fighting Muslims. "We never had any problems between Muslims and Christians. We are friends. They helped us to hide," said Annie, who blamed the situation on the armed fighters.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is hosting more than 56,000 refugees from the Central African Republic. About 24,000, including Edgar and his family, are in four refugee camps, while the rest stay with local families. "We are very worried about the situation, but we hope that the flow of people into places like Zongo will ease following the resumption this week of aid distributions at Bangui International Airport, thanks to the improved security measures," said Stefano Severe, UNHC's regional representative.
*Names changed for protection reasons.