columnBy Donatella Rovera
In the small town of Boali, 100km north of the capital Bangui, the Muslim neighbourhoods are eerily silent, completely empty of their inhabitants. Every single home has been thoroughly looted. Even the front doors have been removed and carted away.
Most of the Muslim residents have fled the town, forcibly displaced by vicious attacks carried out by so-called anti-balaka militias. We found more than 800 people who have not yet managed to leave. They are sheltering in the local church, where an impressive young priest is leading by example of inter-faith and neighbourly solidarity.
One young man told us about an anti-balaka attack in Boali on Friday 17 January which left five dead and 20 injured. He recounted how, at around mid-day young men armed with machetes burst into the family home.
"Everything happened very quickly. They did not say anything; they just started to hit us with machetes. They struck my father, Sanu, 55, repeatedly and smashed his head, killing him on the spot, and they injured my mother, Fatimatu, 40, and her younger sister Aichatu, who died of her injuries earlier today (19 Jan) before she could reach hospital. She had very serious head injuries; she left an eight-month-old baby girl, Ramatu, who is now an orphan."
Today, we found baby Ramatu, 11-year-old Fati and several other victims of this attack in a hospital in the capital to where they were taken by a humanitarian organization. Ramatu luckily got away with a minor injury to the forehead but Fati has a nasty open wound on the top of her head and another on her arm. She told us that the young men who stormed her home struck her with machetes.
For now the terrified Muslim residents are afforded some safety by French and African Union (AU) peacekeepers who are keeping the church cordoned off, but they want to leave and don't know how.
A French officer told us that the road between Boali and the capital is extremely dangerous for Muslims because of the checkpoints manned by anti-balaka militias.
We passed through two of these checkpoints on the way to and from Boali (one a few kilometres north of Bangui and the other a few kilometres south of Boali). Both times the young anti-balaka militia members demanded money to let us pass.
Other displaced residents who have braved the checkpoints to seek refuge in the capital tell similar stories.
We found a young man called Dairu sitting on a mat, his injured leg wrapped in a filthy rag, in the middle of an extremely crowded field near a mosque in the "PK 12" neighbourhood on the northern outskirts of the capital. It is here where thousands of displaced Muslim families fleeing anti-balaka attacks further north are congregating.
He told us how his father and 12 other relatives, including a six-month-old baby girl, were brutally killed by anti-balaka militias last week in Bouyali (some 130Km north of Bangui): "My father, Soba Tibati, could hardly walk because of bad rheumatism and could not run away when the anti-balaka attacked our village last Wednesday. They decapitated him in front of my eyes as he sat on a straw mat under a tree outside our hut.
"Twelve other members of my family were also massacred in the same attack: among them were three of my father's brothers, four sons of one of my uncles, my aunt, and three of my little cousins, the youngest a baby girl who was just six months old".
Tibati's son was himself shot in the left thigh while running away. Five days later he has still not been able to get any treatment.
The displaced keep streaming in, some carrying their possessions and even furniture, others with only clothes on their backs. Some hope to find temporary respite from the attacks in parts of the capital but others told us they are leaving the country to seek refuge in neighbouring countries because it has become too dangerous for Muslims in CAR and no one is protecting them. Either way, it seems unlikely that they will be able to return home any time soon.
Muslim communities are being blamed wholesale for the widespread atrocities committed over the past 10 months by ex-Seleka forces, the predominantly Muslim forces which were in power until earlier this month.
If nothing is done to rein in the anti-balaka militias, there is a real danger that many members of the Muslim minority may be forced to embark on what may end up being a one-way journey out of the country.
Donatella Rovera is Senior Crisis Adviser at Amnesty International.