New evidence of the slaughter of women, children and the elderly gathered by Amnesty International underscores the extreme dangers faced by the Muslim minority in the Central African Republic. The organization is calling for a more robust peacekeeping effort to protect civilians outside of the capital.
More than 50 Muslims were killed in two attacks investigated by Amnesty International in villages north-west of the capital, Bangui. The victims include at least six children, five women, and three old men. Two girls, aged seven and 18 months, were the youngest victims; the oldest was 70.
"International peacekeeping forces are failing the Muslim community," said Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International's senior crisis advisor in Bangui. "Scores of people were left unprotected from vicious anti-balaka reprisals at a time when such attacks were entirely predictable."
Both attacks were carried out by Christian anti-balaka militias, which now wield effective power in many of the towns and villages northwest of the capital.
The two towns, Boyali and Bossembele, like several others in the region, are now entirely empty of their Muslim populations, which fled in fear of their lives. Amnesty International delegates found that houses in Muslim neighbourhoods in both towns had been looted and burned. Some anti-balaka members in the area were wearing looted Muslim caps and clothing.
The first attack took place on 14 January in the town of Boyali, about 130 km northwest of the capital, Bangui. An anti-balaka militia that had mounted checkpoints in the town stopped a truck carrying a large group of people to Cameroon. The Muslim passengers - eight to 10 people in all - were forced to get off the truck, which was then allowed to leave.
Using machetes and knives, the anti-balaka hacked up their captives in the street directly in front of the mosque. The victims included three women and three small children, aged one-and-a-half, three, and five. Large bloodstains are still visible on the tarmac.
The only survivors of the slaughter were a 12-year-old boy who managed to slip away during the melee, hiding overnight with sympathetic Christian villagers, and a seven-month-old girl who was left on the truck with a Christian woman.
As the mother of the baby left the truck, she whispered her family name and the name of a town to the Christian woman, who pretended that the baby was hers and saved her life. The next day, the woman delivered the baby to family members who lived in the town.
The second attack occurred two days later on the afternoon of 16 January continuing until the following morning, in the town of Bossembele, 30 km north of Boyali. Muslim residents told the Amnesty International delegation that because the ex-Seleka forces based there were abandoning the town, the Muslim community knew it would be vulnerable to an anti-balaka attack. The entire Muslim population tried to flee, but there were not enough vehicles to transport everyone.
According to witnesses, some of the Muslims who were left behind engaged in a fire-fight with anti-balaka forces that lasted many hours. In the end, the anti-balaka militia stormed the central mosque, where numerous residents were taking refuge. Numerous civilians were killed. Approximately 25 bodies were found inside the mosque, and another 18 were found strewn around the mosque and nearby streets.
Not a single anti-balaka militant was killed in the incident, but among the 43 Muslims who were killed were women, old men, and a seven-month-year old baby. At least 12 others were injured.
It is not known how many of the dead and injured were killed in the fire-fight and how many were executed, but multiple sources described a deliberate, close range killing spree. According to the national Red Cross, most of the victims were killed with machetes and knives.
Over the past week, Amnesty International has spoken to numerous survivors of the attacks, as well as to eyewitnesses, officials from the national Red Cross, local police, and members of the anti-balaka militia that carried out the first attack.
Amnesty International delegates interviewed more than 30 people with first-hand information about the incidents, and visited the sites of the killings.
The slaughter in Boyali and Bossembeli is part of a larger pattern. While visiting the region over the past week, Amnesty International delegates witnessed massive and uncontrolled looting, the destruction of mosques, and the burning of civilian property. They were stopped at numerous checkpoints manned by unruly anti-balaka who demanded money. They also saw hundreds of anti-balaka militia members openly carrying machetes, hunting rifles, homemade firearms, and, in some cases, assault rifles.
Many Christians in Boyali and Bossembeli are extremely angry at the Muslim minority, believing that Muslims have been complicit in ex-Seleka abuses. In the weeks and months preceding these horrific attacks, tensions between the Christian and Muslim communities had dramatically increased.
The killing of some 1,000 Christians by ex-Seleka forces in Bangui in early December 2013 was the single worst killing spree carried out by the ex-Seleka, but smaller scale atrocities were committed with frightening regularity. Christian residents in many places, including in the region in question, used to hide in the bush for weeks at a time out of fear for their lives. The possibility of attack was all too real.
In Boyali, for example, ex-Seleka forces and Muslim civilians destroyed hundreds of homes belonging to Christian residents on 7 and 8 January. Amnesty International delegates counted more than 200 structures that had been burned down in a single area, and heard many stories of ex-Seleka abuses. There were no peacekeeping forces in the communities.
"The Christian community has suffered enormously over the past year," said Joanne Mariner. "The desire for revenge is palpable in CAR. Given how predictable such killings are, more robust peacekeeping steps should be taken to prevent them."
As the African Union Heads of States meet to consider the crisis in CAR next week, Amnesty International is calling on decision-makers to ensure that peacekeeping forces are responding effectively to the challenges currently unfolding on the ground.