Paoua — In a bid to save lives, aid organizations in the Central African Republic (CAR) are planning what is set to be their first attempt to resettle a Muslim community within the country rather than outside it.
Aid agencies, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), have for months been helping Muslims to leave the country, but are now organizing an internal relocation.
The plan is for nearly 1,000 Muslims who are trapped inside a school compound in Bossangoa (350km north of the capital Bangui) and threatened by the anti-balaka militia, to resettle in the town of Paoua, about 175km to the northwest and about 70km from the Chadian border.
During a visit to Paoua on 15 March, the humanitarian coordinator for CAR, Abdou Dieng, told IRIN: "These people have only two options. Either they stay where they are and they can be massacred, or they are moved. They have expressed deep wishes to move out of Bossangoa, and when we asked them where they wanted to go they indicated this prefecture of Paoua.
"We have talked to the local authorities in Paoua to get their acceptance that they can host them, which we have received, and they have indicated a place where they can go. We're in the planning phase and we hope within the next days or weeks we will be able to help these people move out of Bossangoa."
Unlike most other towns of any size in western CAR, Paoua has not experienced fighting between the largely Muslim ex-Seleka and largely Christian or animist anti-balaka militias in the past few months, and has avoided inter-communal violence.
In response to violence in neighbouring areas, most of the Muslims in Paoua (estimated at about 1,000 in 2013) have left for Chad or Cameroon, but about 50 heads of households have stayed, and a few others have returned, local sources said.
A Muslim trader in the market at Paoua, Oumar Mohamed, said "the security situation is good here. The Muslims from Bossangoa would be welcome."
UN agencies report that schools are still functioning in Paoua, in contrast to most of northwestern CAR, and the local market appears to have a wide range of foodstuffs.
And there are still a few cattle grazing the parched grass in the town, whereas cattle have disappeared from many other towns in western CAR after Muslim herders drove them away or had them stolen.
There is work to do to help the Muslims resettle there, Dieng told IRIN.
"We need to work on areas like access to water and to education, and these people must be given opportunities to create jobs or to farm, but we think we have found a solution to save this group."
Currently four international NGOs are present in the town. There is a need for funding pledges to be realized so that they can scale up their presence, said Peter Neussl of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Asked why Paoua has been spared the kind of violence that has swept the rest of western CAR, local sources mentioned another factor that sets the town apart: it has its own rebel group.
Révolution Justice (RJ) is thought to consist of about 200 combatants who were previously part of the APRD, an armed group formed in 2003, when the forces of rebel-turned-president Francois Bozizé attacked the area.
The head of a local peace and mediation committee, Celine Nadikouma, attributed the stability in the area to two forces: MISCA, the African Union peacekeeping mission which has deployed 150 troops in Paoua, and the RJ, which she said was a counterweight to the Seleka, who seized power in Bangui in March 2013 and had lost control of western CAR in the past two months.
"That's why the Seleka tried to discipline their fighters here and control their abuses," she said, "because there was another group here which stood up to them."
The Seleka's relative restraint in Paoua meant the population was less inclined to take revenge on Muslims when the Seleka left and the RJ was able to prevent the anti-balaka instigating violence.
A UNHCR programme officer in the town, Prisca Ngafougara, praised the work of the local peace and mediation committee, which was set up with encouragement from the local Seleka commander and has helped to check abuses, she said.
She agreed that RJ has also contributed to security, by acting as a counterweight to the Seleka and the anti-balaka.
"Yes it's true," she said. "It's a group which says it's a protector of civilians and up to now we've heard very few reports of abuses by this group."
However, a UN source said there had been one recent incident in which the RJ had carried out a reprisal in a village after a militia member was killed there, and "there were civilian victims".
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]