24 March 2014

Central African Republic: Tug of War Over Muslim Community in West

Photo: Till Muellenmeister/IRIN
Anti Balaka fighters at Bangui´s estate PK9, waiting to attack Muslim IDP convoys passing along the road.

Boda (Western CAR) — Anti-balaka militia fighters at the diamond mining town of Boda in the Central African Republic (CAR) have rejected a government-sponsored attempt to allow a Muslim community of about 12,000 people to stay there.

A spokesman for an anti-balaka militia group in the town of Boda, who gave his name as Edgar Flavien, told IRIN on 19 March that it could not accept the Muslims' continued presence in the town.

"We don't want the Muslims to stay here," he said. "They have burned our houses and killed our relatives. We don't want them in the CAR or in Boda."

He was commenting on a statement by a government adviser that the anti-balaka in Boda had made a commitment not to attack Muslims and to cooperate fully with French peacekeepers.

Boda is one of the last holdouts for the Muslim population in western CAR, most of whom have fled the country since December, and one of the few towns outside the capital where the French peacekeeping mission, Sangaris, has deployed troops.

"If we have to leave here, then we are finished in the west of the country," diamond dealer Mahamat Adoum told IRIN. But he said he could see little hope of them staying despite the combined efforts of peacekeepers and aid workers. All the Muslims in Boda that IRIN spoke to during a brief visit of only three hours, when asked if they wanted to leave, said Yes.

Muslims trapped in Boda town centre

Local people, including anti-balaka fighters, said Boda had been peaceful last year, when it was controlled by the largely Muslim Seleka alliance that seized power in the capital in March 2013 and is accused of committing many atrocities. But fighting broke out in Boda almost immediately after the Seleka left the town on 28 January, the anti-balaka's Flavien said.

A market and many other buildings were gutted in several days of fighting, and a heavy death toll was widely reported. Since then the Muslims have been trapped in what is left of the town centre, while 30-40,000 Christians, many of whom are also displaced and spending nights in and around schools or churches, occupy other parts of Boda.

Last week a government adviser, Joachin Kokate, who in recent months has claimed to be the military coordinator of the anti-balaka, led a mediation mission to Boda and spoke to community leaders and to the anti-balaka.

"The anti-balaka made a commitment that they would no longer attack Muslims and would collaborate fully with the French mission Sangaris, including by providing information," he told Ndeke Luka, a radio station in capital, after his return from the mission.

But he added: "The atmosphere in Boda was bad. We met the Muslim community in the morning and in the afternoon we met the Christians, and the anti-balaka. But at no point was there any meeting between the two communities.

"The Muslims said they were ready to accept a dialogue with the Christians, but the Christians won't hear of it. The two communities accuse each other of responsibility for destruction and massacres."

However, a report by aid organizations following a visit to Boda from 12-14 March notes that in private some Christians say they want the Muslims to stay.

French troops boost security

Local Muslims report that security has improved since the deployment of 80 French troops, but members of their community are still disappearing. Three Muslims' bodies were fished from a river on 13 March, and four days later two grenades were thrown into their area, they said.

The anti-balaka's Flavien denied that his group had thrown the grenades.

"We only have knives and machetes," he said. "We don't have grenades or rifles."

He also said his group recognizes Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, not Kokate, as the anti-balaka's national coordinator. CAR prosecutors have issued an arrest warrant for Ngaissona but he is still at large.

According to local Muslims there were no casualties from the recent grenade attacks, and Boda's mayor, a Muslim, Mahamat Awal, agreed that his community now has better security.

"But we don't have any liberty," he said. "We can't go 100 metres from our area. If we do, we'll be killed, so it's difficult for us to stay here. We would prefer to be taken elsewhere in CAR, while we wait for a dialogue with the Christians."

A footbridge marks one of the limits to his community's zone, and during IRIN's brief visit to the town no one from either community could be seen crossing the bridge. The French HQ in Boda overlooks the bridge, and the anti-balaka have checkpoints about 100 metres either side of the HQ.

Main street in Muslim quarter of Boda. The banner carries a message thanking the French, alongside a French flag

Mahamat Adoum, the diamond trader, said it is impossible for Muslims in Boda to go to the fields or the diamond mines, and Christians are no longer selling them diamonds, so their main source of income has dried up.

According to Adoum, 95 percent of traders in diamonds in the Boda area are Muslims, while the diamond diggers are virtually all non-Muslims. He argued that the non-Muslims will have difficulty taking over the trade, because it depends on confidence which is not easily won.

But the anti-balaka's Flavien said there was no need for a Muslim monopoly. "We can find other buyers for our diamonds," he said. "Even the whites can come here and buy diamonds."

Call for more food, plastic sheeting

Aid organizations, including the World Food Programme and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) have been helping people in Boda, providing food aid, mosquito nets, medicines and other items and medical care through a partner NGO, AHA (the African Humanitarian Agency).

A joint mission of five aid organizations visited Boda from 12-14 March to evaluate humanitarian needs and assess community tensions.

In a report, the mission notes a need for more food aid and plastic sheeting, a lack of care for malnourished children and a lack of hygiene precautions by medical staff.

It says there is agreement that the anti-balaka is harassing the population and, according to one source, the anti-balaka had recently been stealing many of the Christians' mobile phones.

The report notes that in public both Muslims and Christians say that the Muslims should leave, but in private some Christians say they want them to stay, partly because of their important role as buyers of local produce. A Christian woman even spoke of organizing a demonstration in favour of Muslims staying, it says.

It comments favourably on Sangaris's deployment, and the patrols that it has been organizing. A contingent of African Union troops (from the Democratic Republic of Congo) is also supposed to be deploying in Boda. An aid worker told IRIN these Congolese troops were at least 10 days behind schedule with their deployment, held up by "logistical problems".

The report recommends that an NGO should start work in Boda, helping people to find income-generating activities by organizing rebuilding and arranging microcredits.

It also recommends that planning should continue for a relocation of Muslims who want to leave, and that aid organizations should establish contact with the anti-balaka to plead for protection of civilians.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]

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