The conflict in the Central African Republic began as many conflicts do: with the overthrow of an unpopular leader. Since then, however, it has taken on a decidedly religious tone. First, it was Muslims terrorizing Christians; today, the Christians are the ones on the offensive.
A year ago, Muslims made up 15 percent of the country’s population.
Since then, many have been killed or displaced, with thousands fleeing to neighboring countries.
By early March the Muslim population in the capital Bangui, stood at just 900—down from as many as 145,000, according to U.N. figures cited by the Guardian.
The conflict began in March 2013 when a group of rebels formed a coalition known as the Seleka, which means “alliance” in the local language.
The group overthrew President Francois Bozizé and one of the leaders, Michel Djotodia, declared himself the new president — the country’s first Muslim president.
In September, Djotodia attempted to disband the Seleka, but the rebels refused to disarm and instead started killing, looting and burning villages, the Guardian reported.
By September, the conflict was starting to take a more religious turn. Members of the mainly Muslim Seleka included fighters from neighboring Chad and as well as Janjaweed militiamen from the Darfur region of Sudan, the Guardian said.
“An ‘us and them’ mentality of mutual distrust and paranoia is taking root, with some Christians taking up arms in vigilante militias known as ‘anti-balaka’ — meaning ‘anti-sword’ or ‘anti-machete’ — and committing atrocities of their own, giving the Seleka a pretext for yet more aggression,” the newspaper reported.
Djotodia stepped down in January, and Catherine Samba-Panza, a Christian, took over.
After Djotodia left office, Seleka were soon retreating to the north, attacking Christians along the way. But the anti-balaka began to gain the advantage in other parts of the country, looting Muslim homes and destroying mosques. An exodus of Muslims began.
In PK5, a neighborhood of the capital city, Bangui, the Muslim population was estimated to have fallen from about 7,000 to just 1,000, the Guardian reported.
In another neighborhood, PK12, the population went from about 25,000 to 2,700 in six months, according to Ibrahim Alawad, a lawyer who lived there.
“They’re not killing the Muslims, they’re sweeping them,” Alawad said, as quoted in the Guardian. “Imagine someone wants to kill you, roast you on the fire and eat you. It’s the hell of the hell. There are no living conditions here.”
Christian militias “freely admit that theirs in an exercise in vengeance, an eye for an eye, and that they will not stop until they have ‘cleaned’ the country of Muslims,” the newspaper said.
“I’m not sad at all because when Seleka took power the Muslims, who were our best friends, were the ones destroying the houses and killing people,” Sebastien Wenezoui, who helped instigate the anti-balaka, told the Guardian. “It’s a kind of lesson. They acted like betrayers so they have to go and learn something and come back with respectful behavior.”
Though the massacres of December and January have come to a temporary halt, “inter-communal hatred remains at a terrifying level as evidenced by the extraordinary vicious level of the killings,” said Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief, according to the New York Times. “This has become a country where people are not just killed, they are tortured, mutilated, burned and dismembered.
Pillay added that there were still killings daily, and that the number of rapes and other sexual attacks was on the rise.
The anti-balaka groups are not the only ones pushing out Muslims; regular rural countrymen are participating, too.
Donatella Rovera is Amnesty International’s senior investigator in crisis response. She said in a March interview with the Guardian Africa network that the anti-balaka and their supporters are saying that Muslims are all foreigners, and that they should leave CAR.
“So Muslims are paying the price for what the Seleka did — all Muslims are being labeled as foreigners and the anti-balaka are saying very clearly that they don’t want any Muslims, they must leave, and there is no space for them,” she said.
Class resentment is also a factor, as Muslims were often merchants and wealthier than their Christian neighbors, she said.
Rovera said that genocide is not the right term to use for the conflict in CAR, but that it is a clear case of ethnic cleansing.
Given the thousands of deaths amidst sectarian fighting and the displacement of the country’s Muslim population, Rovera said CAR is a clear case of ethnic cleansing.
“A community is being targeted for physical liquidation by being forced out of a particular area — the definition is absolutely spot on for this case,” she said.
That means the Central African Republic’s recent demographic change could become permanent. Rovera said Muslims have been forced not only out of their towns but also out of the country, with their homes destroyed.
“In the near future it is very difficult to see people coming back,” she said.