For Bangui's last Muslims, to stray outside the safe haven is to court death

A French soldier of the Sangaris military operation takes position at the PK12 checkpoint on March 1, 2014 in Bangui.</p>

A French soldier of the Sangaris military operation takes position at the PK12 checkpoint on March 1, 2014 in Bangui.

BANGUI, Central African Republic — For the Muslims living in the Central African Republic’s besieged PK12 neighborhood, the boundaries are clear.

Don’t go past the French troops guarding the road to the south, nor too far up the main road heading north.

Danger lurks behind the wrecked houses to the east — there’s about nine meters of safety on that side. And no one ventures past the graveyard’s freshly dug mounds to the west.

Outside those boundaries is a city that’s turned against its Muslim minority.

Escaping attacks by Christian militias on the streets of Bangui, Muslims have fled to PK12 and one other neighborhood in the Central African Republic’s capital, where they take refuge in broken down buildings, tarp shelters, or by the side of the road.

On Sunday, PK12’s Muslims will finally leave, climbing aboard trucks organized by aid organizations and heading north. Many will cross into neighboring countries, joining the over 643,000 people who have been displaced by this impoverished country’s four-month spiral into ethnic and religious cleansing.

“We are happy to leave,” said Boubo Abobo, a cattle breeder who spends his days crouched along the road in PK12, fearful of hurled grenades from Christian militias called the anti-Balaka.

“It takes a lot of courage to leave, because here is like a prison.”

United Nations peacekeepers are due to arrive in September. But by the time they get to the CAR, neighborhoods like PK12 will be completely empty of Muslims.

Bangui was once a city with 36 mosques, where Muslims ran businesses and lived side-by-side with their Christian neighbors.

That relationship fell apart with the coming of the Seleka, a group of mostly-Muslim rebels who took power of Central African Republic in a coup last year.

The Seleka weren’t an overtly religious movement, but they were mostly Muslim, as was Michel Djotodia, the president they installed after taking power.

The fighters that ushered in Djotodia ran wild across the country during his time in office, plundering villages and killing supporters of the former president Francois Bozize.

The result was the anti-Balaka, a group of young Christian men who started fighting against the Seleka and then, once Djotodia was shooed out office by the country’s neighbors, went after Muslims for their perceived support of the Seleka.

Thousands have been killed, and towns in the country’s south and west have practically been depopulated of Muslims. Those who continue to hang on do so in enclaves like that in Bangui, protected by troops from France or a coalition of African Union countries.

The man determined to keep up the harassment of PK12’s Muslims can be found in a bar across from a busy market a few kilometers away from the neighborhood. Gbeme Dengo-Maxime commands a cadre of knife-wielding young men who, on a road that branches away from PK12, waylay taxis and motorcycles, granting freedom in exchange for a few hundred francs.

Like many anti-Balaka, Dengo-Maxime has a horror story from the days of the Seleka. His involves being abducted twice and nearly executed, and having his house torched. After the second abduction, he joined the Christian militias.

“What can you do? You will take revenge, as I did,” Dengo-Maxime said as he sipped a beer.

He confesses to once having Muslim friends. Now, if he were to see a Muslim, he’d kill him or her without question. If he saw a Muslim and a Christian together, Dengo-Maxime said he’d shoot them both.

“We don’t need them here, because they are traitors,” Dengo-Maxime said. “If they stay here, we know that they will take revenge.”

But the idea of all Muslims supporting the Séléka is met with disgust among PK12’s refugees.

“Saying… we support Seleka, it’s a kind of lie,” said Ousman Adam, president of a committee of

Muslims in PK12. “Who is Seleka here?”

If the Seleka was the catalyst for the violence, the Central African Republic’s ethnic differences and deep poverty continue to fuel it.

The country ranks 180 out of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index. Most people are poor, but Muslims factored prominently in the country’s moneyed class.

“A lot of the Muslims, given the extreme poverty of the Central African Republic, were relatively wealthy,” said Joanne Mariner, senior crisis response advisor at Amnesty International. Now, “most of them have fled with nothing.”

Some Muslims like Abobo are members of the nomadic Peul ethnicity, which moved into the country at the start of the 20th century from Nigeria. Others are of Chadian or Sudanese descent.

The anti-Balaka has seized on that, and xenophobia has become one of the tools in their arsenal to rally support.

“The first president of our country said respect human beings, but when the Seleka arrived they forgot about this because they’re not from this country,” the commander said.

Many of those who leave PK12 may indeed migrate to neighbors like Chad and Sudan; the buses leaving on Sunday will take them to towns near the country’s northern border. But even with the Muslims gone, the hate will remain.

“Since I was born, I’ve never seen this kind of thing in this country,” said Zenaba Montre, who lost her home and children and now sleeps on a mat by PK12’s roadside. “How can I stay in the Central African Republic?”