Religious Violence Raises Fears of Ethnic Cleansing in Africa

Instability in the Central African Republic can only mean trouble for the war-torn region.

A mother and her child attempt to take cover as repeated gunshots are heard near the Miskine district during continuing sectarian violence in the capital, Bangui, on Jan. 28. The day before, at least 13 people were killed in the Central African Republic as the top U.N. human rights official warned of escalating reprisals against Muslims. (Photo: Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

Feb 3, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Scott Johnson is a regular TakePart contributor who has headed Newsweek’s Mexico and Baghdad bureaus and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.

The families are holed up in a village called Begoua, in the southern part of the Central African Republic. All told they number about a thousand Muslim men, women, and children who have taken shelter in a neighborhood known as PK12.

Surrounding them outside are scores of Christian fighters who seem increasingly determined to rid the country of their Muslim compatriots—maiming, beating, killing, and in at least one documented case eating them in the process.

“They started going after all the Muslims, even kids and pregnant women,” said Abdel Hafiz, a 40-year-old high school political science teacher who has taken refuge in PK12 with three of his seven children. “They kill, they disembowel them, they even eat them and burn them.”

It’s a scene playing out with growing frequency across the Central African Republic. With each day, the violence appears to worsen, and it threatens to further harm the already unstable region. That, despite the work of 1,600 French peacekeepers and 5,000 African Union peacekeepers who have been there since early December.

“The violence committed against Muslims is less organized than the genocide in Rwanda, but the merciless killings, and rhetoric we hear, saying, ‘We'll finish them off,' or ‘We don't want Muslims in our country anymore,’ is getting worse,” says Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, who has been on the ground for the last year, monitoring the situation across the republic.

“Most of the victims are defenseless, and the brutality is just shocking. They kill children; they show no mercy at all; entire Muslim districts have already been destroyed, and others will be if this doesn't stop,” he said.

When I spoke with him recently, Bouckaert told me that there are “many towns where not a single Muslim remains.”

The crisis in CAR dates to March 2013, when Michel Djotodia and bands of Seleka fighters from the Muslim minority unseated the president and began targeting Christians in a bloody and vicious campaign of violence and looting. Djotodia became the country's first Muslim president, but he folded to enormous pressure from the international community to resign. His abdication of power didn't come before bands of Christian defense forces, called anti-Balaka, began a wide-reaching series of reprisals, first against the Seleka fighters and more recently against the largely defenseless Muslim civilian population from whom they sprang. In response, tens of thousands of Muslims have been fleeing CAR to safety in neighboring Chad.

The result is a country that has passed into complete chaos.

The U.N. estimates that upwards of 2,000 people have been killed in the violence, but most observers agree the real figure is much higher—Bouckaert puts it in the tens of thousands. The disparity comes, in part, because no one really knows what has happened—or continues to happen—in the vast stretches of forested countryside that make up most of the republic.

Researchers from Amnesty International recently visited a rural town called Baoro and discovered that 75 people had been killed and no one had reported the numbers.

“Nobody had known about it because there's no phone coverage and the town is surrounded,” Bouckaert told me. “There are massacres that no one knows about.”

central african republic and neighbors

The continuation of the crisis could also have wide-reaching implications for central Africa. Roughly the size of France and Belgium combined, CAR sits at the center of a region torn apart by war, ethnic and political hatreds, the proliferation of violent militia groups—including the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony—and at least three long-simmering wars.

To the east and north is South Sudan, where a recently brokered U.N. truce is only barely holding together and where Africa’s longest civil war raged for more than three decades.

To the south is the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was home to Kony’s LRA for decades before he moved to South Sudan and, more recently, to CAR in a bid to disappear from view altogether. The scope of violence in Congo has been so bad, for so long, that it has often been called “Africa’s World War,” and it’s estimated that more than 4 million people have died as a result.

Meanwhile, the crisis in Darfur sits on CAR’s northeast edge, where borders are virtually nonexistent, and tribes, smugglers, militias, and other assorted armed groups cross easily and with impunity. To the west is Chad, which over the last few months has been either sending or receiving fighters or refugees, further destabilizing a country that saw its own civil unrest two years ago. Even relatively peaceful Cameroon, to the west, has seen its share of troubles as Janjaweed fighters from Sudan cross over to slaughter elephants.

“If it becomes more of a vacuum, it will suck in bad forces from all the neighbors,” says J. Peter Pham, who directs the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a bipartisan Washington, D.C., think tank. “There’s not a single country that borders CAR that is stable.”

Back in PK12, Abdel Hafiz is worried the anti-Balaka forces will swarm into the camp.

“If we leave here, and they know we're Muslim, they'll attack us right away,” he told me when I reached him by phone recently. “They came to attack us at 9 a.m. and tried to get our stuff. They're not going to let us leave without attacking us.”

Hafiz and the others have machetes for protection. They no longer have faith that French forces will protect them and increasingly believe the French have sided with the Christians who are slaughtering them.

“It’s going to get a lot worse,” he said. “We’re playing with fire here.”