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In Central African Republic, Muslims Blame France

Wielding a machete in Bangui
Wielding a machete in Bangui
Cyril Bensimon

BANGUI — The motorbike stops abruptly. “If the French don’t want to help us, al-Qaeda will,” the teenager shouts before driving away. All around him, this road of the Begoua neighborhood in north Bangui — the Central African Republic’s capital — is covered in bundles full of the belongings of hundreds of people waiting to leave for Chad. Most of the men of the Fula community are armed with machetes, bows and arrows.

These days, France is not the most beloved country in this neighborhood. At the Nur al-Imam mosque, the bodies of three men and two women are rolled up in mats. “The French soldiers killed them. There were six of them, on foot. They threw grenades and shot with their rifles,” says Fadil Mahamat. Another man holds up the cartridge clip of a FAMAS, a French military rifle, bullet casings and a grenade pin as evidence.

The day after this incident, two armored vehicles came to reinforce the barrier marking the city’s northern exit. Muslim inhabitants are escorted by a general of the Séléka — the alliance of rebel movements that overthrew the government in March 2013 — and point to barely dry blood stains on the dusty ground and bullet holes on a metal gate. Meanwhile, a column of more than 30 soldiers of the French-led “Sangaris” operation appear in the street.

The locals accuse a Chinese man of throwing the deadly grenade. "They killed people just like that, right outside their homes,” one the men claims. Not a single word is exchanged between the two groups, but the stares crossing are those of people who have seen each other recently. “Careful, shots can be fired at any moment,” a French soldier warns. An officer confirms that an exchange of fire took place late on Wednesday afternoon of last week, but says no one was killed.

“Hollande is a criminal!”

A few meters away, Aristide and Bienvenu Aganze show their wounds. “The French had left to look for weapons, but, at 7 p.m., the Muslims came to attack us. They pillaged five houses," says a local resident. A young shop owner named Herman was reportedly killed, after having been threatened.

"There were others killed,” says the resident, who appears eager to leave the premises.

Another part of Bangui is emptying out — but this time, maybe for good. At KM 5, in the large Muslim area and business nerve-center of the capital, many houses have been deserted. Barely a woman or child remains. In the main roundabout, which features a statue of the sub-lieutenant Koudoukou, a Companion of the Liberation, the following words have been painted in French: “No to France. Hollande is a criminal!”

A speech by Moussa Hassaba Rassoul, a former Séléka officer now claiming to be a leader of the Muslim youth, is clear. “Politics and religion must not be mixed. We’re not Islamists. Here, we defend Christians; we stay to protect our property. We’re prepared for peace as well as war.”

But then comes a charge against France. “"Sangaris', when we’re attacked, they say ‘too bad’; they help the anti-Balaka the militias opposed to the Séléka and thieves. On Saturday, they searched the house of one of my nephews. The French didn’t find anything; they left and the onlookers killed him. President Hollande is bringing genocide into the C.A.R.”

Gone for good?

No one around him mentions the retaliation or looting attacks some of them are suspected of having carried out. Nor do they talk about the weapons dispersed around the neighborhood. Moments later, an all-terrain vehicle suddenly appears. “You intellectuals, you talk, but what do you do to protect us. We are infantrymen,” the driver shouts before hurtling off.

There are reasons for such anger. For a large part of the Central African Republic's Muslim community, the tens of thousands of Chadian immigrants or their descendants, the French military intervention that began in early December has been a catastrophe. The Séléka were, for many of them, a protective force. With these loyal fighters gone, the situation has given way to those who were only waiting to get revenge.

Chad is evacuating its citizens and all those who have Chadian ancestry, targeted as presumed accomplices of the former rebellion. N'Djamena has sent hundreds of soldiers to escort them on their way to the border. Last Thursday, a convoy of over a hundred private vehicles, dump trucks and vans full of men — piled up in between suitcases, furniture, mattresses and containers — left Bangui, protected by Chadian soldiers.

Others are still waiting to leave by air. In the military section of the airport, a camp for displaced people was set up a month ago on the initiative of Chadian authorities. Here, between 600 and 800 people live protected by the African and French forces, but face brutal conditions.

Kaltouma Omar knows nothing about the country of origin of his father, who died 20 years ago. This young girl, who had just been hired in public service, says that, when President Michel Djotodia resigned on Jan. 10, her neighbor organized the pillaging of her house. She and her relatives are hoping to find a paternal family they have never met.

Hadja Saboura, instead, is waiting with 11 family members to board the next possible flight chartered by the International Office for Migration. “I was born here in 1963. My mother was born here in 1943. This is my country, but the Central Africans have turned into wild animals. I won’t lie, if I find another country, I will never return here.”

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