Conflict & Justice

The story of this church tells so much about the ethnic cleansing going on in the CAR


A chilling picture of members of the Anti-Balaka militia in the Central African Republic pretending to behead a comrade. The Anti-Balaka is an extremist Christian group accused of massacring Muslims in the Central African Republic.


Toby Woodbridge/BBC

Last Friday, Muslim and Christian leaders from the Central African Republic (CAR) pleaded with the UN Security Council that if more peacekeepers aren't deployed soon, the "partition of the CAR will lead to genocidal war.''

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The UN's chief special adviser on genocide prevention says that only 20 percent of the country's Muslims are left in the country. The rest have either fled or been killed by members of the Anti-Balaka militia, a Christian extremist militia that formed in 2013 after a Christian president was overthrown by a Muslim.

Since then, the violence perpetrated by the Anti-Balaka militia has continued largely unabated. The UN estimates that more than 290,000 people, mostly Muslims, have fled to neighboring countries. The country remains so dangerous that the UN has to airlift food to reach people displaced by the violence — delivery by truck is too dangerous. 

The BBC's Tim Whewell recently returned from the Central African Republic, where he witnessed the attempts at ethnic cleansing first hand.

Whewell traveled for hours from the capital Bangui along dirt tracks in a forest to reach the town of Carnot in the west of the country. It's a place that few journalists or international agencies have reached. Once there, Whewell found a concrete church with a muddy compound full of displaced Muslims.

"It's an overwhelming sight when you first see it," says Whewell. "There are about a thousand Muslim fugitives with the few possessions they were able to bring with them, mostly battered foam mattresses." 

They are there, says Whewell, because of a "remarkably courageous" local priest named Father Justin Nary, who offered refuge to the Muslims. Some traveled for up to two weeks through the bush to reach Carnot once they heard of the priest's offer.

The Anti-Balaka militiamen heard of the offer, too, and arrived at the compound. They demanded that Father Nary release all the Muslims, but he refused.

"They told me if I don't, they'll come back with petrol and burn down this church, including me," says the priest. "They brought back 40 liters of petrol and again threatened to burn down the church if I didn't release the Muslims to be slaughtered. But I could not do that, so I gave them cash for them to leave these people alone."

Whewell interviewed Haround Mamadou, a 20-year-old Muslim staying inside the church compound. He told Whewell that when the Anti-Balaka militia arrived in his town, they got out their machetes and starting cutting the throats of the Muslims in the village.

"They went through them one by one, cutting them into pieces."

Then the boy described what happened to his own family. "My mother and father were at home with my little brother and [the militia] came and they said, 'They are Muslims' and then executed all of them, except me. I escaped and that's how I'm here." 

A member of the Anti-Balaka militia told Whewell that they are killing Muslims out of revenge.

"It's because the Muslims came and killed some our family and destroyed everything, that's why we were angry. So we went to fight them and we killed them all. We took their women and children and their cattle. They're ours now. We'll give the women and children to the French troops, but the cattle are ours now. We don't want any Muslims in the Central African Republic. They have to leave this country or wherever they'll go, we'll fight and kill them."

The Anti-Balaka militia still remain outside the church compound gates. The only thing separating them from the Muslims inside is a small contingent of African Union peacekeepers who man the gate. Whewell says it is a situation that can't go on much longer.

"The Muslims in Father Nary's church are now the only Muslims for hundreds of miles around. Effectively in the whole western half of the country, there are hardly any Muslims left now. Thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands have already been evacuated to surrounding countries."

The Muslims at the church in Carnot want to leave the Central African Republic, but they need an escort and they don't have one. The French and African Union troops are supposed to be disarming the Anti-Balaka militia, but there's not enough of them, either.

"For a crisis of this scale in a country this size, there just aren't anywhere near enough foreign troops there," says Whewell. "At the moment, there are 2,000 French, about 6,000 African Union peacekeepers and that's all."

Whewell says it is unnerving talking to members of the Anti-Balaka militia. "A lot of them have been drinking beer and smoking marijuana and it's very, very difficult to trust them," he says. 

"They usually start off, especially dealing with foreigners, in a rather jokey, bantery kind of way. They play games and mimic, like pretending to cut one another's heads off, but you're very, very aware that if their hands slipped by just a few inches, they'd end up doing it for real. And against their enemies, we know that they do it for real."

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    On the road in Central African Republic. A tense moment as a chief imam bravely confronts an Anti-Balaka militiaman.


    Toby Woodbridge/BBC

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    Muslims in Central African Republic hold up a banner with a message for France: You allowed genocide in Rwanda, don't do same here.


    Toby Woodbridge/BBC