August 15, 2014
BOSSEMPTELE, Central African Republic — The militia fighters were hunting for Muslims when they found the father and son at their home in this mud-brick town. They shot the man, then turned their guns on the 10-year-old boy.
A willowy figure in a black robe rushed up. On his chest was a large red cross.
“You can't be so inhuman,” Father Patrick Nainangue pleaded. “Why do you want to kill this boy?”
The boy would soon be a man, they answered, and he would take up arms against them. Nainangue stood his ground.
If they wanted to kill the child, he declared, they would have to shoot him first.
One of them swung around and pointed his gun at the priest.
In the midst of horrific attacks that killed thousands and caused an exodus of Muslims from this African nation, clerics such as Nainangue reached across the sectarian divide to shelter those in danger and to preach reconciliation. Churches in remote towns threw open their doors to fleeing Muslims.
There was little open conflict between the faiths in the Central African Republic, where most people are Christians or animists, until a rebel coalition made up mostly of Muslims from the neglected and deeply impoverished northeast seized power last year. They unleashed a reign of terror; everyone suffered.
When the Seleka rebels retreated in January, Christian and animist militias blamed Muslim civilians for the abuses they had endured. A deadly cycle of revenge killings began.
Even though Muslims and Christians both were being targeted because of their faith, leaders on each side take pains to insist that the conflict was not at its heart about religion. Instead, they say, politicians stirred up trouble in a quest for power. The ensuing bloodshed became an outlet for other grudges — regional, economic, ethnic and personal.
Under pressure from international mediators, the two sides signed a cease-fire last month during talks in neighboring Republic of Congo. But in parts of the country, the killing never stopped.
The 42-year-old priest thought he was going to die that January day, but the fighter lowered his gun and moved on.
When it was safe, Nainangue took the 10-year-old boy to the Roman Catholic church compound in Bossemptele, an agricultural and market town about 185 miles northwest of the capital, Bangui.
The militia attacks against the town's tiny Muslim population went on for days. Church volunteers searched the streets and surrounding forest for other survivors and collected the bodies for burial in mass graves.
In one house, Nainangue recalled, they found a man writhing in pain next to a body. His arm and tongue had been cut off, and he couldn't call for help. They loaded him into a wheelbarrow and rushed him to the parish hospital, but couldn't save him. Another man had been burned to death in his home.
Muslims had lived alongside and intermingled with Christians and animists in Bossemptele for generations.
Yes, there was tension. Poor Christian farmers resented the comparative wealth of Muslim businessmen, who made up much of the town's merchant class. There also were clashes between the farmers and nomadic Muslim herders from the Peul ethnic group.
When the Seleka rebels seized power, some of the town's Muslims supported them, Nainangue acknowledged one airless afternoon as he sat with some of Bossemptele's last Muslim residents on a veranda overlooking the Catholic church school. But those who did not suffered with everyone else.
One, a motorcycle dealer whom Nainangue was sheltering at the church compound, said the rebels threw him into jail for a week when he refused to join them. They beat him and cut off a finger, he said, holding up his maimed left hand.
Christian and Muslim clerics tried to mediate between the rebels and local people, but there were hard heads on both sides, he said.
Finally, when the Seleka government collapsed in January, most of the rebels in town fled, setting fire to homes and firing indiscriminately as they went.
The next day, Nainangue watched helplessly from the parish gates as hundreds of Christian and animist militiamen armed with knives and old hunting rifles marched into town.
They were dressed in mismatched civilian clothes and military fatigues. Protective amulets were layered around their necks and across their chests.
Some had donned women's wigs, or attached animal horns to their heads, part of secretive rituals they believe make them invincible.
French and African troops sent to help stabilize the country had not yet left the capital. Muslim civilians tried to fight off the militiamen themselves. They killed three of them, but were quickly overpowered.
Then the revenge attacks began. By the time it was over, more than 80 people were dead, mostly Muslim men.
“Almost the entire Muslim quarter was burned and looted,” Nainangue said. “We were collecting the dead and the injured from the neighborhood for a week.”
Among those trying to stop the cycle of violence are two of the country's most senior clerics, a Christian and a Muslim who not only work together in the name of peace but also lived together for several months.
When Imam Oumar Kobine Layama received death threats in December, he and his family moved into the riverside residence of Dieudonne Nzapalainga, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bangui.
The unlikely pair already had been traveling the country together — the archbishop at the wheel of a dusty 4x4, the imam seated beside him — trying to persuade their faithful to set aside their fear and hatred.
As the rebels swept south last year, meeting little resistance from the underpaid and ill-equipped army, President Francois Bozize tried to rally support by saying they were foreign extremists on a campaign to impose Islamic law. The presence of Arabic-speaking mercenaries from Chad and Sudan appeared to confirm that narrative, as did accounts by fleeing Christians who described ransacked homes and churches.
But when they went out to investigate, the archbishop and imam said, they found that Muslims as well as Christians were falling victim to the rebels' looting, raping and killing.
The undisciplined rebels appeared to be motivated less by religion than by grievances against Bozize, who had seized power himself a decade earlier, and by the opportunity to loot.
After the rebels took over, the clerics said they tried to warn the new president, Michel Djotodia, that a backlash was brewing.
“People had the impression here that they were living under occupation,” Nzapalainga said. “That's how the hatred came. That's how the anger came.”
In the cycle of violence that followed, mobs of angry Christians attacked Muslims, and remnants of the rebel force and other armed Muslims retaliated against Christians. Many Christians now insist that the country won't be safe until every Muslim has left.
Mamadou Goni, an imam at Bossemptele's main mosque, sat quietly and fingered his prayer beads as Father Nainangue described the horrors that had beset their town.
There were patches on the trousers he wore. His embroidered shirt was frayed, and his face grizzled with age.
One imam was killed, he said. Another was injured and later fled.
Goni was saved by his wife's relatives, who are Christians. When the killing started, they hid the imam and other Muslim elders in the bush until it was safe enough to bring them to the Catholic church compound.
They were among several hundred survivors crowded into the hospital, school and other buildings. Nuns brought them food and sleeping mats.
If they tried to leave, militiamen threatened to kill them, they said. Sometimes the fighters scaled the walls to extort money and cellphones at gunpoint from those sheltering inside.
Desperate to escape, they swarmed the convoys of trucks that rumbled through town crammed with refugees traveling from Bangui to the Cameroon border under the protection of foreign troops. “A person without a strong heart can't stay,” Goni said wearily.
Fewer than 30 Muslims remained out of a population that once numbered nearly 1,000, he said. They included several disabled people left behind in the panic. But these last few survivors refused to be driven away.
“The imam came here more than 50 years ago. His life is here. His soul is here,” the motorcycle dealer, who would give only his first name, Mahamat, said of Goni. “I grew up here. I don't have anybody in Cameroon and Chad. What am I going to do there?”
Punished by the rebels and hiding from Christian militias, Mahamat scoffed at the notion that this isn't a religious fight. For him, the evidence was obvious. Militiamen ransacked one of the town's mosques and were threatening to turn another into a bar, he said.
Two of his brothers were killed. The priests found their bodies and buried them. Mahamat was still trying to find out what happened to his wife, three children and other family members. He didn't hold out hope.
“Any Muslim is killed,” he said. “They don't distinguish.”
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