Flight from rage Conflict in the Central African Republic

“It's them. It's the Muslims,” voices screamed. “We're going to cut them up.”

March 30, 2014

Muslim refugees fill the back of a semi-trailer as they flee the violence in the Central African Republic. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

BANGUI, Central African Republic — Aicha Oumar could hear the mob howl as it closed in.

Along with more than 100 other refugees, she was huddled in the stifling heat of a container truck, part of a convoy snaking its way through the capital on the first leg of a 400-mile ride to safety.

When it ground to a halt at a security checkpoint, an angry crowd was waiting.

“It’s them. It’s the Muslims,” voices screamed. “We’re going to cut them up.”

A young man in a baggy T-shirt appeared at the door to the corrugated container. In his hand, he held a grenade. Oumar gathered her daughters, 8-year-old Badawiya and 21-month-old Mariam, in her arms and prayed.

Until last year, more than 100,000 Muslims lived in Bangui, the decaying capital of one of Africa's most neglected countries. Fewer than 1,000 are thought to remain.

Fleeing a violent country

Outside Bangui, entire towns have been emptied of Muslims, who once accounted for 15% of the population and, for generations, intermingled with their Christian and animist neighbors.

On both sides of the conflict, homes have been torched. People have been dismembered. Some have been tied together and pushed from bridges or burned in their homes.

Oumar’s family had been on the move since early February, when their heavily Muslim area of Bangui came under attack. Hearing the gunfire, they ran to the Central Mosque, where hundreds had sought shelter.

As they fled, anti-Muslim fighters looted and burned their house. “It’s as if nothing ever existed,” said Oumar, a widow with hollow eyes and a bony frame.

“I was born here; I grew up here,” she said. “But because we are Muslim, they want us to go.”

The Central African Republic plunged into anarchy a year ago.

An alliance of rebel groups, made up mostly of Muslims from the northeast and neighboring Chad and Sudan, accused the government of reneging on a power-sharing agreement. Although it had no clear political agenda, the heavily armed alliance, known as the Seleka, seized control. For months, its fighters terrorized citizens.

While everyone suffered, Christians and animists felt most threatened. They began to fight back through neighborhood militias called “anti-balaka,” or “anti-machete,” forces, which had been formed earlier to fight common bandits.

Worried about the chaos along their borders, the leaders of neighboring African countries pressured Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, the government’s interim president, to step down, as he did in January.

Aicha Oumar and her daughter Badawiya, 8, wait for a convoy of trucks to begin its second day of travel as they and other Muslims try to escape the violence in the Central African Republic. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

The body of a Muslim man hacked to death by "anti-balaka" militia members lies in a hospital morgue. He was among three Muslims killed while returning from the airport, where they had tried unsuccessfully to join a flight out of the capital. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Troops sent by former colonial power France and the African Union began disarming his followers, and Muslim civilians believed to have supported the Seleka became targets for revenge.

A widely shared video here shows members of a mob setting fire to a Muslim, then hacking off the man’s limbs and biting into the flesh.

Hoping for seats on any evacuation flight, Oumar and her daughters, father and brother, made their way last month from the mosque to a makeshift refugee camp on the military side of Bangui’s airport, where thousands were crammed into a hangar among rusting planes and helicopters.

Living there with hostile neighbors just outside the gates was like being in prison, Oumar said. “If you go into the neighborhood, they will kill you.”

The family decided to take its chances by road. They would go by taxi to a transit depot, where they would board trucks to take them hundreds of miles west to Cameroon.

The day before they left the airport, though, they saw how dangerous that could be.

Five Muslim businessmen had arrived to catch a flight to Chad. But the plane was overbooked, and only two were allowed to board.

Their family members pleaded with the other three to stay at the airport. The men insisted they had a safe escort home.

Not far from the airport gates, attackers armed with knives and stones caught up with them. Two of the men died on the spot. The third ran. Red Cross workers retrieved his body a few miles away.

Both hands and a foot had been hacked off.

As Oumar's family left the airport early the next morning, peacekeepers warned them it still wasn't safe. Oumar wanted to turn back. Her brother insisted they go ahead; the camp was emptying fast.

They found a taxi willing to take them, but quickly ran into another problem. Truck drivers were charging passengers about $20 each for the trip, far more than the family of five could afford. After some negotiating, Oumar’s brother found one willing to take them for half price.

The family climbed in. Oumar’s frail 68-year-old father was hoisted aboard for the trip to the country of his birth. He hadn’t been back in more than half a century.

Groaning with loads of timber and passengers, the nearly 50 trucks set off in a convoy for the Cameroon border town of Garoua-Boulai, escorted by a contingent of peacekeepers from Burundi and followed by two Times journalists in a rented SUV.

The winding route is the landlocked nation’s economic lifeline.

Peacekeepers had spent weeks dismantling roadblocks and seizing weapons from armed groups that preyed on passing vehicles, extorting bribes and hunting for Muslims. But each time the troops moved on, the roadblocks went back up.

As the tropical sun rose, so did the suffocating temperatures inside containers jammed with refugees and their bundles of clothing, rolled-up mattresses and cooking pots. Christians lined the route, pointing and jeering.

“We see you,” some of them taunted. “We’re going to get you.”

Clockwise: Muslims displaced by the violence ride in a truck destined for Cameroon. A Burundian member of a peacekeeping force retrieves an abandoned rifle. Weapons of war. A boy carries a cow's head on his bicycle along a road where “anti-balaka” militia members were seen hunting down cattle herds owned by Muslim nomads. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Previous convoys had suffered gun and grenade attacks. One passenger who fell from a truck was set upon by a mob and lynched.

They were less than an hour into the journey when they pulled up to the checkpoint on the north side of Bangui. Angry youths surged forward. They scaled the trucks, demanded money from the drivers and threatened to blow up everyone inside.

“If there are Muslims in the vehicles we are going to decapitate them,” yelled a man in a black T-shirt with a heavy gold cross around his neck.

One man in a Central African uniform tried to help, yanking people off the trucks and screaming at them to let the convoy through. But peacekeepers apparently didn’t notice that some young men approaching the backs of the trucks were carrying concealed grenades and metal rods. One headed for Oumar’s truck.

Inside, passengers took up a hasty collection.

When the man appeared, they pushed a stack of crumpled bank notes at him. He took the money and hopped down.

Outside Bangui, crowded market streets and baying crowds gave way to forest and grassland. The trucks picked up speed, hurtling past clusters of mud-brick homes, many of them charred and roofless.

Groups of men wearing mismatched civilian and military clothing, many with old rifles or machetes slung over their shoulders, studied the vehicles rolling by.

The region traditionally has been mixed. Largely Christian and animist farming villages are interspersed with towns where Muslims made up much of the merchant class.

Herders, also predominantly Muslim, move their cattle through the area. There is long-standing tension between them and their Christian neighbors: Poor farmers resent the comparative wealth of Muslim traders and say the cattle trample their crops; herders accuse the farmers of stealing cows. Seleka forces set fire to many villages and shot randomly from their pickup trucks as they retreated in January, according to survivors.

It was then the turn of their enemies, who attacked homes, mosques and market stalls, sending Muslims fleeing into the bush. Scavengers stripped what remained, including the doors, nails and window frames.

Someone had written “Youth Dance Hall” in black letters on one ransacked mosque. The convoy passed streams of people with bloody pieces of cows that had belonged to Muslim herders, now strapped to bicycles or balanced on their heads.

Nearly halfway into the journey, the convoy pulled in to Bossemptele. Scores of Muslims who had been sheltering at the town’s Roman Catholic church rushed the vehicles.

A Muslim woman, Alima Ambayakwe, brushes off the affection of a self-styled “anti-balaka” general, Maurice Konomo, in the city of Yaloke. Konomo said he found the 20-year-old woman sad and alone under a mango tree along the road and pledged to hand her over to peacekeepers. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Many were members of the Peul ethnic group, nomadic Muslim herders, and too old, weak or disabled to fight their way onto previous convoys. This time, however, a priest in black robes was there to help.

A group of “anti-balaka” fighters stood nearby, their necks and wrists draped in amulets that they believe make them invincible. They accused the fleeing Muslims of siding with the Seleka.

“They must go back to Chad, to Sudan,” said a barrel-chested fighter named Singoub Zaiko. “Because as long as they are here, there will be problems.”

With their new passengers on board, the drivers picked up speed again. Trucks broke down and were left to catch up. Others got separated from the main convoy.

The forest thickened, and villages became sparse. On the road, nearly everyone carried a weapon — even children.

Dusk was gathering when a group of village boys armed with bows and arrows — some no older than 9 — flagged down several vehicles that had fallen behind.

The road ahead wasn’t safe, they warned.

Nearby, a heavy-set militia leader sat under a tree, sipping coffee from a plastic mug. His men, and at least one woman, readied their guns and ammunition. They were planning to attack Muslim herders that night, he said, but they promised that the trucks would be safe in the village. Passengers peering out doors and over the sides of trucks weren’t sure. And as darkness set in, they began to realize how alone they were.

As they agonized over what to do, two beams of light appeared on the horizon. A truckload of Burundian peacekeepers that stayed behind with two broken-down vehicles had caught up with them. The trucks fell in behind the peacekeepers.

The tarred road turned to a rutted dirt track. The convoy pressed on. Thick clouds of dust enveloped the trucks, coating everyone in a layer of red grime. In the murky gloom, Oumar, struggling to breathe, reached for a scarf to cover her mouth and nose.

Eleven hours out of Bangui, they halted for the night at a former military college in the remote city of Bouar, now a base for peacekeepers. Exhausted families climbed down from the trucks and spread straw mats in a field for the night. Flickering campfires cast an eerie glow on their faces as they prepared meals.

Oumar and her family had no food. They said their prayers and lay down for the night. Oumar wasn’t planning to sleep, though.

“I’m still in Central Africa,” she said. “I won’t feel at ease until we get out of here.”

Shortly before 7 a.m., peacekeepers told refugees to get back on the trucks, and they set off on the last leg of the trip.

Zahra Ali, 70, whose son was killed in the violence, sits in the courtyard of the Central Mosque in Bangui, where many Muslims in the Central African Republic have taken refuge. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Around noon, the convoy rolled across the border, delivering hundreds of refugees to a country that already has received tens of thousands.

New arrivals would be sheltered in mosques and churches, even a stadium. Aid workers are racing to put up shelters, health stations, latrines and other facilities. Some refugees have been taken in by local families; others sleep in the open.

The Burundian convoy commander stood at the frontier until the last truck disappeared into Cameroon.

Then he turned his attention to a line of trucks loaded with aid and other cargo, waiting to make the trip back to Bangui, where more refugees were waiting.

Contact the reporters | Follow Alexandra Zavis (@alexzavis) and Rick Loomis (@RickLoomis) on Twitter