of Bangui

May 23, 2014

BANGUI, Central African Republic — More than 100,000 Muslims once lived in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.

The vast majority have fled local militias and mobs dominated by Christians and animists. The attackers blame civilians for abuses committed by a mostly Muslim rebel coalition that briefly seized power last year.

Perhaps a thousand Muslims remain.

Celestine Moussa

Celestine Moussa, 50, was born Christian but converted to Islam nearly three decades ago when she married a Muslim. "We lived in harmony.… I even advised my sisters to marry a Muslim, because they are good people who take care of their wives." Now she lies awake at night listening to gunfire. Her husband fled to Chad in January with the couple's six children. She stayed behind to be close to her aging parents. She is also taking care of 2-year-old Abdel Latif, her husband's son by his second wife. "I just want things to be the way they were before," she said.

Ahmat Moussa

Ahmat Moussa's two brothers had tickets to fly to Chad in March. But when they arrived at the airport, they found that the flight was overbooked. The men thought they could get home safely, but not far from the airport, attackers armed with knives and stones surrounded their vehicle and killed them. Moussa, 45, hadn't been planning to leave. But now he is selling the family's houses and stores. "Everyone is afraid," he said.

Most Muslims who remain in Bangui are confined to a neighborhood called PK 5, the center of Muslim life in the capital. “If one of us passes these limits, they will bring back his body,” said Yaya Wazziri, imam of the Ali Babolo mosque. “We are in prison. We are prisoners.”

Aissatou Yerima

Aissatou Yerima and her 7-year-old granddaughter, Habiba Hassan, were sheltering with about 100 other people in the main mosque of a western town when Christian and animist militiamen stormed the building. Many fled into the forest. But Yerima had an injured leg and couldn't run. "I just closed my eyes and pretended to be dead," she said. A bullet ripped into Habiba's left thigh. "She was crying, ‘Grandma, Grandma, it hurts, it hurts,'" Yerima said. Foreign aid workers found the pair among the bodies and took them to a hospital in Bangui.

Habiba Hassan

Habiba pulled up her skirt to reveal a long, pink scar running down her leg. "Please take me to my father, so I can drink milk," she pleaded. Food was scarce in the area on Bangui's northern edge where she and her grandmother ended up. The fate of her family is unclear. Yerima said the girl's parents had escaped to Chad. Other survivors of the attack said the rest of Habiba's family was killed.

Ibrahim Djouma, right, and Aroune Ibrahim

On the December day when they launched a major assault on Bangui, Christian and animist militias shot and killed Ibrahim Djouma's mother and two older brothers. A militiaman shot Djouma in the knee as the 42-year-old mechanic tried to run. Red Cross workers took him to a hospital, where he was reunited with his 9-year-old son, Aroune Ibrahim. He does not know what happened to his wife and two other boys. "I just want to get out," he said.

Sheik Daoud Muslim Mbokani

Sheik Daoud Muslim Mbokani blames France for the violence against Muslims. When the former colonial ruler sent troops to help stabilize the country in December, they began by disarming Muslim rebels. "Now people are killing Muslims," said Mbokani, an Islamic community leader. "We are obliged to leave, and we don't know where we should go."

Adouje Ndjobo

Adouje Ndjobo, 75, said he didn't understand why he was living with other Muslims on the outskirts of Bangui. A herder, he was worried about the family's cows. His son left with the cattle when militia fighters started attacking ethnic Peul, Muslim nomads. Neighbors said all four of Ndjobo's children were killed about 50 miles northwest of the capital. "He was brought here all alone," said Ibrahim Alawad, a community leader. "We try to take care of him."

More than 1,300 Muslims were surrounded for months by hostile Christians on the northern edge of Bangui. In April, international peacekeepers evacuated them. After the last trucks had pulled away, neighbors stripped the mosque and surrounding homes of anything of value.

Imam Yaya Wazziri

When a Muslim dies in Bangui, the body is taken to the Ali Babolo mosque. Imam Yaya Wazziri, 72, washes the body and prepares it for burial. But it is too dangerous for him to accompany the remains to the cemetery. He asked African peacekeepers for an escort, but they were attacked. French forces were willing to accompany them only as far as a checkpoint at the city's northern limit. "The [militiamen] were on the other side of the barrier, scraping their machetes on the pavement and saying, ‘Come, come, come, thank you, today we have lots of meat,'" Wazziri said. Now Red Cross workers bury the bodies. "The way they were killed," he said, shuddering. "You have ones with slit throats, beheaded, ripped stomachs." He tries to preach patience to his young followers. "But you know," he said, "when they see the way their parents were killed, they too go looking for revenge."

Younus Yamsa

"I am ready to kill," Younus Yamsa said. Once he was the head of a large family that owned hundreds of cows. Now many of his relatives are dead or missing, their expensive house destroyed, the cattle slaughtered. He tried to defend the family with his bow and arrows. But the attackers had guns. They cut off his mother's head, he said, and burned his wife and two of his children to death in their home. Yamsa, 43, was injured later in a grenade attack. He can't walk without crutches. "If God gives me the opportunity to get revenge, I will take it," he said. "Otherwise, I will tell the story to my children so they can avenge us."

Ahmat Mahdi, left, and Mahmoud Mahdi

The Mahdi brothers owe their lives to Christian neighbors. Their father was returning home from dawn prayers in early December when militias attacked. He was shot and hacked to death on their doorstep. A third brother who ran to their father's aid was also killed, as was their mother. Ahmat, 28, and Mahmoud, 23, slipped through a gate and banged on the door of the neighbors, who hid them for two days, then drove them to a mosque. They want to leave, but don't have money or contacts outside the country. "We can't stay," said Ahmat. "Everyone is leaving."

Radia Abdel Aziz

Radia Abdel Aziz, 28, said life was good with her husband, Mahamat, who owned an auto repair shop. But at the end of December, militiamen burst into their home as Mahamat was saying midday prayers and shot him three times. When he tried to run, they killed him with machetes. She fled to a mosque with other family members. She spends her days sitting under a mango tree looking at old photographs. "We sleep on mats on the ground," she said. "When it rains, we all run into the mosque and stand there waiting for the rain to stop. Then we go back out to sleep."

Ousmane Moussa

Ousmane Moussa, 54, moved his family from an outlying district to an area protected by French and African peacekeepers on the edge of Bangui. Even so, there were frequent gun and grenade attacks. Two of his cousins were shot in the legs outside the mosque where they slept. His 27-year-old son, Adan, tried to drive to a city where he had heard that Christians and Muslims weren't fighting. Attackers fired at the car and killed him. Moussa said he would go anywhere peacekeepers would take him. "Anywhere but here."

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