BANGUI (Reuters) - Mariam watched in horror as militiamen burst through the gate of her home in Central African Republic’s capital Bangui and demanded her husband say whether he was Muslim. When he said yes, they shot him dead.
“They killed him just like that in front of our child,” said Mariam, who fled through the back door. “Then they hacked and clubbed our neighbors, a husband and wife, to death.”
The two-day frenzy of violence in Bangui this month fed fears that Central African Republic was about to descend into religious warfare on a scale comparable to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
More than 1,000 people were killed, according to Amnesty International, as mostly Muslim fighters from the Seleka rebel group that seized power in March retaliated against Christians. The slaughter prompted France to immediately deploy 1,600 troops under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
Religious leaders had sounded the alarm over abuses by the Seleka after they burned churches, looted and killed during their southward march on the capital early this year. The violence has displaced some 700,000 people so far.
Many in the country insist that the origins of the bloodshed have little to do with religion, in a nation where Muslims and Christians have long lived in peace. Instead, they blame a political battle for control over resources in one of Africa’s weakest-governed states, split along ethnic faultlines and worsened by foreign meddling.
“We carried out these attacks because we have been invaded by foreigners by Chad and Sudan,” said Hercule Bokoe, a member of the militia, known as “anti-machete” and set up for self defense before the Seleka rebels arrived. He said his group’s aim was purely political: it would fight on until Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, installed as interim president, left power.
“We said to ourselves that the country cannot continue to be held hostage by foreigners,” Bokoe told Reuters.
Rich in diamonds, timber, gold, uranium and even oil, Central African Republic has been racked by five coups and numerous rebellions since independence from France in 1960 as different groups fought for control of state resources.
That - and spillover from conflicts in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Chad - have destroyed the rule of law, leaving a phantom state with an ill-disciplined army, corrupt administration and a lawless interior.
Djotodia and other Seleka leaders launched their uprising to gain access for northern peoples to resource wealth - particularly oil being exploited in their northern homeland by the China National Petroleum Corporation.
Djotodia says his northern Gula tribespeople - Muslim pastoralists neglected both under French colonial rule and post-independence governments - were betrayed by former President Francis Bozize, who sought their aid for a 2003 coup but surrounded himself with his Gbaya tribe once in power.
With support from battle-hardened Chadian and Sudanese fighters, many of them also Gulas, Seleka swept southward, overrunning not only Bozize’s poorly equipped troops but also a South African peacekeeping force in March.
Once in Bangui, unable to speak French or the local Sango language, Seleka fighters sought out Arabic-speaking Muslims and stayed with them, often hoarding looted goods in their homes.
Non-Muslims equated this with complicity, said Archbishop of Bangui Diedonne Nzapalainga, with the devastating effects seen in the early December violence.
“To non-Muslim locals, Muslim now equals Seleka and Seleka equals Muslim,” said Nzapalainga, who for months has worked with Muslim clerics to try to calm rising religious tensions. “We came out early and declared that this conflict was not a religious conflict but a political one.”
Djotodia, 64, waged an unsuccessful uprising against Bozize in the late 2000s using a network of Sudanese and Chadian support he had established during his time as consul in Nyala in Sudan’s southern Darfur region earlier that decade.
But a rift between Bozize and his main military backer, Chadian President Idriss Deby, shifted the balance of power in Djotodia’s favor. Deby, who had helped install Bozize as president in the 2003 coup, withdrew his Chadian presidential guard last year.
Witnesses said Chadian peacekeepers simply stood aside when Seleka troops - led by a former member of Deby’s own presidential bodyguard - marched on Bangui. As Bozize’s replacement in the presidential palace, it is now Djotodia who enjoys the protection of Chadian bodyguards.
Many in the capital say ethnic ties between the Seleka and Chadian soldiers participating in a 3,700-strong African Union peacekeeping mission (MISCA) are complicating efforts to resolve the crisis.
Residents in Bangui have accused Chadian troops of supplying Seleka fighters, turning a blind eye to their activities, and even attacking Christians themselves. Olivier Domanga, a resident of northern Bangui, said Chadian troops distributed dozens of weapons to Muslim inhabitants of his neighborhood.
“Chad is the master of Seleka and Seleka is its attack dog,” said Philomon Dounia, another Bangui resident.
Chad says its peacekeepers are neutral and denies supporting Seleka or distributing weapons to Muslims.
After opposition politicians and civil society activists demanded the Chadians’ withdrawal, MISCA’s commanding officer, Cameroon’s Martin Tumenta Chomu, said on Tuesday they would be moved outside the capital to northern Central African Republic.
Even in a country inured to rebellions, Seleka’s atrocities have proved shocking. It has been exacerbated the lack of a command structure in the loose coalition, whose name means ‘alliance’ in Sango. Warlords carved up territory where they had the power of life and death as they sought to extort money, particularly from non-Muslims.
Acknowledging he was powerless to control the fighters in a country the area of France, Djotodia announced the official dissolution and disarmament of Seleka following outcry from the international community, but this had little effect.
As Seleka torched villages and massacred entire populations, the “anti-machete”, or “anti-balaka” - initially local militias paid to defend crops and cattle against robbers and highwaymen due to the absence of state security - began seeking revenge.
According to local animist beliefs, members of the militia have magical powers that protect them, and amulets they wear make them invincible.
“The anti-balaka have nothing to do with the church or Christianity. Calling them a Christian militia is wrong,” said Nzapalainga, who said the ranks of the militia were swollen by people who had lost belongings or loved ones to Seleka.
“To them, it is revenge. I have heard people say this is the ‘return match’,” he said.
Louisa Lombard, an anthropologist specializing in Central Africa Republic, said tensions between Muslims and Christians had increased over the past decade but this was due largely to the success of Muslim traders with contacts in Chad and Sudan, rather than a rise of religious extremism.
“It is more an issue of the Muslims being considered foreigners by the Christians,” she said.
Despite these tensions, many Central Africans are proud of their tolerance and tradition of cohabitation and inter-marriage.
Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, leader of the country’s Muslims, was offered refuge at St. Paul’s church in Bangui by Nzapalainga after his family was threatened. In the capital’s northern PK5 neighborhood, Muslim youths guarded the St. Mathias Catholic church and protected Christians.
Helen Tofio, one of 40,000 people who fled to Bangui airport to seek safety near a French camp, voiced concern that ongoing tit-for-tat violence would sow the seeds of religious strife.
“We used to live in harmony with Muslims before the arrival of the Seleka,” she said. “But their abuses, and the attitude of some Muslims who seem to be supporting them, have given rise increasingly to religious conflict.”
(Paragraph four of this story has been corrected to clarify role of Seleka in early December violence)
Editing by Daniel Flynn and Peter Graff