In their military uniforms with flag patches prominently displaying the red, white and green colours of Burundi, troops from the African Union-led UN peacekeeping force patrol the streets of Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic.
The Burundian soldiers have just arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) as part of the AU-led force, known as MISCA, which was created under a UN Security Council mandate.
This is one of their first patrols and the Burundian soldiers, some with considerable peacekeeping experience in Somalia, are quickly discovering that this particular mission might not be easy.
In the Kilometre 5 district, where many of Bangui’s Muslim community lives, residents fear the anti-balaka militia. These Christian militias rose up after transitional Central African President Michel Djotodia, a Muslim, seized power following the March ouster of the country’s Christian president, François Bozizé.
But in the predominantly Christian Kilometre 10 district, residents are terrorised by the Muslim Seleka rebels, a coalition of rebel groups – including fighters from neighbouring Chad – that brought Djotodia to power.
While the Seleka coalition has officially been disbanded, the fighters continue to pose a threat to this fragile nation’s security.
On the streets of Kilometre 10, a MISCA contingent patrols the streets as a funeral procession passes. An obviously traumatised woman in the procession explains that the victim was a teenager. “Over there, yesterday, at the market,” she says panting in the midday heat. “They killed him, they killed a child. He was 15-years-old. They killed him.”
At the local district hospital, Burundian troops are protecting the premises when suddenly the atmosphere out on the street turns palpably tense as the crowd screams abuse at a Chadian patrol whizzing past.
Bangui’s Christian residents see the Chadian contingent, which is part of the MISCA mission, as allied with the Muslims.
“Listen, calm down,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Pontien Hakizimana, head of the Burundian mission, as an angry crowd, hurling invective against the Chadian troops, gathers around him. “We're here to protect the people of the Central African Republic. And the commander of MISCA will take all your grievances into account.”
Foreign forces viewed as taking sides in conflict
Just weeks after French President François Hollande suggested the French intervention in the CAR would be relatively short and simple, the conflict in this impoverished, chronically unstable nation is threatening to ensnare African and French troops deployed to help secure the country.
When French and AU soldiers began deploying to the CAR earlier this month to try to secure a country that, some observers warned, was on the brink of genocide, the international troops were initially welcomed by the population.
But within weeks, the mood has rapidly changed, with many Central Africans now viewing the international forces as taking sides in the conflict.
On Monday, Chadian and Burundian troops operating under MISCA exchanged fire in Bangui.
Lieutenant-Colonel Hakizimana, told the AFP that his men were disarming former Seleka rebels when Chadian troops from MISCA threw a grenade and opened fire on them, prompting the Burundians to return fire, wounding three Chadians.
A military source in the Burundian capital of Bujumbura told the AFP that relations between the Burundians and the Chadians had been strained ever since the Chadians in MISCA had been re-deployed outside Bangui while the Burundians were tasked with securing the CAR capital.
Further north, in the troubled town of Bossangoa, the epicentre of the fighting between the country’s Muslim minority and Christian majority, a Congolese soldier was killed by anti-Balaka militia, according to a Congolese official deployed under MISCA.
Speaking to the AP, a Congolese official said the soldier’s body was taken back to Brazzaville. “He was killed…by the anti-balaka, with an unprecedented level of barbarity. They lacerated him and hacked his head,'' said the official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the matter.
‘Non à la France’
Months after French troops successfully liberated parts of the Western African nation of Mali from jihadist control, French forces are discovering their mission in another former French colony could be a lot trickier than they initially thought.
On the road leading to Bangui airport, a group of enraged youths block a French convoy. Brandishing CAR flags and placards declaring, “Non à la France” (No to France) and “La France Genossidaire (sic)” the youth stop the convoy and accuse French troops of killing three former Seleka rebels.
“At the same time that they're disarming the Seleka rebels, they're bringing the population to… the side of the anti-Balaka, and then they loot the Muslim community,” said one protester.
In the end, a Congolese contingent arrives to disperse the crowd. As one of the Congolese vehicles get stuck on the dirt road and mood on the street turns nasty, the troops fire warning shots.
The situation in the CAR is getting tricky, acknowledges Captain Melance Nkengiriste, spokesman for the Burundian battalion. “On the one hand, they say they don't want the Chadians here,” explained Nkengiriste. “On the other hand, they say they don't want the French here. It's a tough situation that officials need to deal with.”
Date created : 2013-12-24