In Bossembele, the market place is half empty. The stands and makeshift stores lie vacant under the blazing sun in this small town in the west of the Central African Republic.
Every single Muslim resident has fled the town, fearing attacks by mostly Christian militias, known as anti-Balaka, as this impoverished African nation reels from one of the worst episodes of inter-religious violence in the continent’s recent history.
To help life return to normal, local policemen are now back on the streets. But there are very few of them and they are woefully underequipped.
"It's not enough, it's really not enough,” says Wikfred, a Bossembele resident, as a crowd of children gather around him. “The police aren't properly armed, the Seleka forces left with all their weapons," he adds, shaking his head.
Police come out of hiding
Having seized power in a coup in March last year, the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels staged a 10-month occupation of cities and towns across the country that was marked by a host of atrocities, including looting, torture and murder.
With the rebel group now disbanded, ex-Seleka have become the target of revenge attacks by the anti-Balaka militias, while tens of thousands of Muslims have been driven from their homes to escape the bloodshed.
In Bossembele, the main task facing French troops, deployed to CAR in December in an effort to quell the violence, is to get local police forces back into action.
At present, only 21 police officers have returned to the job, armed with just eight Kalashnikov rifles they share between them.
Nevertheless, it is an improvement on the situation seen during the worst of the anti-Balaka violence, when local security forces went into hiding.
“We weren’t doing anything. It’s only when the French forces arrived that we dared to come out and present ourselves,” says Gaston, a local police officer. “Now we're here, the police, in the neighbourhood.”
‘Enemies of peace’
The French military are also helping to disarm the anti-Balaka militias, setting up checkpoints around Bossembele to confiscate weapons and ammunition.
“We have to make them understand that they are not the police here, so they don't carry out any more attacks,” says Freddy, a sergeant-major with the French forces stationed in Bossembele.
But with more than 100 anti-Balaka fighters posted around the town and little in the way of resources, local police chief Feikian-Honoré Zalo believes dialogue is the only way to restore peace and stability.
“We need to approach them and to bring them in so that they develop a sense of patriotism, to rebuild the country,” he says.
This message seems to be at odds with the firm stance being taken by the French military, however.
On Monday, the commander of France’s military forces in CAR, General Francisco Soriano, declared that anti-Balaka militias are now the main cause of violence in the country and should be treated as “outlaws and thugs”.
“Today, they (the anti-Balaka) are the trouble-makers. They are the ones causing heavy losses among the population,” he said.
“They are the ones stigmatising communities and today they have become enemies of peace in the country.”
Date created : 2014-02-11