Video: Residents in CAR town left to fend for themselves
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Some 18 months since the start of the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), and despite the presence of more than 7,000 French and African peacekeepers, many on both sides feel little stands between them and further violence.
FRANCE 24 visited the town of Bouca, the scene of a 48 hour siege in April last year by around 100 Muslim ex-Seleka rebels, where residents say they have been largely left to fend for themselves.
Sometimes armed with just crude or homemade weapons and charms, Christian militias, known as anti-balaka, now protect the town from further assaults.
“If God has given me the power to do it, I must do it,” Vernard Zoumandi, a young militia member, told FRANCE 24.
The militias often find themselves hopelessly outgunned, however.
“[The ex-Seleka] have a lot of weapons. Mortars, rockets, Kalashnikovs, everything,” says Vernard.
Asked how he can resist in the face of such firepower, he replies: “Well....by the grace of God.”
There is a feeling of abandonment among Bouca’s residents. Targeted by the ex-Selekas, Catholic priests and nuns have temporarily left the area, leaving their congregations behind.
‘Nothing is safe’
The last remaining representative of the church in Bouca, parish Vice President Jean de Dieu, has little faith in the protection offered by the African Union troops stationed in the town.
"The anti-balaka are protecting the church now, it's all them,” he says. “African Union troops will let anyone in. They should have checkpoints outside the town, but they prefer to just stay here. That scares us."
Bouca is also struggling to cope with an influx of around 3,000 refugees. Hygiene conditions in the town are poor, while humanitarian aid often does not reach far enough.
Just days earlier, a pregnant woman lost her baby after walking 43 kilometers to the hospital, only to find the maternity ward no longer existed.
"If there was some security, they could go to the hospital to give birth,” says Alice-Rose Befio, the former head of Bouca’s maternity ward. “But nothing is safe, so we can only help them give birth on the ground."
The local Red Cross says 124 Christians and 40 Muslims were killed in April’s violence – but there are no concrete figures for the missing.
All but abandoned in the no-man’s-land between the two sides, Bouca and its residents remain as vulnerable as ever.