In a troubled C.African city, Muslims return after flight

Bangassou (Central African Republic) (AFP) –


Four walls are all that remain of his house. Around it are piles of rubble, where opportunistic weeds grow.

Even so, Muhammad Abdullahye is contented. He sips from a steaming glass of tea to mark the end of the Ramadan fast. He is home.

Two years ago, Abdullahye, a Muslim in his 50s, fled his house in Bangassou, a city in southeastern Central African Republic (CAR), ahead of an onslaught by the "anti-balaka," a militia mainly composed of Christians and animists. According to UN figures, 76 people were murdered.

He and around 1,500 other terrified Muslims found shelter in the city's Catholic seminary, where they survived, despite frequent attacks by the gunmen.

"We fled around 3am," recalls Abdullahye, whose nickname in his home district of Tokoyo is Baba Kete, or "Little Daddy" in the Sango language.

"We first took refuge in the mosque, but when they killed the imam, we all got into a truck and headed towards the cathedral," which is next door to the seminary.

In the months-long siege that followed, the fate of the seminary and those inside became emblematic of CAR's quest for peace.

One of the world's poorest and most troubled countries, CAR began its spiral into violence when former president Francois Bozize, a Christian, was overthrown in 2013 by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels.

Armed groups claiming to represent the Christian community then arose, raising the spectre of sectarian war.

A French-led military intervention and the deployment of a large UN peacekeeping force helped to stabilise the country and stage presidential elections.

But around 80 percent of the territory remained in the hands of militia groups, who typically claimed to defend religious or ethnic group and often fought with rivals over CAR's mineral wealth.

In a population of 4.5 million, thousands have lost their lives, nearly 650,000 have fled their homes and another 575,000 have left the country, according to UN figures as of December last year.

- Local steps -

Abdullahye returned home in late April. Ten other families have followed suit.

"The people are glad to see us. Tokoyo is our home," he said.

How he was able to leave the seminary -- and the uncertain future that lies ahead for this neighbourhood -- speaks amply of CAR's anguished search for peace.

Fighting between the anti-balaka and self-defence groups in the Bangassou seminary began to ease in mid-2018 for a variety of local factors, says Richard Thienou of the UN's International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Bangassou.

Pushed by the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSCA, the anti-balaka agreed to a non-aggression deal, and this was followed by the return of the national armed forces.

These small steps were followed this year by an agreement to end fighting between two villages on the outskirts of Bangassou where there were massacres in 2017, and by joint peace committees set up in the city itself.

Before he fled, Abdullahye, a trader, had the biggest home in the neighbourhood. Today, the only thing left of it are its bare walls, which he saved by paying a sum to the militia. He also lost his stores.

- Hope and uncertainty -

His neighbour, Younous Issa, had no money to pay off his assailants. As a result, his property was demolished, down to the very last brick, and he is rebuilding it.

Even so, he says that times are better and he is in good standing with the gunmen.

"Before, we had too many problems with the anti-balaka. Now I'm at ease, and people are helping out."

He adds: "We don't know what will happen tomorrow but right now, we are working on awareness of social cohesion, hand-in-hand with the anti-balaka."

Adding to the sense of improvement in Bangassou has been the return of nearly 5,000 Christian members of the Banda ethnic group, who had fled to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

At the national level, the government and 14 militia groups in February signed a peace deal -- the eighth in the series. The accord remains intact, despite a massacre in the northwest of the country last week attributed to the 3R militia, which claims to represent the Fulani community.

Many Muslims remain holed up at the seminary in Bangassou, too afraid, or unable, to return home.

The government and UN are offering 25,000 CFA francs ($42, 38 euros) to displaced people to go back -- a sum that Idriss, a sightless man sitting under a mango tree between two tents, is a drop in an ocean of need.

"We have lost everything! I'm blind -- what do you expect me to do?"