REPORT/Centrafric: Muslim Bangui caught between guns and trade + [Video]

SAMIR TOUNSI

“We’re not jihadists, we’re not bandits, we’re defending our community,” insisted the leader of a militia group in a powder keg Muslim district of the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui.

Outside the group’s improvised base, a short distance from the mosques and shops of Bangui’s flashpoint PK5 district, a youth from the so-called “50/50” self-defence group guarded the headquarters with an M16 assault rifle. Another man concealed a weapon under a red blanket.

Three years of conflict and massacres that pitted Muslims against Christians and displaced hundreds of thousands have spawned several of the so-called “50/50” armed groups.

They take their name from demands by Muslims, who make up as much as 20 percent of the country’s population of 4.5 million, to be guaranteed the same rights as Christians.

The militias are adamant that they will not sign up to the disarmament process pushed by the weak central government and the United Nations until their equal rights are guaranteed.

And this week’s donor conference in Brussels could throw Central Africa a crucial lifeline but will likely throw up criticism of the embattled central government’s effort to neutralise armed groups like the 50/50 militias.

Back in PK5, six men — the general staff of the militia group — sat on a carpet inside a house to plot the future of their movement after its chief was killed in violence that left about 10 dead at the end of October.

 

French soldiers of the Sangaris operation, the military intervention in Central African Republic, patrol the PK5 Muslim district in Bangui Issouf Sanogo, AFP/File

The shootout was one of the latest episodes of recent violence to strike the country as it struggles to shrug off the shadow of the civil war between mainly Muslim rebels of the “Seleka” coalition and the militias known as “anti-balaka” that emerged in Christian communities.

Massacres were carried out by Seleka forces who overthrew then president Francois Bozize in March 2013 and took power for 10 months. The atrocities led to the creation of anti-balaka militias and both sides slaughtered civilians, with the worst mass killings witnessed during the first year of the chaos.

“We’re not Boko Haram,” said Abdoulaye Mabo Koudoukou, the self-proclaimed “deputy chief of staff” of the Muslim militia, referring to the Islamists active in northern Nigeria and beyond.

“We’re not bandits. We are demanding freedom of movement for all Muslims throughout the Central African Republic.”

The country’s flag hangs on the wall, alongside the movement’s mottos: “Equality, justice, brotherhood” — and “No to Violence”.

The armed Muslim groups formed following the attempted Seleka takeover are “a necessary evil” according to the general secretary of the Traders’ Association of PK5, Hassan Ben Seid.

– ‘We’re trapped’ –

 

A soldier from the Central African Republic army stands guard as Muslims gather at the PK5 Mosque in Bangui

“We (Muslims) are abandoned to ourselves. The state doesn’t exist. You don’t see the police, nor the gendarmerie (paramilitary police),” said the owner of a hardware store at the edge of PK5, beside a road leading to other parts of the capital.

PK5 gets its name from its location — five kilometres (three miles) from the centre of Bangui. Many Muslims no longer feel safe to make that short journey by foot for fear of being attacked if they leave their enclave. Some residents even abandoned other districts to take refuge in PK5.

“We’re trapped. MINUSCA (the UN mission in the Central African Republic) encircles us, but does not protect us. For a month, we’ve no longer had access to the Muslim cemetery on the far side of the airport,” Ben Seid told AFP. “The students no longer go to the university.”

Yet his Christian clients can still come to PK5, he says.

The best-known Christian in Bangui, Roman Catholic archbishop and future cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga, regularly joins the Muslim imam in organising peace marches in the troubled district.

 

PK5, the powder keg Muslim district of the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui, gets its name from its location, 5kms from the city centre Marco Longari, AFP/File

And despite patrols by UN peacekeepers and streets that are deserted after nightfall, PK5 looks like any other commercial neighbourhood, with shops stocking everything from mattresses to mechanical spare parts, and stock spilling out onto the roadside.

Pedestrians still make their way down wide streets of beaten earth, weaving between cars, delivery vans, motorcycle taxis and small vegetable stalls.

But normality grinds to a halt every time there is a fresh outbreak of violence.

“Before, it took one gunshot for the market to empty in a split second. Then we had to wait for weeks for activity to resume. When people were killed (in late October), the market was open again 48 hours later,” said Lazare Ndjadder, a Christian customs agent.

“Kilometre 5 is a small republic in Central Africa, with Muslims, Christians and atheists,” said Ndjadder, who was a losing candidate in legislative elections held alongside last February’s presidential vote.

“It’s not difficult to be a Christian in PK5, when you have done nothing wrong, like me.”

With AFP

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