“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.