YAOUNDE, Cameroon – A Catholic bishop in the city of Bangassou in the southeastern Central African Republic who’s presently sheltering roughly 2,000 Muslims in his seminary who fear attacks by armed militias which are primarily Christian, says they risk death if they even venture off the seminary’s grounds.
Speaking to the BBC, Bishop Juan José Aguirre Munoz said when fighting broke out in May, the Muslim refugees sought help at the seminary. But the fear of the anti-Balaka militias means they can’t venture out of the seminary to try to find basic goods for their families.
The Muslims are currently being sheltered at the Petit Séminaire St. Louis, located in Bangassou.
“Nearby, there are anti-Balaka militias who prevent them from going out to search for food, water or firewood,” the Spanish-born Aguirre said. “They are completely confined inside the seminary. They would risk death if they venture out.”
As violence in the Central African Republic continues to escalate, many aid organizations have left the area and refugees now live in rather dire conditions.
According to a late August report from Médecins Sans Frontières, Bangassou, a town of about 35,000 people, had been only marginally affected by the devastating conflict of 2013–2014, and was even praised for the reconciliation work and social cohesion that followed that period of violence.
This May, however, Muslim neighborhoods were attacked by anti-Balaka forces, and the situation changed dramatically. Now, according to the report, Bangassou has become a “ghost town” controlled by loosely organized armed gangs, while most of the population has fled across the border into the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Aguirre said attempts to get basic supplies such as food and clothes to the people taking shelter at his seminary had failed, with the anti-Balaka increasingly making it difficult for the aid to reach the people in need.
Instead, he said, the militias have stepped up their attacks. In a series of Whatsapp messages, he painted a stark picture of the ruthlessness of the fighting.
“They attacked a mission located 75 kilometers [46 miles] from Bangassou, called Gambo,” he said. “They cut the throats of several men and children. The young Muslims do not want to listen to anybody and look for fighting: they sit in front of the cathedral, preventing anybody’s passing. For three Sundays, we have been unable to open the cathedral,” he wrote on August 8.
He said the Central African Republic has become “a country adrift, with the entire population trapped like in a concentration camp.”
He said churches have become choice targets for both the anti-Balaka and Séléka rebels, but such attacks will not deter the resolve of the church to stay by the vulnerable.
“For us, there’s no such thing as a Muslim person or a Christian person, everyone is a human being. We need to protect those who are vulnerable,” he said.
On 17 May, the Red Cross reported that its officials saw some 115 bodies in Bangassou following several days of attacks. The president of the local branch of the aid agency, Antoine Mbao Bogo told Reuters News Agency that those killed had “died in various ways,” including knives, clubs and bullet wounds.
The Red Cross has also reported deaths of up to 60 people in recent weeks following fighting between armed groups in Ngaoundaye and Batangafo in the north, Kaga-Bandoro in the center and Alindao and Gambo to the south.
Hans Fly, Head of Programs for Catholic Relief Services in the Central African Republic, has said the escalating violence has worsened an already precarious humanitarian situation.
“The situation is very difficult right now,” he told Crux by e-mail.
“Insecurity and violence has left thousands of people in need of humanitarian assistance such as food, shelter, and medical care. In certain areas outside the capital, Bangui, the economy has been devastated.”
He said more than a half million people have been displaced by violence, and their needs are rising by the day.
“They need the most basic necessities of life – shelter, food, and protection against violence. At the same time, humanitarian organizations are being targeted, and so violence continues to hamper humanitarian access in areas where the needs are the greatest,” he told Crux.
While noting CRS’s role in driving reconciliation efforts and in distributing household supplies “as well as supporting affected households in former crisis areas to rebuild their homes and their livelihoods,” Fly said the road to peace has become ever more tenuous.
“Crime and violence is a major obstacle to peace,” he told Crux.
“There are still several armed groups that operate with impunity. In addition, the perceptions that have been fueled by fighting between different religious identity groups, even when the conflict is of an economic nature and not religious, will remain for years to come and must be met with a psychosocial response.
“Even when violence eventually subsides, continued economic underdevelopment could result in renewed clashes as groups compete for resources,” Fly said.
That feeling is echoed by a humanitarian coordinator in the Central African Republic, Najat Rochdi.
She said continued violence “is not likely to encourage the investments needed to face the humanitarian situation in the Central African Republic. They steer against the tremendous efforts made by the Central African authorities and the international community to address the severe humanitarian crisis.”