Spectre of terror raids overshadows C. African town
They were attacked by "drugged, drunk and uncontrollable" armed men, and now the residents of a Central African town live in terror after one of the most murderous raids in months was carried out right under the nose of UN troops.
At least 108 people were slaughtered and 76 injured during the attack by several hundred fighters on Bangassou on May 13, according to the Central African Red Cross and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The attackers "threw severed hands and feet at us", said Djamil, a Bangassou resident who has now sought refuge in a camp near the cathedral of the southeastern town on the border with Democratic Republic of Congo.
MINUSCA, the UN mission in the CAR, said the raiders were members of the anti-balaka militias. These largely Christian forces emerged to take on former rebels of the mainly Muslim Seleka alliance, with the two sides engaged in horrific revenge attacks.
During the attack on Bangassou, several hundred people holed up in a mosque. "MINUSCA told us to take shelter in the mosque and that's what we did," Djamil says. "Then the UN troops abandoned us."
"Given the number of the attackers, the UN soldiers had to fall back," a source close to the UN mission confirmed.
- After UN troops left -
"As soon as the UN troops left, a wave of anti-balaka rushed up to the mosque, yelling and brandishing machetes and home-made guns," said the bishop of Bangassou, Juan-Jose Aguirre. "I tried to talk with them, but they finished by shooting a friend who wanted to protect me."
"They saw the imam come out. They shot him. He fell to his knees, mortally wounded." the bishop said. "When I came back, I found him like that and I carried him off to lay him down with dignity. The anti-balaka shouted at me not to touch him."
"They were drugged, drunk and uncontrollable," a humanitarian worker recalled.
Terrified by the flare-up of violence, residents of Bangassou are digging in or fleeing. Only a few shops remain open on the central market and streets are deserted.
On Sunday, "armed elements taken for anti-balaka banned humanitarian workers from undertaking a mission in the area," MINUSCA said on Monday.
"Moreover, the armed elements kidnapped a woman and five children before killing them in the bush," the statement said.
- 'Woman buried alive' -
Last Wednesday, the supposed anti-balaka fighters "abducted two women being treated in hospital. One of the women was killed on the spot while the other was buried alive," according to MINUSCA.
Confronted with the escalation of violence, humanitarian teams now fear "new large-scale attacks on the town", an aid worker told AFP, asking not to be named.
Clashes between the Seleka, officially disbanded in September 2013, and the anti-balaka degenerated that year into ethnic and religious massacres that targeted mainly civilians.
Military intervention by France in Operation Sangaris followed by the deployment of UN troops reduced the number of atrocities, but armed bands still run wild in parts of the deeply poor country.
"This hunting down of Muslims, the looting of their shops, their houses ... It is revenge against the Seleka," the bishop said. "In people's minds, the Muslims of Bangassou are allies of the ex-Seleka."
Late in April, some 481,000 people were refugees in neighbouring countries, while half a million were internally displaced in the CAR, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The identity of the anti-balaka fighters remains unclear. "The people who have massacred us are unknown," said Ali, a displaced trader.
In the mineral-rich region fights to control resources such as diamonds, gold and timber frequently take place between rival gangs, but civilians are still in the front line.
"These young people are idle," the bishop said. "I've been meeting them since the month of February, because this is my diocese, to ask them to leave schools alone, particularly."
At the heart of his bishopric lies another displaced persons camp, this one for Christians.
For the UN troops in the region, they are "exhausted", according to a MINUSCA source, who recalled that six UN soldiers perished in the Bangassou region at the beginning of May.