BANGUI, Central African Republic — Heavily armed peacekeepers escorted some of the last remaining Muslims out of Central African Republic’s volatile capital on Sunday, trucking more than 1,300 people who for months had been trapped by violent Christian militants.
Within minutes of the convoy’s departure, an angry swarm of neighbors descended upon the mosque in a scene of total anarchy. Tools in hand, they swiftly dismantled and stole the loudspeaker once used for the call to prayer and soon stripped the house of worship of even its ceiling fan blades.
One man quickly scrawled “Youth Center” in black marker across the front of the mosque. Others mockingly swept the dirt from the ground in front of the building with brooms and shouted “We have cleaned Central African Republic of the Muslims!”
“We didn’t want the Muslims here and we don’t want their mosque here anymore either,” said Guy Richard, 36, who loads baggage onto trucks for a living, as he and his friends made off with pieces of the mosque.
Armed Congolese peacekeepers stood watch but did not fire into the air or attempt to stop the looting. Soon teams of thieves were stripping the metal roofs of nearby abandoned Muslim businesses in the PK12 neighborhood of Bangui. “Pillage! Pillage!” children cried as they helped cart away wood and metal.
“The Central Africans have gone crazy, pillaging a holy place,” said Congolese peacekeeper Staff Sgt. Pety-Pety, who refused to give his first name, as the mosque came under attack from militants. The anti-Balaka fighters showed up in their trademark wigs and hats with animal horns, donned in the amulets they believe protect them from the enemy’s bullets.
Sunday’s exodus further partitions the country, a process that has been underway since January, when a Muslim rebel government gave up power nearly a year after overthrowing the president of a decade.
The United Nations has described the forced displacement of tens of thousands of Muslims as “ethnic cleansing.” While previous groups have been taken to neighboring Chad, Sunday’s convoys were headed to two towns in the north on the Central African Republic side of the border.
Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis adviser for Amnesty International, said the people evacuated Sunday had lived in daily fear for months.
“It’s tragic and inexcusable that the situation was allowed to fall apart so that in the end evacuation was the only way to save people’s lives,” she said. “Much more should have been done to prevent ethnic cleansing in December and January, before tens of thousands of Muslims had fled.”
The long-chaotic country’s political crisis has prompted fears of genocide since it first intensified in December when Christian militants stormed the capital in an attempt to overthrow the Muslim rebel government. They soon began attacking Muslim civilians accused of having collaborated with the much despised rebels.
The rebel leader-turned-president ultimately resigned, and mob killings of Muslims and mutilation of their bodies took place on a near-daily basis in Bangui earlier this year. Tens of thousands of Muslims were escorted to safety in neighboring Chad, though earlier convoys were fraught with violence. Militants lined the streets and attacked departing trucks, at one point beating a man to death after he fell from his vehicle.
The violence against Muslims has drawn international concern, prompting the world’s largest bloc of Islamic countries to send a 14-delegate fact-finding mission to Central African Republic. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation says delegates will be in the capital for three days starting Tuesday.
In an effort to avoid chaos, Sunday’s convoy had been scheduled to depart at dawn, not long after men prayed in the mosque for the last time and lightning flickered in the dark sky.
It took hours, though, for the families to load up their wares, from plastic jugs for water to bicycles, and even satellite dishes and chairs. In starting a new life in an unknown city, many said they were bringing anything of value that they could sell there to make money.
Tonga Djobo, 75, in a long flowing gown, prayer cap and orthopedic shoes, steadied himself with a stick he used to prod cattle that also doubled as a cane. He said he first came to Central African Republic 47 years ago from neighboring Chad.
Today would be the last day of his life he would spend in Bangui, he declared, joyously pumping his fists in the air. Meanwhile, his wife and family carted their wares all wrapped in bright wax-print fabrics to their assigned truck and waited to board.
With his teeth caked in slivers of cola nuts, the elderly cattle herder said he had tried to climb aboard earlier departing convoys but there had not been enough space.
“I leave with a heavy heart but we have been chased from here,” he said. “The things I have seen these last few months — even an unborn baby cut from his dead mother’s womb. These Christian militia fighters are barbarians.”
Each family was assigned a truck number and given a pass that they handed over as their names were called from the list. One by one, the families climbed up wooden ladders into the open air transport trucks where they sat on their belongings. Some of the men sat closest to the edge and sported bows and arrows for self-defense, while others wore machete sheaths slung across their backs.
African peacekeepers from the mission, known as MISCA, along with French forces stood watch along the route out of Bangui.
Adama Djilda, 45, said her 7-month-old son Zakariah had now spent more than half his life trapped inside the PK12 neighborhood. As she breastfed him early Sunday while awaiting a truck to board, she said she didn’t care which town the peacekeepers took her as long as she got out of Bangui.
Four months ago, she said, the Christian militia fighters gunned down her husband while he was farming in his field, leaving her a widow and mother of seven. For months now the family has slept restlessly in constant fear of grenade attacks in the neighborhood.
Awaiting her departure, she said: “Only God knows how much we have suffered here.”