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Fear haunts besieged Muslim district of Central Africa ahead of pope’s visit


Pope Francis

Pope Francis

No money, no food, no petrol. But there is fear. Plenty of it.

It is fear that haunts the dusty streets of PK5, a Muslim neighbourhood in Bangui, the Central African Republic (CAR) capital that Pope Francis plans to visit on Sunday and Monday.

Under siege from Christian militia — known as “anti-balaka” fighters — backed by ex-army troops, residents of the city’s last Muslim district are cornered amid the burnt rubble and debris of war, hungry but too afraid to venture out.

“Nobody can leave PK5 and go on Boganda avenue without being stoned, kidnapped or killed by armed groups,” said a young Muslim who gave her name as Aziza.

“We are all afraid.”

The PK5 district, a maze of dirt-red roads and flimsy shacks, epitomizes the sectarian conflict tearing apart impoverished CAR.

If security permits, Francis is scheduled to visit its mosque on the last leg of his three-nation Africa tour, his first visit to the continent.

The district was the epicentre of an unprecedented wave of violence pitting majority Christians against minority Muslims that began in late 2013 and has continued since.

One of the poorest and most unstable countries in Africa, the country plunged into chaos after former president Francois Bozize was ousted in a coup in March 2013.

The mainly Muslim rebels behind the coup went on a bloody rampage that triggered the emergence of the equally dangerous anti-Balaka militia in mostly Christian communities.

At the height of the massacres, around one in five of CAR’s 4.6 million people were displaced and half the population forced to live on humanitarian aid.

“We don’t have anything here: vegetables, water, electricity or health care,” said local shopkeeper Ashta Babayero.

Residents said they had pleaded for help from UN peacekeepers in the MINUSCA force as well as from French forces there.

– Cornered, unable to move –
But Ahmat Moussa, also a shopkeeper, said international forces were refusing aid.

“Before, the MINUSCA patrols would escort those who wanted to leave, but it’s no longer the case.”

“We can’t even go to the bank to take out money. Food is scarce and what can we do without money?”

One man said that when his brother attempted to withdraw cash “they kidnapped, tortured and killed him, his body was horribly mutilated.”

Political scientist Roland Marchal said soldiers from Bozize’s army, officially dismantled by international forces, were joining the anti-balaka militia.

“They recently switched to the anti-balaka camp, this is not a good sign,” Marchal said.

The CAR leg of the pontiff’s trip has been maintained despite warnings from French peacekeepers there that they cannot guarantee Francis’s security.

And Muslim leaders from PK5 have met with the archbishop of Bangui in an attempt to secure as best as possible the locations the pontiff plans to visit.

But the militias patrolling the outskirts of the district do not plan to let up their barricades.

“The residents of the PK5 kill, slaughter and maim men, women and children!” said Herve Ngote, who lives in a nearby district.

“We will maintain this blockade until a solution is found, we will brave the armed Muslims in PK5 and MINUSCA,” he said.

Vatican officials say a last-minute change of programme will only happen if Francis is made aware of a precise threat that could endanger the thousands of believers expected to come and see him, many of whom will be travelling long distances from neighbouring countries.

Aides say he is determined that the sombre context will not affect his plans, particularly in CAR.

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