About a dozen Muslim armed fighters rolled up to the Catholic mission in a pickup truck and delivered an ominous message to the hundreds seeking refuge on church grounds: Leave the premises by morning or face death.
Ismael Hadjaro, a self-proclaimed colonel in a rebel movement that overthrew Central African Republic’s president earlier this year, accused the mission and its staff of harboring armed Christian combatants.
“If you are not gone by 8 o’clock tomorrow morning, we will come back and shoot you and burn down the mission,” he told the nun running the mission, according to a witness. “You’re making this a religious war.”
Frantic phone calls followed and soon soldiers from a regional peacekeeping mission showed up to guard the Catholic mission, where church officials and aid workers insist they are merely trying to protect civilians. Most of the people sheltered there are women and children, according to Lewis Mudge, a researcher with the Africa division of Human Rights Watch who witnessed the colonel’s threat in Bouca last week.
France’s foreign minister has warned that its former colony in central Africa is “on the verge of genocide” as attacks mount across the country’s remote northwest between the mostly Muslim fighters from Seleka, who ousted the president in March, and Christian militias that have emerged to defend towns and in some cases attack Muslim civilian communities. To try to avert further violence France has pledged to send 1,000 troops to Central African Republic to help boost security before an African Union-led peacekeeping mission is fully up and running.
The situation in Bouca has been particularly dire since early September, and fresh clashes in late November prompted the threat against the Catholic mission. Forty-three bodies have been buried in recent weeks in Bouca, about 180 miles north of Bangui, the capital, officials said.
Hundreds of homes in Bouca have been burned to the ground and those who haven’t fled to the Catholic mission have taken shelter in the fields outside town.
“My house was looted and burned by the Seleka forces, and like many here I fled into the bush,” says Nathanael Wandji, the director of the local Red Cross in Bouca. “The situation is becoming more and more dramatic.”
The area around Bouca is home to a growing Christian militia movement known as the anti-balaka. The fighters — armed in some cases only with artisanal hunting rifles — rose up earlier this year in opposition to the wave of attacks by Seleka rebels. The rhetoric has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone in a town where Christians and Muslims had lived together in relative peace for generations.