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Troops Escort Muslims Out Of Central African Republic

Feb 17, 2014
Originally published on February 23, 2014 11:11 am

Tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing what the U.N. calls a campaign of "ethno-religious cleansing" in the Central African Republic. On Sunday, African forces provided a military escort to hundreds of people on a slow convoy toward the Western border with Cameroon.

Midway, in the town of Bouar, Amadou Gambo is parked outside the local mosque waiting for the troops to arrive so that he, too, could drive over the border to Cameroon. He has packed a giant truck with 40 of his relatives and the remnants of his looted shop.

'Get Out Foreigners'

When the longed-for phone call comes, Gambo starts up his vehicle and pulls into position behind a French gunship. It's a little more than 100 miles to the border, and it's the first time he has ever left this town of Bouar, where he was born.

On the side of the road, a small mob of Christians jeers, "Get out foreigners."

A man in a black T-shirt next to a music kiosk introduces himself as Dali Zuisse Bab the Savior. He says that if not for the international troops, he'd kill Gambo and everybody else. And he explains the reason why.

Zuisse says he was a shopkeeper until last spring, when a coalition of rebels called the Seleka from the mostly-Muslim north along with mercenaries from Islamic countries Chad and Sudan, deposed the president and imposed a reign of terror against the people.

He says they killed his mother, grandmother, his sister and his youngest son.

Zuisse's friend Alexandre, wearing an Eminem T-shirt, says he was shot in the thigh by the Seleka and pulls down his pants in the street to show his bullet wound.

Revenge And 'Magic'

The men say they joined a gang called anti-balaka, meaning "anti-machete" in the local language. It's a Christian revenge militia, bent on driving out Muslims. Their campaign is also fueled by economic resentment of the Muslim minority that makes up most of the merchant class. The majority-Christian Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. Zuisse blames that on a Muslim "magic" called Yasin.

Even while demanding a Muslim expulsion, the Christian militias have blocked Muslims from escaping. A convoy like this one led by African peacekeepers was attacked on the road Sunday, and least two people were killed. The French military is adding 400 troops to its force of 1,600.

Still, the anxious procession continued. Muslim trucks and vans, roofs piled with mattresses and bicycles and furniture, are sandwiched between military trucks trying to get them out of the country safely.

Patrick Dial stands in the doorway of his shop watching.

"I don't know what will happen in the future. I can't define it. We used to live together," he says.

Fueled By Poverty

But as a crowd gathers, including Zuisse the Savior and other Christian militants, Dial's language turns more xenophobic and his grammar becomes cruder.

"[The Muslim population's] absence won't matter. We can solve our problems for ourselves," Dial says. "We can build our country with our own efforts. We see in countries where there aren't any Muslims, the Christians make progress."

What the world has decried as ethno-religious cleansing is framed here as economic empowerment. Young men calling themselves anti-balaka invoke the spirit of Robin Hood when they loot Muslim houses and shops. It's a message that's found takers in a country that's had so little for so long.

Update at 11:15 a.m. ET: Convoy Attacked

The convoy that stopped in Bouar was attacked by anti-balaka Christian militias just before reaching the border with Cameroon. There was heavy fighting, and one civilian in the convoy reportedly was killed and several were wounded.

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The conflict in the Central African Republic has taken a new violent turn. Christians who had been attacked by Muslim rebels are now carrying out a campaign of revenge that the United Nations says amounts to ethno-religious cleansing. Tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing. Yesterday, African forces provided a military escort to hundreds of people on a slow convoy towards the western border with Cameroon.

NPR's Gregory Warner met them midway in a town of Bauer.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Amadou Gambo has packed a giant truck with 40 of his relatives and the remnants of his looted shop. And he's parked outside the mosque in Bouar, waiting for the French and African troops to arrive so he too can drive over the border to Cameroon.

AMADOU GAMBO: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: He feels bad leaving his country, he says. But when the longed for phone call comes, Amadou starts his truck and pulls into position behind a French gunship. It's a little over a hundred miles to the border and the first time Amadou has ever left this town of Bouar, where he was born. Yet on the side of the road a mob of Christians jeers: Get out, foreigners.

The man in a black T-shirt next to a music kiosk introduces himself to me as Dali Zuisse Bab, The Savior. He says if not for the international troops here, he'd kill Amadou and every last one of them and he tells me the reason why.

DALI ZUISSE BAB: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: He says he was a shop keeper until last spring when a coalition of rebels, called the Seleka, from the mostly Muslim north - joined by mercenaries from Islamic countries Chad and Sudan - deposed the president and imposed a reign of terror against the people. Zuisse says they killed his mother, his grandmother, his sister and his youngest son.

BAB: (Foreign language spoken)

ALEXANDER: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: You have a gun wound from the Seleka?

ALEXANDER: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Zuisse's friend, Alexander, wearing an Eminem T-shirt, pulls down his pants in the street to show me his bullet wound.

Ah, you were shot. Okay, so you're showing me that you were shot through the thigh by the Seleka. You're also Anti-balaka?

ALEXANDER: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: So Zuisse and Alexander joined a gang called Anti-balaka. That means anti-machete in the local language. A Christian revenge militia, bent on driving out Muslims, their campaign is also fueled by economic resentment of the Muslim minority that make up most of the merchant class. The majority Christian Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world, which Zuisse blames on a Muslim magic called Ya Sin.

BAB: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Even while demanding a Muslim expulsion, the Christian militias have blocked Muslims from escaping. Just yesterday, a convoy like this one, led by African peacekeepers, was attacked on the road. At least two people were killed. The French military is increasing its force by another 400 troops, bringing the total to 2,000.

Today, the anxious procession continues of Muslim trucks and vans, roofs piled with mattresses, bicycles and furniture, sandwiched between military trucks hoping to get them out of the country safely.

Patrick Dial, a Christian, stands in the doorway of his shop watching.

PATRICK DIAL: (Through translator) I don't know what will happen in the future. I can't define it. We used to live together.

WARNER: But as a crowd gathers, a crowed including The Savior and other Christian militants, Dial's language turns more xenophobic, his grammar more crude.

DIAL: (Through translator) Their absence won't matter. We can solve our problems for ourselves. We can build our country with our own efforts. We see in countries where there aren't any Muslims the Christians make progress.

WARNER: What the world has decried as ethno-religious cleansing is framed here as economic empowerment. Young men calling themselves Anti-balaka invoke the spirit of Robin Hood when they loot Muslim houses and shops. It's a message that's found takers in a country that's had so little for so long.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Bouar, Central African Republic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.