Tensions run high in Central African Republic

Amid ongoing violence, some Muslims find help … from Christians /

Gamboula, Central African Republic – When a death squad came to the mission hospital here a few months ago, its leaders demanded to go inside and massacre all of the Muslim patients.

What they didn’t know was, none were left. They’d all evacuated to neighboring Cameroon. A local Roman Catholic priest intervened, pleading with the group not to enter the hospital for fear they’d start killing people indiscriminately. They eventually acquiesced.

A nervous calm exists in this far-flung town on the western edge of a country where animistic and Muslim militia forces are killing each other daily in violence that threatens to escalate into genocide. In regions where Muslims are being killed or driven into refugee camps in Cameroon, some of their greatest protectors have been the local Christians and missionaries.

That’s been the case in Gamboula, where the hospital, nursing school and Bible school tread shaky middle ground – decidedly Christian, but existing mainly to serve the Fulani, a little-reached Muslim people in Western CAR. Tim Wester, a physician, serves at the hospital and nursing school. His wife, Ann, teaches in the Bible school. They’re joined by Presbyterian and Evangelical Covenant missionaries, plus others from the Swedish agency InterAct. (For this story, the Westers were interviewed in the U.S., where they are spending year on home assignment.)

cent-MMAP-mdGamboula lies 500 miles west of the capital city, Bangui, and just 3 miles from the Cameroon border. That’s already proved strategically important should the missionaries need to get out of CAR in a hurry. Following the 2013 coup, they fled to Cameroon just ahead of a band of Miskine rebels, a splinter group. All returned by late summer.

Roots of violence

This majority-Christian country’s most-recent chaos traces to March 2013, when a Muslim rebel movement called Seleka overthrew the government and President Francoise Bozize. During and after the coup, Seleka forces killed Christians in and around Bangui. Similar violence raged in the northwest.

More recently, after the Seleka president’s ouster, anti-balaka squads have vowed revenge. In the local Sango language, balaka means “machete,” but the name is used to mean “invincible.” The anti-balakas’ religion is a mix of animism and Christianity; they wear animistic charms they believe render them immune to opponents. They’ve targeted Muslims throughout the country, regardless of whether they identify with Seleka. French military have intervened, as have African Union peacekeeping forces, but not in numbers large enough to make a big difference.

“If they disarm a few people of one group, the others are just standing there waiting,” Ann Wester says about Bangui. “And as soon as they’re disarmed, they come in to kill them, sometimes right in front of the peacekeeping troops.”

For now, Bangui’s former mayor is the interim president. National elections are set for February 2015 – though most believe they’ll be delayed – and no one knows what will happen after that. Fear exists that as Seleka forces regroup in the north, jihadist fervor will be stoked by Boko Haram terrorists entering the country from Nigeria via northern Cameroon. The nation already serves as a training ground for mercenaries from other sub-Saharan nations like Chad and Sudan.

“You can actually buy a grenade on the local market in Bangui for a dollar,” Tim Wester says. “So kids, anybody … you want a grenade, you just go downtown.”

Fulani Muslims on their way out of Central African Republic and into U.N. refugee camps in neighboring Cameroon. Photo by Kim Cone.

Fulani Muslims on their way out of Central African Republic and into U.N. refugee camps in neighboring Cameroon. Photo by Kim Cone.

More than 300,000 Muslims, including most of the Fulani people, have fled the country, Tim says. Christians are fleeing violent areas, too. One truck convoy headed away from Bangui and toward Cameroon was stopped by anti-balaka forces, who ordered all of the Muslims out of the trucks. According to the Washington Post, those included a young mother named Fatimatu Yamsa, holding her baby daughter, Shamsia. Fatimatu quickly handed the infant to a Christian woman she didn’t know, instructing her to take her to a family member in the next town.

Then, in front of the local mosque, the anti-balaka hacked their Muslim captives to death with machetes and knives. Among the dead were Fatimatu and two of her sons, ages 5 and 3.

The convoy drove on to the next town, found Fatimatu’s family and gave them the baby. Fleeing themselves, the family was unable to care long-term for Shamsia. A Christian pastor offered to take her, and his family now is caring for her.

That’s in a Christian sector of Bangui, where heavy fighting continues between forces loyal to either the anti-Balaka or Muslim forces. Meanwhile, Christian and Muslim families who have lived in peace with each other are caught in the crossfire. Most refugee convoys now receive military escorts, Ann adds, but the feeling is still one of “total lawlessness.” Close to 20,000 Muslim Fulani refugees now occupy two UN camps about 20 miles across the border in Cameroon, Tim says.

“A number of our Fulani friends have had family connections in Kenzou, the border town in Cameroon, for many years,” he says. “They didn’t want to go to the Fulani camps, so they’re just living in Kenzou. So our missionaries been able to go over and visit them in Kenzou from time to time.”

The exodus from Gamboula has changed life dramatically for the mission here. The hospital that used to care for more than 150 patients now has only 30 or 40. That means a corresponding drop in income; when the Westers returned to the States this summer the hospital was a month behind in paying salaries.

Keeping bags packed

In February, a few Fulani people asked missionaries to take care of baggage they couldn’t take across the border. So as several missionaries drove through Gamboula with the truckload of baggage, about 100 anti-balaka forces stopped the truck and surrounded it — pounding on the hood, firing their guns in the air and demanding to confiscate the vehicle.

A local pastor with the national church intervened and was able to calm the people and bargain with the anti-balaka leader for the return of the truck – though all of its contents were stolen.

Dr. Tim and Ann Wester

Dr. Tim and Ann Wester

“In the past when the Seleka came,” Tim says, “we went and made contact and knew who the leaders were. With the anti-balaka, because there are so many different groups, we didn’t know who was really in charge. We had not established a relationship with these leaders and that kind of provoked this episode.”

“After this event, we did have our bags packed,” Ann says. “We thought it was pretty serious. But then it really calmed down.”

Even in tense situations like that one, the Western missionaries haven’t feared for their own safety.

“It’s more a danger of being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Ann says. “We haven’t felt targeted.”

“And because of that,” Tim adds, “we’ve felt like we could stay on.”

Their sense of safety has evolved, too.

“When the war first started, we said if things are happening 60-70 miles away, we definitely need to leave if things are happening there,” Ann says. “Then it got to be, oh, that’s 20 miles away, that’s not close. But it’s what you call a trigger point. Sometimes it’s just an incident in that town. Other times it’s troops advancing.”

If things get especially tense, the Westers leave their house and wait out of sight in their garden for several hours.

“Our feeling was, probably people are coming for our things and not for us,” Ann says. “So if we’re not visible and they decide to loot our house, it’s safer for us to be out of sight.”

Leave a Reply