In front of the Catholic Church in Carnot, in the western part of the Central African Republic (CAR), Muslims are kneeling to pray. Cameroonian soldiers from the African Union forces guard the gate.
Inside the Church compound, nearly one thousand Muslim people of different ethnicities are crammed into an area the size of half a football field. These internally displaced people (IDPs) were brought here by the MISCA (French acronym for the African mission supporting Central African Republic) troops in order to ensure their protection.
The rest of the city is controlled by anti-balakas, self-defense militias mainly composed of Christians that took control of Carnot in early February following the resignation of the President Michel Djotodia a month earlier. Djotodia had gained power in March 2013 through a coup led by the Seleka, an alliance of mostly Muslim rebel groups.
After the Seleka retreated, Muslim communities were targeted for atrocious reprisal attacks, whether they were migrant workers, nomadic pastoralists or Central African citizens. The exact toll is difficult to establish but it is believed that there were several thousand victims.
Stepsisters S. and Z. are both 20 years old. “On February 5, the anti-balakas attacked Guen, our village," remembers Z. "There were a hundred of us grouped in a big house. They separated the men and boys, 45 people in total including our husbands, and executed them in front of us. Then they mutilated the corpses."
S. continues: “The Cameroonian soldiers brought us to Carnot Church. It’s been really harsh here. My baby died from an infection. He was one month old.”
Moving away from the enclave can be very dangerous, as D. found out ten days ago. He learned that a 9-carat stone was discovered at the diamond mine that he normally manages. “I went to collect my share. Anti-balakas attacked me with machetes less than 500 meters from the church,” he said. D. was treated by MSF and now hopes to find a way to join his family in Cameroon.
MSF has been supporting Carnot Hospital since 2010. Today it is one of very few places left in CAR where Christians and Muslims continue to live together. However, the killing of 18 people inside an MSF hospital in Boguila on April 26 remains a tragic reminder that medical facilities are not being spared by the violence.
Overpopulation has also become a public health issue within the walls of the church. Half of the displaced are children under 15 years of age. The rainy season has started and diseases like malaria and diarrhea are rampant.
“We provide medical care, food, and drinking water, and we built latrines. but it is a daily challenge to maintain minimum sanitary conditions in such a situation,” said Fabio Biolchini, head of MSF activities on site. “Another solution must be found quickly.”
IDPs settle on mats inside the church. On Sunday, they vacate the space for the mass.
“We hear insults and threats every time,” said a community representative who has resigned himself to leaving soon for Cameroon, where more than 100,000 refugees have already fled.
“The hate is still too strong for reconciliation. Our children are sick and our women are afraid. Ramadan is approaching and nobody wants to celebrate in such conditions. Our only option now is to go and wait for peace.”