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Deep divisions as CAR violence continues

As brutal sectarian violence escalates people are gathering in 'religiously cleansed' neighbourhoods
Last modified: 20 Jan 2014 13:31

The crowd is outside the house, baying for blood. They are mainly young men, but there are also women.

They are Christians, and they want revenge, after Muslims murdered a member of their community the previous evening. They shout that they will kill the owner of the house, a fellow Christian, unless he hands over the terrified Muslim man who he is sheltering inside. Many people are waving machetes.

They force their way in, and drag out the Muslim man. He falls into a ditch, where he's cut to pieces by the crowd, who are shouting and cheering. They drag his body to a nearby roundabout, where they set it on fire. Meanwhile, a second Muslim is pulled out of a nearby church where he's been hiding.

He too is hacked to pieces, and his body is set on fire at the same roundabout, underneath a ceremonial arch which proclaims the virtues of national unity. It's not clear whether either of the two Muslims were involved in the murder of the previous day.

All this happened in plain daylight, in the centre of Bangui, in front of large crowds. Many people captured the horror on their phone cameras. Children watched. When one man ritually abused the two burning corpses, people cheered and chanted his name.

French and African peacekeepers eventually turned up, but it was too late. The crimes had already been committed. The peacekeepers can't be everywhere at once.

This is what happens when the state collapses. There is no law in the CAR, no functioning police, no courts. Depressingly it would seem that these are the institutions which, in a properly functioning state, protect us from our own capacity for such cruel and depraved acts. The Christian majority in this country suffered at the hands of the Muslim-led Seleka militia for 10 months.

Now it's pay-back time, and the results are very ugly.

There is a lot of talk about whether the CAR will be 'the next Rwanda'. I don't think the analogy is entirely accurate, if only for the reason that the Rwandan genocide was well organised by a relatively strong state with the capacity to carry out its fiendish master plan.

There is no such equivalent here. One experienced observer in Bangui instead draws a comparison with Bosnia. Sectarian killings, in the capital and elsewhere, are forcing both Christian and Muslims to flee in panic from mixed areas.

They then gather in 'religiously cleansed' neighbourhoods, surrounded only by people of the same faith, where they feel safer.

And we know from Bosnia that once diverse communities unravel amidst violence, hatred and fear, it is almost impossible to put them back together again.