Heavily armed peacekeepers escorted some of the last remaining Muslims out of Central African Republic’s volatile capital on Sunday, trucking more than 1,300 people who for months had been trapped by violent Christian extremists.
Within minutes of the convoy’s departure, an angry swarm of neighbors descended upon a mosque in anarchy. Tools in hand, they swiftly dismantled and stole the loudspeaker once used for the call to prayer and soon stripped the house of worship of even its ceiling fan blades.
One man quickly scrawled: “Youth Center” in black marker across the front of the mosque. Others mockingly swept the dirt from the ground in front of the building with brooms and shouted: “We have cleaned Central African Republic of the Muslims!”
“We didn’t want the Muslims here and we don’t want their mosque here anymore either,” said Guy Richard, 36, who loads baggage onto trucks for a living, as he and his friends made off with pieces of the mosque.
Armed Congolese peacekeepers stood watch, but did not attempt to stop the looting. Soon teams of thieves were stripping the metal roofs of nearby abandoned Muslim businesses in the PK12 neighborhood of Bangui.
“Pillage! Pillage!” children shouted as they helped cart away wood and metal.
“The Central Africans have gone crazy, pillaging a holy place,” Congolese peacekeeper Staff Sergeant Pety-Pety said, who refused to give his first name, as the mosque came under attack from extremists.
Christian extremist anti-balaka (anti-machete) fighters showed up in their trademark wigs and hats with animal horns, wearing the amulets that they believe protect them from the enemy’s bullets.
Sunday’s exodus further partitions the country, a process that has been under way since January, when a Muslim rebel government gave up power nearly a year after overthrowing the president of a decade.
Amnesty International senior crisis adviser Joanne Mariner said the people evacuated on Sunday had lived in daily fear for months.
“It’s tragic and inexcusable that the situation was allowed to fall apart so that in the end evacuation was the only way to save people’s lives,” she said. “Much more should have been done to prevent ethnic cleansing in December [last year] and January, before tens of thousands of Muslims had fled.”
The violence against Muslims has drawn international concern, prompting the world’s largest bloc of Islamic countries to send a 14-delegate fact-finding mission to Central African Republic. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation says delegates are to be in the capital for three days starting today.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the global aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres on Sunday said three of its workers were killed on Saturday in Nanga Boguila, near the border with Chad.