Ahmed and Manuela’s different religions did not stop them getting married in their native Central African Republic — and their love remains unshaken despite the deadly Christian-Muslim violence gripping the country, they say.
Ahmed Azoulou, 22, is Muslim; his wife, Manuela Sogbe, 23, was raised Christian, but converted to Islam so they could get married.
They live with their toddler daughter in Kina, a mixed neighborhood in the Central African capital, Bangui, where tension is rife after weeks of sectarian bloodshed that has claimed hundreds of lives.
“I want to live with her till the end of my life,” Ahmed said, a sentiment echoed by Manuela.
Her father, who had been ill, died on Dec. 6, the second day of an orgy of bloodletting pitting Christian vigilantes against minority Muslims who backed Michel Djotodia, the rebel leader who came to power in a March coup.
“He had high blood pressure; he probably was frightened to death,” Manuela said as the couple’s daughter Monsalifa, sporting braids and a red party dress, went back and forth between them.
The pair have not ventured outside Kina since the explosion of bloodletting when ex-rebels went on a two-day rampage to avenge deadly Christian militia attacks.
“I’m afraid to leave the neighborhood,” Manuela said. “I’m married to a Muslim, so I could be attacked. People are armed. So I stay home, I do the housework and we watch the news together on television during the day.”
As they spoke, the light in the room brightened and dimmed with fluctuations in the power supply to this district of small houses lining packed-earth alleys.
Ahmed could not hide his frustration.
“My days are a drag,” he said. “I get up, go out to buy food, talk to my friends in the neighborhood.”
Ahmed, who normally works as a trader and often goes to neighboring Cameroon for merchandise, now lives “thanks to other people’s help,” he said.
“When the events happened, I stayed with my wife’s family. They protect me,” Ahmed said.
Muslim and Christian houses are easily distinguished by the corrugated iron sheets on Muslim homes that prevent prying eyes from seeing women inside.
Many Christian homes have been abandoned by residents fearing reprisals from Muslims in the neighboring PK-5 District.
Both Ahmed and Manuela expressed abhorrence at the killing, by either side, and said they had the full support of their families.
However, marrying a Muslim drew insults well before the violence erupted, Manuela said, adding that Christian women married to Muslims are called benga, a local fish.
“They tell me that later my husband will take a second wife because he is Muslim,” she said.
The lovebirds first set eyes on each other when they were about 11 and attending a secular school.
“I saw her. I liked her right away, so I went for it,” Ahmed said, and Manuela added: “I’ve loved him since the start.”
Asked why he did not convert to Christianity — the religion of about four-fifths of the Central African Republic’s population — Ahmed assented to the ready reply given by his brother Fatih: “Because Islam is the religion of truth.”
Ahmed and Manuela both said their relationship has always been out in the open, even when they were dating.
“We never hid it,” said Manuela, adding that she hopes they will soon be able to resume going out together without fear.