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CAR Muslims trapped in the 'Alcatraz of Africa'

04 April 2014, 09:40

Bangui - "This is hell within hell," says Ibrahim al Awad, his sandals sloshing through red mud on his way through a suburb of Bangui that has become a desperate refuge from sectarian violence.

Ibrahim is headed for a mosque that now acts as a refugee camp for around 2 500 Muslims fleeing attacks in the Central African Republic's capital and beyond.

As weeks of vigilante raids by mostly Christian militias have threatened to turn into a full-blown genocide, many of those sheltering in the mosque are trapped inside, too scared to leave.

"This is the Alcatraz of Africa," says Ibrahim.

The rainy season has started in Bangui, and Begoua, where the mosque is located, has turned into a muddy quagmire.

It is close to PK 12, a point north of the city that provides the only road out for tens of thousands of Muslims fleeing the bloodshed.

The tense PK 12 area has seen frequent, murderous raids against Muslims by the "anti-balaka" militia in a campaign of retribution for atrocities carried out by mostly Muslim Seleka rebels who seized power for 10 months in March 2013.

Inside the gloom of the dingy mosque, many lie prone under blankets with vacant stares, scarcely reacting to the sight of visitors.

Gold and diamonds

"This morning one of us was shot dead by the anti-balaka and another was wounded," Ibrahim whispers, pointing out a body covered by a white veil. He lifts a corner to show a lifeless man named Aminou, who was gunned down when he went out to buy sugar.

Stepping outside the mosque, Ibrahim is greeted by two men hooded against the downpour and armed with bows and arrows.

Ibrahim is a leading member of a protective district committee set up by local Muslims, and these farmers are using their ancestral weaponry to help protect the area.

Ibrahim's family origins are in Sudan. He speaks Arabic and finds that English comes more easily to him than French, the language of the former colonial power in this deeply troubled, landlocked nation.

He has lived in the Central African Republic for a decade, prospecting for gold. "It's good business," he says. Gold and diamonds are part of the natural wealth of the CAR, but production of such resources has been hampered by decades of corrupt rule, coups, army uprisings, rebel insurgencies and strikes.

Most of the country's population of about 4.6 million derives no benefit from the mineral wealth, while the latest conflict has displaced about a quarter of them and hundreds of thousands of people face starvation, according to UN agencies and aid charities.

For now, everyone in Begoua is simply thinking of escape.

Ibrahim would like to join his wife in Bambari, a town in central CAR. Others hope to flee for the provinces or join tens of thousands of refugees in neighbouring Cameroon and Chad.

An agonising wait

Many fled here in desperate haste with just a few measly belongings as the sectarian violence suddenly engulfed neighbourhoods that had lived peacefully for generations.

The International Organisation for Migration and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have sent staff to register candidates for departure from Begoua, but most have an agonising wait ahead of them.

"They tell us now that we'll have to wait longer - two to four weeks," says Ibrahim.

There is no question of going anywhere alone. The route out of town is carefully watched by anti-balaka fighters, who are liable to kill any Muslims without a moment's hesitation.

Contingents of French and African forces try desperately to keep the road open and free from violence, but their 8 000 troops are not enough to keep the peace. Ibrahim points out the road - turned into a stream by the downpour.

"One way out - towards death," he says.



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