By KRISTA LARSON
BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Dozens of young men stood waiting for storm clouds to pass, as wind stirred up swirls of red dust on the largely deserted street in Central African Republic’s capital. Through the drizzle, they spotted a man in a flowing white robe traditionally worn by Muslims, hand-in-hand with his adolescent son.
The style of dress was enough to confirm that this was their enemy.
Hungry for revenge, the crowd descended upon the pair. The man’s terrified son broke away, and fled on foot, abandoning his father as the knife-wielding mob clutched the middle-aged man.
Muslim rebels known as Seleka overthrew the government of this majority Christian nation nine months ago, sparking mounting sectarian violence that prompted former colonizer France last week to deploy troops to Bangui in an effort to stop the bloodshed.
In a city where more than 400 people died last week in two days of tit-for-tat violence between Christians and Muslims, it was clear Monday there is still enough pent-up rage left that a crowd will try to kill a man on sight.
The angry mob insisted their victim served as a general in the rebel movement accused of carrying out atrocities against the nation’s Christian population, including tying victims together and throwing them off bridges to drown. “Seleka! Seleka! Seleka!” screamed the men as they encircled the Muslim man in a tornado of anger.
In this case, French forces intervened just in time, firing into the air as a warning. “I am a merchant! I am a merchant!,” the man cried as the French pulled him away, his back covered in dirt and his gown ripped off. His tearful son came back, his white shirt covered in blood, and the French ferried them to safety.
Other Muslims were not as fortunate. In the Benzvi neighborhood, a mob descended upon two ex-Seleka leaders leaving their home Monday afternoon. One got away. The crowd took up the only weapons they had against the other, witnesses said.
“People picked up rocks from the ground and stoned him to death,” said Junior Dagdag, 28, pointing to the pool of blood and stones in the middle of the road, where the victim’s car burned and smoke plumed into the sky. “Some brought his body to the hospital while others set his car on fire.”
The latest round of violence began Thursday, when armed Christian fighters who oppose the ex-Seleka forces in power attacked the capital and were later repelled by the ex-rebels.
Already 1,600 French forces are on the ground. French helicopters buzzed overhead while dozens of military vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, snaked through neighborhoods where tensions ran high. French forces came under attack near the airport but the area was later secured.
President Michel Djotodia had demanded that the fighters who brought him to power remain in their barracks Monday so that French forces and African troops from a regional peacekeeping mission could secure the city. Fed-up Christians sought to enforce the law themselves, chasing anyone they suspected as being part of Seleka — even in civilian clothing — off of the streets.
Emmanuel Yakanga, 53, a Christian, said he walked by a group of Christians harassing some men they accused of being Seleka and that he understands their anger. Even as ex-Seleka elements promised to disarm and hand over their weapons to the French, Christian neighborhoods are coming under attack nightly, he said. Yakanga’s 17-year-old niece was fatally shot on Thursday, he said.
“This talk of disarmament is merely superficial. They’re just going to keep their weapons elsewhere,” Yakanga said of the ex-Seleka.
In the months since he seized power, it has become clear that Djotodia wields little control over the rebels who now see themselves as the country’s national army. Over the weekend, Djotodia acknowledged his lack of power, telling reporters that not even “an angel from the sky” could govern his troubled nation now.
Central African Republic has suffered decades of dictatorship, coups and rebellions that have kept the diamond-rich country in many ways frozen in time since its independence from France in 1960. Life expectancy was a mere 48 years even before the latest humanitarian crisis, and aid officials warn an untold number of people forced to flee deep into the bush are dying of malaria and other illnesses.
The latest spasm of violence, however, is horrific even by the standards of the broken nation.
As Muslims came under attack across the city, a Christian man in another part of the capital nearly lost his life to a fearful and angry Muslim mob.
Crowds said they spotted Sincere Banyodi, 32, as he made his way through the Kokoro 3 neighborhood and feared he was a member of the Christian militia known as anti-balaka, which has carried out massacres of Muslim civilians.
“This guy was walking through our neighborhood with two grenades. We asked him where he was from and he couldn’t tell us. The people caught him and attacked him, but then decided to turn him over to the French instead of killing him,” said Ali Moussa Terab, who was standing in the crowd.
Banyodi, who was identified by a friend, sat with pieces of cloth tied around his machete wounds on both arms, his pants soaked in blood. He said nothing, not responding to questions as he sat alone in front of a cluster of shops. Half a dozen armed French forces kept the large crowd swirling nearby at bay.
Even as French troops patrolled, some residents said they doubted the intervention would hold. Muslim resident Abdel Wahid, 32, and his friends said they heard rumors the Christian militia fighters were regrouping in the countryside. Despite the clear danger on the streets, they said, this was the calm before the storm.
“Why should Seleka have to turn over their weapons? They are the national army,” Wahid said. “After the French leave, things will explode.”