Why CAR has descended into violence

House of a Muslim family burnt after it was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. CAR is witnessing sectarian violence for the first time - this is the remains of a Muslim house hit by a RPG

The main roundabout in the northern town of Bossangoa in the Central African Republic has become a demarcation that draws a religious line between Christian displaced people on one side and Muslims on the other.

The arrival of French troops has brought some relief, but nobody lives in their own homes anymore.

Residents have sought refuge in two separate camps on either end of the main thoroughfare.

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With the type of killing that happened, it's now very difficult for us to go back and live together”

End Quote Zakaria A Muslim man in Bossangoa

A bloody handprint is still visible on the doorstep of a house in the Muslim quarter.

A man was shot and desperately tried to crawl inside. But the former soldiers, who are backing the "anti-balaka" Christian militia, shot him again in the front room.

In this house alone, six people were killed last Thursday.

"What happened is very hard to explain," said Zakaria, one of the displaced Muslims.

Along with the entire Muslim community of Bossangoa, he has now built a shelter on the playground of the main primary school.

Nobody seems to understand how and why this unprecedented inter-communal violence started.

There is confusion on every face, even though defiance and mistrust have taken over.

Wounded anti-balaka combatants (Christian militiamen) taken to the  African peacekeepers' base during heavy fighting last Thursday. Thousands of soldiers have joined the Christian anti-balaka fighters

On Thursday last week, African peacekeepers fought hard on two fronts in Bossangoa.

Although the fighting continued over three days, they did contain rival groups on either side of the town and clearly prevented a bloodbath.

Signs of hope

Is it too late to make sense of what is happening in the Central African Republic?

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A Muslim neighbour helped me reach this camp when I was trying to escape the fighting”

End Quote Christine A Christian woman in Bossangoa

Zakaria does not believe that Christians and Muslims can live in harmony ever again.

"With the type of killing that happened, it's now very difficult for us to go back and live together."

But, already, we found a sign of hope: Christian families are sharing space with Muslims in this camp.

"We always lived together, my husband was a Muslim," said Christine, 61, who wears a crucifix for a necklace.

"A Muslim neighbour helped me reach this camp when I was trying to escape the fighting," she explains.

"Now that I'm here, they've been take care of me. I don't understand how we've come to this situation."

This country has had a history of coups, rebellions and bad governance. But it has now slipped into a cycle of retaliatory religious killings that is not anchored in its past.

"There have never been inter-religious clashes in the Central African Republic," said David Smith at Okapi Consulting in Johannesburg.

"It didn't exist before Seleka."

CAR crisis - in 60 seconds

Seleka - which means coalition - is an extremely loose alliance of badly organised bands of fighters, most of them Muslim, who joined forces last year with the aim of overthrowing the then President, Francois Bozize.

Start Quote

When Seleka stormed Bangui and put a Muslim in power by force, Christians focused their anger on Muslims, whom they took for scapegoats”

End Quote David Smith Okapi Consulting

Muslim Chadian mercenaries have beefed up the ranks of Seleka, but it never had another aim but to topple Mr Bozize's administration, which it did in March.

The Central African Republic is one the poorest countries in the world. It never really was a functioning state and its people have little confidence in its politicians.

"There's always been a lot of frustration and anger among the population," said Mr Smith.

"When Seleka stormed Bangui and put a Muslim in power by force, Christians focused their anger on Muslims, whom they took for scapegoats."

Thousands of soldiers who served in the army under Mr Bozize have joined Christian anti-balaka fighters.

Although they want to dislodge the interim president, it remains unclear whether they have the intention to bring Mr Bozize back into power.

Some of his former presidential guards are hiding in the bush but Mr Bozize suffered from a lack if support within the rest of the army and the population.

Living side-by-side

Christians and Muslims are now accusing each other of having started the violence.

French troops try to calm the crowds before pulling out and letting Fomac troops, regional force, evacuate Muslim clerics from the St Jacques Church in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday 12 December 2013 French troops have deployed with the intention of disarming militias

Start Quote

It will be much harder to disarm these Christian militiamen than Seleka, who are already staying in their barracks here in Bossangoa”

End Quote Franch army capitan

Hundreds of people have been killed over last few months - shot, hacked or burnt. But in a territory the size of France, the exact toll may never be known.

"How do you expect us to live next to them again?" said Rebecca, a displaced Christian woman staying at the Catholic mission.

"We all know that the Muslims, whom we thought were our brothers, are together with Seleka."

Seleka fighters - or ex-Seleka since they are now considered the transitional government's army - can be seen roaming around the Muslim camp in Bossangoa.

Hundreds of antibalaka are hiding among the tens of thousands of displaced Christians around the church.

"It will be much harder to disarm these Christian militiamen than Seleka, who are already staying in their barracks here in Bossangoa," a French captain said.

As we drove back from Bossangoa to Bangui, we felt an uneasy calm in the streets of the capital following a few days of unrest with hoards of civilians armed with machetes and clubs taking each other on.

The killing of two French paratroopers in Bangui this week shows how difficult the task of the French military will be.

President Francois Hollande said this military campaign was "necessary" to "save human dignity".

The urgency to stop the violence is real before this country is entirely torn apart.

But the French deployment will not bring these communities back together anytime soon.

Map showing the location of the Central African Republic and the countries that border it

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