- - Wednesday, April 15, 2015

BANGUI, Central African Republic — No matter how safe they tell her it is outside, Bahriyah Abidah insists she won’t leave the St. Joseph Mukassa camp.

The United Nations recently announced that it was dispatching another 1,000 soldiers to bring the total peacekeeping force in this desperately impoverished country to 13,000 troops. However, France is slowly reducing its force of 2,000 soldiers and the European Union pulled out its 750 troops last month. Both said their presence is no longer necessary.

Ms. Abidah nonetheless fears leaving the camp and encountering “anti-balaka” fighters — the predominantly Christian and animist militias formed after Islamic rebels calling themselves Seleka seized the government in late 2013 and attacked non-Muslim villages, plunging the country into sectarian war.

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Conflicts between Christians and Muslims are playing out in a number of African countries, but perhaps in none has the violence been so brutal and the politics so treacherous as in this country of nearly 5 million people at the geographic center of Africa. Even the news of a possible truce between the warring factions Friday may not be enough for Ms. Abidah and others to abandon their fears.

Ms. Abidah is Muslim. Anti-balaka militants killed her husband a year ago when they occupied sections of Bangui, the capital. “I will rather stay here and be safe,” said the 31-year-old mother of four. “Every person outside there is an enemy and divided on religious beliefs. I will not go anywhere.”

Thousands have died in the fighting, more than 440,000 have been displaced and 190,000 have fled to neighboring Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo, according to the United Nations.

Now that the violence has subsided, Christians and Muslims are beginning to mingle together in public and internationally monitored elections have been slated for July.

In peace talks mediated by Kenya, the leaders of the rival factions signed two peace agreements in Nairobi late last week designed to put a definitive end to the fighting, disarm rival militia groups and set the rules for transition to political stability. The Central African Republic delegations were led by Joachim Kokate for the anti-balaka and former President Michel Djotodia for the ex-Seleka forces.

In a briefing Tuesday, mission leader Babacar Gaye told the U.N. Security Council that the Central African Republic political transition was reaching a “critical stage.” He appealed to international donors for $20 million to finance elections this summer and alleviate poverty in the country.

Antoine Bogo, president of the Central African Red Cross Society, said people living in camps for those displaced by fighting could hasten the reconciliation process if they return home. He is working to give them supplies to rebuild.

“These families can be helped so as to restart their lives immediately,” Mr. Bogo said.

Peace process doubts

Many Muslims still don’t trust the peace process, however. Crime is still rampant. Few believe the elections will take place without violence. They aren’t convinced that U.N. peacekeepers and international election monitors can ensure their safety.

“I can’t go back home because there’s no security,” said Aakifah Zimani, 28, a mother of three who lives in the camp St. Joseph Mukassa with 18,000 other people on the outskirts of Bangui. “I will live here with my family for many years. I thank God my family is still alive. I thought they had died.”

Ms. Zimani used to live in Yaloke, a town about 140 miles north of Bangui where 10,000 Muslims lived. Now, 800 Muslims live there, according to the U.N.

“I escaped with my infant and hid in a nearby bush for two days without food. I thought my husband and the remaining kid were dead,” she said. “I requested aid workers who were collecting corpses to come along with me to the refugee camp.”

She eventually was reunited with her family.

Anti-balaka means “anti-machete,” a term implying that the fighters are impervious to harm. The Christian group’s reign of terror followed the Seleka overthrow in March 2013 of President Francois Bozize, a Christian leader who was accused of corruption. Seleka means “alliance” in the national language of the Sango. After they seized power, Seleka rebels went on a bloody rampage that included hacking off Christians’ ears, kidnapping and rape.

Violence on both sides plunged the Central African Republic into chaos. Only the U.N. humanitarian relief has prevented widespread famine. As about 1.5 million people live on the edge of starvation, the international community is trying to get Central African Republic farmers back to their fields, said U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization representative Jean-Alexandre Scaglia.

“Ensuring planting during the upcoming season, along with longer-term resilience activities is an opportunity to contribute to peace efforts in the Central African Republic that should not be missed,” Mr. Scaglia said.

That is not easy when fighting between Christian and Muslim militants destroyed communities where followers of the two religions once worked alongside each other.

“We used to live in peace. Our kids could play and go to school together without differentiating who’s a Muslim or Christian kid,” said Manuela Barika, a Muslim mother of two who has stayed in the camp for nearly a year. “There was religious harmony among people before the war erupted.”

For many, traumatic memories have crowded out their recollections of tolerance.

Philip Sayo, a 42-year-old father of five, said anti-balaka fighters killed his wife as she walked home from a Bangui market in December. He now lives in the Ngusima camp near Bangui.

“When I heard the gunshots, I was very tense. I followed my wife to the market,” he said. “I found that she was already dead. I took my children and hid in the bush.”

Unable to walk on foot with his children, Mr. Sayo remained in the bush for three days before Red Cross officials discovered him. He said he wants to return home but has nowhere to live.

“I desire to return home and start fresh. I also need my children to attend schools,” he said. “But there’s totally no security. Our homes were destroyed by rebels.”

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