Who could bear to break the news to Yaman Ahmat?
Just hours earlier her husband put her and their eight children, including newborn daughter Ashta, on a private plane to Central African Republic’s capital in a desperate bid to save their lives.
Now she sat on a floor mat in an airport hangar in Bangui, among hundreds of Muslims desperately awaiting a flight, any flight, out of their increasing violent country to neighboring Chad. The half dozen suitcases and plastic bags behind her held everything she owned.
The man she married when she was just 17 had stayed behind to try and sell what remained of his store merchandise before joining her. But returning home from the airstrip in the town of Boda, his convoy came under a hail of gunfire.
The family’s dreams of a new life together died with him.
Her relatives didn’t know how to tell her what had happened while her plane was in the air. Finally it was her mother who called. The Christian militiamen had attacked the car, her mother said. Her husband Markhous had been killed.
Yaman collapsed to the ground in grief, the cell phone still in her hand.
“His children were his world,” she says several days later, holding now 12-day-old Ashta in her lap. “His last words to me were `The children are suffering. When they get to Bangui, be sure they eat well. Buy milk for the baby no matter what the cost.'”
Now they are among the hundreds of Muslims sleeping in an airport hangar, some of whom have been sheltering here for weeks. Their plight underlines the mass exodus of Muslims taking place in Central African Republic that U.N. officials have described as “ethnic-religious cleansing.” More than 290,000 people have fled to neighboring countries and “most of those remaining are under permanent threat,” the U.N. says.
Inter-communal clashes were sparked by anger toward a Muslim rebel government that tortured and killed an untold number of mostly Christian civilians during its 10-month rule. Ordinary Muslims like Yaman and her family became targets of retaliatory violence when the rebel leader-turned-president went into exile in January, persecuted because they shared a religion and in many cases Chadian heritage.
After scores of gruesome mob killings, Muslims – who once made up 15 percent of the population – fled for their lives. Christians then began desecrating mosques and burning homes to keep the Muslims from ever returning.
Yaman’s grandparents were born in Chad to the north, but she is a Central African. She speaks only a few words of Arabic; her oldest daughters a little French. Together they speak in Sango, the national language of the country they are now fleeing.
None of them has ever been to Chad.
Before the crisis, Yaman and her husband had built their lives in the village of Ngotto south of Bangui. He was 20 years her senior, and ran a successful shop that sold everything from food to cleaning supplies. Not long after the country exploded into sectarian bloodshed between Muslim and Christian communities, the family moved to the nearby town of Boda.
With each sale, they socked away money in hopes of an escape. It would take more than 1 million francs (more than $2,000) for enough space on a chartered plane to get out of Boda. Roads were too dangerous: The countryside surrounding town was infested with machete-wielding fighters who wanted to kill Muslims like them.
Staying wasn’t an option either: Muslims were only safe in a neighborhood sandwiched between two bridges. They couldn’t get to the market in the Christian part of town and were slowly starving. Each day they would eat a bit more of the rice they were trying to sell.
It also was too dangerous to travel to the Christian neighborhood where there were doctors and midwives. The night Yaman gave birth to her eighth child, a neighbor came with scissors to cut the cord.
The first time they tried to go the airport, they missed the flight. The second time they went it was under armed escort by French soldiers. One by one the couple’s children climbed into the plane that normally flies diamond traders to and from Boda.
Yaman’s brother Mahamat is convinced the militiamen must have seen the family heading to the airport and decided to attack as he returned solo from the airstrip to town.
He was the 12th Muslim killed in a week here, residents say. At least three others have been killed in the days since she left for Bangui, say residents.
The mounds of dirt at the end of a path behind a warehouse are still fresh from where the bodies are buried. Earlier victims had been taken to a plot behind one of the town’s mosques but it is now on the wrong side of the bridge, too dangerous for the Muslim community to bring their dead there now.
Now Yaman spends her days sitting on a mat inside the airport hangar in Bangui, her 15- and 18-year-old daughters minding the little ones. Every few hours there is the baby to nurse and medicines to give 4-year-old Moura, who has contracted malaria.
Yaman thinks about how her husband wanted the children to have plenty, and then tearfully displays a cardboard box with all the food she has: only some uncooked noodles and cans of beans donated by a charity. She does not have any money to her name, only mouths to feed and broken hearts sleeping at night without blankets.
Some families here have made their homes inside small private planes parked here. Yaman and her eight children have neatly arranged their luggage to give some semblance of privacy to the mats where they must crowd together at night.
As Yaman recounts all they have lost, 18-year-old Awa wipes her own tears with the ends of her headscarf and tries to comfort her mother.
Even in a future full of uncertainty, there is one thing resolute in Yaman’s mind: “With all that has happened, we will never go back.”