Mahamat Nour and his two friends knew they had to flee the capital of Central African Republic, where mobs decapitate Muslims in the streets and mutilate their corpses.
They heard of a flight Friday afternoon to neighboring Chad and left their neighborhood for the first time in weeks in a desperate attempt to escape. But when they got to the airport, the flight was full and they were turned away.
Armed security from the airport agreed to take them back home until the next flight. Minutes later, though, Christian militants fired on their vehicle.
“Two of the men made a run for it into the neighborhood while the third man died inside the vehicle,” said Abdel Nasser, another Muslim who witnessed the horror from his own car. “They say we Muslims are foreigners. But my great-grandfather was born here. How can you say I am not a Central African?”
The bloodshed Friday was the latest violence against Muslims here in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, where hatred toward a now deposed-government of Muslim rebels ignited bitter violence between the two communities. What started as political disputes have become increasingly sectarian, with mosques set ablaze, Qurans destroyed and Muslims killed.
Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled to neighboring countries in recent months, as the three victims tried on Friday, and a top United Nations official has said that the forced displacement of the country’s Muslims amounts to “ethnic-religious cleansing.”
On Friday, dozens of men who still remain in Bangui gathered outside the Ali Bablo mosque, one of only three that is still operating in the city. The Red Cross first brought two of the bodies to the mosque, where the white sacks were carried to an impromptu morgue in the courtyard and laid on the ground behind a black sheet used as a room divider.
Men began to shout and cry as they took off the body bags to reveal the victim’s bodies and wounds. Both had been attacked with machetes, and one of the men’s legs had been cut off. “Where is the third victim?” they began to yell loudly.
Nour’s relatives outside said that when they called the 28-year-old’s mobile phone, the militants answered and demanded a ransom of 500,000 francs (more than $1,000) in order to return his remains. However, his Muslim relatives refused to leave their neighborhood fearing for their lives, and the Christian militants refused to come to the mosque.
Ultimately, the Red Cross was able to collect Nour’s remains and bring them about an hour later.
Imam El Hadji Yaya Wazziri said the Red Cross would later have to bury the victims, though, as it has become too dangerous for Muslims to reach their cemetery. Even under armed escort from African regional peacekeepers, crowds would attack the convoys with large rocks, he says.
Mahamadou Baba, 44, said there is a strong sense of betrayal within the community, which for generations had close relations with Christians.
“We grew up together and I have cousins with Christian wives,” he says. “Now they say they want to kill all the Muslims? Everyone here is living in fear.”