YALOKE, Central African Republic/DAKAR (Reuters) - Hunted through the bush of Central African Republic by Christian militiamen, hundreds of half-starved Muslim herders found sanctuary with U.N. peacekeepers in the town of Yaloke. For almost a year, they dared not set foot outside the camp.
Now, after months of talks with local leaders, the frightened Fulani herders have finally ventured outside their small compound into the half-empty town, once home to an estimated 10,000 Muslims.
It is two years since the Central African Republic descended into chaos when the Muslim Seleka rebels seized power. Their wave of killing brought reprisals by the ‘anti-balaka’ Christian militia, which drove tens of thousands of Muslims from the south and prompted former colonial power France to intervene.
Dozens of the Fulani herders died during their ordeal and those who survived still bear the wounds. One man has a scar cutting deep into his nose and across both cheeks where he was struck with a machete, another has two bullet holes in his back.
The slight easing of tensions in towns like Yaloke offers a glimmer of hope for an end to the violence that still simmers despite the presence of French and U.N. peacekeepers.
Their women, with their distinctive long braided hair and patterned robes, wash clothes in the river. The men go to the market to buy food and pray in a makeshift mosque at a hospital.
“We were persecuted by the locals. We could not move freely. Our women were threatened and attacked, robbed and raped,” said the herders’ leader, Al Haj Lahidou. “Following these reconciliation talks, we have found a sense of peace between the Christians and ourselves.”
Central African Republic remains one of Africa’s biggest, and most forgotten, humanitarian crises. About 440,000 people are displaced inside the country and a further 450,000 refugees have fled its borders.
Slow progress is being made. In the southern capital Bangui, where Muslims were lynched by crowds last year after Seleka retreated northward, Christians now venture to the market in the Muslim enclave of PK5. Some Muslims have returned since the start of the year and a few mosques reopened.
“Social cohesion is gradually rebuilding,” said Ousmane Abakar, a spokesman for the Muslim community, though he said many parts of the city remained out of bounds.
In Seleka’s former northern strongholds of Bria and Ndele, officials from a U.N.-backed transitional government have returned to work after French forces drove out the rebels. But, with weapons everywhere, violent crime remains rife.
Even in Yaloke, the gains are fragile. The Fulani camp was raided last weekend by locals who looted the humanitarian supplies. Separated from their families, robbed of their cattle and deprived of their nomadic lifestyle, many of the Fulani have fallen sick and died. All are desperate to leave.
“In Yaloke, the situation is worrying,” said Thibaud Lesueur of International Crisis Group. “It’s very likely that if the pastoralists restarted their herding in the bush a few kilometers from town, they would once again be targeted by militia and bandits.”
Despite the violence, Western forces are pulling out, saying the worst is over. France is scaling down its 2,000-strong mission and the European Union’s 750-strong EUFOR force pulled out this month, handing responsibility for security in the capital to U.N. peacekeepers.
“The massacres have ceased, the level of security is growing,” EUFOR commander General Philippe Ponties told a news conference.
Yet in the days after EUFOR’s departure, violence flared in Bangui’s PK5 and PK3 neighborhoods following a wave of armed robberies. In their stronghold of Boy-Rabe, the ‘anti-balaka’ - increasingly a criminal outfit - clashed with French forces.
After visiting Bangui this month, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power voiced concern at the European withdrawal. She said that Muslims in enclaves remained scared and vulnerable.
For Thierry Vircoulon, ICG project director for central Africa, the pullout risks undermining peace talks in Bangui next month meant to pave the way to elections in July.
“If they feel a easing up of pressure from international forces on the ground, armed groups will try to retake the initiative and reimpose their views,” he said.
He doubted elections could take place this year.
A series of truces have failed to stop the violence. Local commanders say they are waiting for a demobilization package before abandoning their arms but the cash-strapped government –hit by an embargo on diamond exports - has little to offer them.
Donor interest in Central Africa Republic has also waned, eclipsed by other crises. The United Nations says it has received only 11 percent of the $613 million needed for humanitarian aid this year.
The presence of hundreds of former Seleka fighters in barracks in Bangui, awaiting demobilization, is fuelling tensions. Some 20,000 residents languish in the M‘poko camp beside the airport runway, too afraid to return to their homes.
But the 10,000-strong U.N. mission says it has no mandate to disarm the rival factions by force and Central African Republic’s armed forces – tarnished by support for the ‘anti-balaka’ - have yet to be reformed and rearmed.
“We need political talks, like the Bangui forum, but we also need to strengthen our security forces,” said Martin Ziguele, a former prime minister and presidential candidate.
Two years after it was abandoned when Seleka stormed the capital, the police station in PK5 was reopened this month. It musters 35 officers from both communities.
“If a Christian commits a crime, the Christian policeman intervenes,” said Mamadou Zenadine Khalil, a Muslim student who took part in a U.N-backed program to rebuild the station. “If it’s a Muslim, a Muslim policeman can find a peaceful solution.”
Outside the capital, the state’s presence is tenuous. In the central region that divides the rebel-controlled north from the south, Christian militia and former Seleka fighters clash. In the former Seleka headquarters of Bambari, violence has descended into reprisals between the Christian and Muslim communities despite the presence of peacekeepers.
The crisis fed on deep-rooted grievances, including Christian resentment of Muslim traders’ commercial success, as well as long-running clashes between Muslim herders, bandits and farmers.
With the return of the transhumance - when Fulani pastoralists trek south to seek greener pastures in the dry season - violence has flared. About 30 people were killed at the weekend in clashes between Fulani and the local population near the northern town of Kaga-Bandoro, officials said.
Many Fulani are also crossing the border from refugee camps in Chad to fight for money and revenge, said ICG’s Lesueur.
The largest camp for displaced people is in the northern town of Batangafo and houses some 35,000 people, many of them Christians, said Thierry Dumont, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) head of mission.
“When people say there are fewer clashes, I‘m not sure about that. It depends where,” Dumont said, adding that sectarian tensions in the west have eased partly because Muslims fled.
“Most civilians are so tired that they don’t want to kill each other anymore,” Dumont said. “Reconciliation is possible but the first step is to stop impunity and punish the people who are still stealing and killing others.”
(This story has been corrected to fix typographical error in headline)
Additional reporting by Anthony Fouchard in Bangui and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Angus MacSwan