GUEN, Central African Republic – There are no headstones to mark these graves, no loving words, nothing to tell the world who lies in these two giant pits full of bodies, or why. Yet a handful of village elders are determined that nobody will be forgotten.
These old men, their eyes clouded by cataracts and their ears hacked by machete blades, sit on dirty straw mats at a church and gather the names of the dead from broken survivors. They write each name carefully in Arabic with faded blue ink on lined paper, neatly folded and stored in the pocket of one man’s tattered kaftan. The list is four pages long.
At least 5,186 people have died in Central African Republic since fighting between Muslims and Christians started in December, according to an Associated Press tally gleaned from more than 50 of the hardest-hit communities and the capital, Bangui. That’s well more than double the death toll of about 2,000 cited by the United Nations back in April, when it approved a peacekeeping mission. The deaths have mounted steadily since, with no official record.
As the U.N. prepares to go into the Central African Republic next week, the death toll underscores how the aid is coming too late for thousands of victims. The about 2,000 extra troops to boost African forces fall short of the almost 7,000 authorized in April, with the rest expected by early 2015. Yet the conflict has turned out to be far more deadly than it was then, and warnings of potential mass carnage from former colonizer France and from the U.N. itself have gone unheeded.
“The international community said it wanted to put a stop to the genocide that was in the making. But months later, the war has not stopped, ” says Joseph Bindoumi, president of the Central African Human Rights League, who collects handwritten testimonies from relatives stapled together with photos of their slain loved ones.
“On the contrary, it has gotten worse. Today, towns that were not under severe threat back in April have become the sites of true disasters.”
Both life and death often go unrecorded in Central African Republic, a country of about 4.6 million that has long teetered on the edge of anarchy. Nobody knows just how many people have died in the grinding ethnic violence, and even the AP tally is almost certainly a fraction of the real toll.
The AP counted bodies and gathered numbers from dozens of survivors, priests, imams, human rights groups and local Red Cross workers, including those in a vast, remote swath of the west that makes up a third of the country. Many deaths here were not officially counted because the region is still dangerous and can barely be reached in torrential rains. Others were left out by overwhelmed aid workers but registered at mosques and at private Christian funerals.
The U.N. is not recording civilian deaths on its own, unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example. And it took months to gather troops from different countries for the mission, which will take over from regional peacekeeping forces on Sept. 15, said Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the Secretary-General.
“Mobilizing troops for peacekeeping mission takes time because it’s not like they’re waiting in New York for us,” Dujarric said Wednesday. “We have to go knock on doors for troops, for equipment, helicopters…”
The conflict started when Muslim rebels captured the capital last March, for the first time since independence from France in 1960. The rebels, known as the Seleka, killed hundreds, possibly thousands of Christians, leaving families to push the bodies of their loved ones to cemeteries in wheelbarrows and carts. Even when Christian militias forced the rebels to withdraw in late January, they killed as they went.
In the tiny Christian village of Nzakoun, where the only sounds after dark are of crickets and the occasional mango dropping on a rooftop, the roar of vehicles woke up 13-year-old Maximin Lassananyant in the dead of night in early February. Soon the gunshots rang out. The Seleka had come.
The rebels set ablaze more than two dozen houses. Then they went door-to-door, killing villagers and stealing everything they hadn’t destroyed.
Maximin stumbled out of the hut where he slept with his mother and two siblings into the darkness, with only the moon to light his path. He hid for two days in the bush, petrified. He prayed that his family was just hiding someplace else.
Then the other survivors from the village found him. They told him it was time to come home and bury his family. The stones of his home still reeked of blood, caked on the ground and the walls inside.
Now it is only Maximin and his father, a traumatized man of few words, who remain, along with another brother who was away that fateful night. The boy’s hands shake as he tries to write down the names of his family. He cannot bring himself to say them aloud.
A village chief has hand-printed the names of 22 buried victims on a weathered piece of paper from a classroom notebook. Maximin’s mother, Rachel, is No. 11 on the list of females, and his 5-year-old sister Fani is No. 13. His 7-year-old brother Boris is on the list of males. A separate list details the homes destroyed, the people missing.
The sound of an unknown vehicle passing in Nzakoun still sends families fleeing back into the forest.
It was only a matter of time — sometimes just hours — before the Christians took revenge.
The mounting hatred was fuelled in part by economic resentment. Muslims make up about 15 per cent of the population, compared to Christians at 50 per cent, yet Muslims ran the merchant class and the lucrative diamond business. As Christian militias took back control of town after town, they unleashed a violence believed to have left several thousands dead, mostly Muslims.
Soon after dawn one morning, Christian fighters stormed the outskirts of Guen, a town with a sizeable Muslim population because of the diamond mining nearby. They attacked the brick homes of Muslims, identifiable by fences traditionally put up all around them, and killed men in front of their children.
“We have suffered under the Seleka and now it is your turn,” they screamed at the Muslims.
Within hours, 23 people were dead.
Several days later, the Christian fighters stormed a house in town where dozens of Muslim men and boys had sought refuge. A few escaped. The rest were herded at gunpoint to a shady lawn beneath two large mango trees, recalls a survivor.
Here the terrified victims were ordered to lie on their stomachs. Then the militia leader, armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, began shooting them, one by one. He ordered his fighters to finish off the wounded with machete blows to the head.
In the end, 43 people were slain under the mango trees, including two 11-year-old boys.
A 10-year-old and a 13-year-old survived only by lying still amid the bloody corpses until darkness fell. Then they ran for their lives to a nearby town, according to other survivors, including the mother of one of the boys.
The lives of three Muslims in town were spared: They were the ones who transported the bludgeoned bodies to two mass graves on a wooden stretcher, still stained with blood months later.
A villager named Abakar lost four of his sons that day, all between the ages of 11 and 16. The thought of his boys awaiting certain death has him sobbing so hard he cannot speak. Even now he will only give his first name because he is so afraid that the militants will hunt him down.
“Each night before I go to sleep I pray to God that I don’t have nightmares about that day,” he chokes out between his sobs.
Two community leaders — both Christians — pleaded for the lives of the boys and men that day in Guen. They were told they too would be slain if they did not leave. They could not eat or sleep for days. “What more could we do?” they now say to each other, over and over.
Edmond Beina, the local leader of a Christian militia, is unrepentant. Everyone killed that day was a Seleka Muslim rebel, he says. Even the children.
Today, pages from holy Qurans blow through the grass at the house where the boys tried to hide. They are the only reminder of those who died.
The violence is now bubbling up in previously stable corners, hitting both Christians and Muslims. In Bambari, northeast of the capital, at least 149 people were killed in June and July alone, according to witnesses, including about 17 Christians sheltering at a Catholic church compound. And in the Mbres area in the north, Muslim rebels left at least 34 people dead in August.
About 20,000 Muslims are trapped in isolated communities across the nation, despite a mass exodus earlier this year, according to a U.N. report in August. Among them is Saidou Bouba, who waits outside the mayor’s office in the town of Boda.
Bouba had spent his entire life in this diamond town south of the capital. But when the Christian militia fighters burned his house down in early February, the 46-year-old herder knew it was time to leave.
So he and his family joined a group of 34 Muslim refugees heading for Cameroon. They took with them all their savings — some 300 cattle — to start a new life.
About 37 miles outside town, they stopped to rest beneath a tree. There, a group of heavily armed men on foot, wearing traditional Muslim clothing, opened fire on the crowd.
Bouba shouted in disbelief: “Why are you trying to harm your fellow Muslims?”
But they were not Muslims. They were Christian fighters wearing the clothes of their last victims. “Lie down, dogs!” the men shouted.
The last thing Bouba remembers is being knocked unconscious with a machete blow to the head.
When he awoke, he was surrounded by the bodies of his two wives and five children. Mama and Abdoulaye, both just 3 years old, Nafissa and Rassida, 6, and Mariam, 8, were all dead, their tiny heads bashed in with machetes.
Only Bouba and one other man survived. They sat among the 32 bodies for an entire day in shock before making their way back to town.
“I put everything now in the hands of God,” he says softly, his face and head still scarred by machete wounds from that awful day. “He gave my family to me and then he took them away.”
There are grieving fathers everywhere in this tiny enclave: Abakar Hissein has lost two sons, both shot to death, Ahmat earlier this year in Bangui and Ali on Aug. 20 in Boda. Hissein carried Ali’s body back in his own arms. His wife has been missing for five months — he thinks she has made it to neighbouring Chad — and does not know yet another son is dead.
Even in death, there is no peace for the victims.
Earlier this summer, a Muslim man was buried at a cemetery in Boda, just a mile away from the zone where Muslims are barricaded.
Later that evening, after the sun set, his body was dug up from the ground and set on fire.
Associated Press writer Steve Niko in Boda, Central African Republic and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
Follow Krista Larson at https://www.twitter.com/klarsonafrica