Bangui, Central African Republic
AS THE militiamen wielding guns, knives and machetes stormed into his village, Massoudo Bichefou fled into the tall grass near his home. The rest of his family were too slow.
Bichefou, 55, watched from his hiding place as armed men dragged his nine children and a grandchild in front of a large fighter clutching a knife. One by one the man slit the throats of each child. Then he killed both of Bichefou’s wives.
“Then [they killed] more people; people they had caught in the neighbourhood. There were bodies everywhere,” he told Human Rights Watch, which has conducted extensive research into abuses committed during the conflict in the Central African Republic, one of the continent’s poorest and most troubled nations.
The murders, which took place in early September near Bossangoa in the northwest of the country, form part of a growing pattern of atrocities that, according to America, France and the UN, have brought the country to the brink of genocide.
The vast, landlocked nation of just 5.1m people, ruled for 13 years until 1979 by Jean-Bédel Bokassa, one of Africa’s most notorious tyrants, has been plunged into anarchy as Muslims and Christians butcher one another in a spiralling cycle of bloodletting that shows little sign of abating.
Rebels, ragtag groups of militiamen and a president, Michel Djotodia, whose power barely extends beyond his palace, are rapidly tearing the country apart.
In the capital, Bangui, a battered city established by the former French colonial masters on the northern bank of the Ubangi River, fighters nominally under control of the government screech along red dirt roads in pick-up trucks that bristle with heavy weapons.
Most shops are closed and residents are too scared to venture onto the streets after dark. Assassinations and kidnap are almost daily occurrences.
To add to the chaos, there are signs the disorder has drawn in some of the region’s most violent Islamic extremists.
Some belong to Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist group, known for its slaughter of thousands of Christians and its bloody attacks on schoolchildren. There are fears the group, which western officials believe has already moved into the Central African Republic, will use the country to plan attacks, move fighters across the region and target westerners.
Since March, a rebel alliance known as the Seleka, strengthened by mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, has embarked on an orgy of looting and killing after entering Bangui, deposing President François Bozizé and replacing him with Djotodia, their leader.
The rebels, who include children as young as 12, have burnt down churches and villages, raped girls in front of their parents, killed mothers still clutching their babies and hacked civilians to death with their machetes. They have looted the offices of aid agencies, smashing open computers in the belief they were safes filled with money.
In July, Seleka fighters stopped a bus full of men and found a bag containing T-shirts with the former president’s picture on them. They arrested the men as supporters of the deposed president. Days later, the men’s bodies were found floating in a river with their arms and legs bound, some with their eyes gouged out.
In response to their atrocities, motley bands of vigilantes made up of peasants and some soldiers loyal to the former president have begun to wage an armed resistance in the north and west.
In early September, these predominantly Christian militias, known as the Anti-Balaka, or “Anti-Machete”, launched reprisal attacks against Seleka checkpoints. They burnt down Muslim homes and killed Muslim cattle herders.
In the same month, a group of Anti-Balaka attacked the northern village of Zere, striking at a Seleka checkpoint before turning their attention to Muslim villagers who were praying in the mosque.
First the men, armed with hunting rifles, daggers and poisoned arrows, stormed into the house of a cattle herder, whom they killed. They murdered the local chief and his son before burning their bodies and tossing the remains into a lavatory. By the time the killing was over, 57 Muslims were dead.
As the violence escalates, the conflict has taken on an increasingly sectarian tinge. In mid-October, Anti-Balaka fighters stopped a World Food Programme convoy, separated Muslims from Christians and hacked all eight Muslim passengers to death with machetes.
Terrified by the brutality on both sides, villagers have fled into the bush, where almost 400,000 people now live, sheltering under makeshift tents made from twigs and leaves.
The lack of food has forced some parents to feed their children on wild tubers scavenged from the forest. Cases of malaria, dysentery and other diseases have exploded.
About 40,000 Christians in the northern town of Bossangoa are now huddled around the town’s Catholic mission for protection. Thousands of Muslims are doing the same at one of the town’s schools.
The violence has spilt onto the streets of Bangui. Last week, men hurled a hand grenade into a home, killing a 21-year-old woman.
Former members of Bozizé’s presidential guard are being murdered in their homes as the government purges men considered loyal to the former regime. French officials believe the government uses a prison behind the Bangui office of Air France to detain, torture and kill its opponents.
“Everyone has been touched by the violence here,” said Ghislain Gresenguet, an official from the justice ministry whose car was stolen by the Seleka during looting.
The Central African Republic’s modern history is a tale of rebellions, counter-rebellions, coups and mad dictators.Bozizé is thought to have enriched himself from the diamond and gold reserves during his 10-year rule, siphoning almost 80% of the country’s revenue into the coffers of his family and supporters.
But the world has largely ignored the chaos that followed his downfall. On Thursday, France’s foreign minister said the country was “on the verge of genocide”.
France wants the UN to send a peacekeeping force of up to 10,000 soldiers to quell the violence. America, Russia and Britain oppose the move. But UN officials warn that such a force is urgently needed to “prevent Islamist extremist groups from finding a safe haven in the country”. Even if approved, it would take at least six months to arrive.
“We came too late to this crisis,” admitted a French official in Bangui. “We need the international community to act immediately otherwise things will only get worse.”