BOSSANGOA, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC – The Christian camp is on one side, the Muslim camp on another, separated by a red dirt road littered with abandoned homes, a no man’s land swirling with bitterness, rumors and accusations.
Wrenched apart by sectarian violence, the Central African Republic town of Bossangoa is little more than a ghost town.
Religious tensions in the country have exploded in the past two weeks, following months of crisis sparked by a March coup, and has sent residents in Bossangoa, 300 km north of the capital Bangui, fleeing for their lives.
The Christians fled to a massive camp around the archbishop’s office.
“Spontaneously and in waves, in the past two months, 40,000 Christians in Bossangoa and surrounding villages have gathered around the archbishopric, crammed onto only 4 hectares,” said an official from the aid group Action Against Hunger.
The teeming camp has taken on a life of its own. A small hairdressing salon has sprung up and women busy themselves behind sewing machines.
A teenager sells cigarettes and men prepare manioc flour — many of them wearing T-shirts glorifying Francois Bozize, the president ousted in March by the Muslim rebel coalition Seleka.
A little farther north along the red dirt road, thousands of Muslims have swelled a camp on the grounds of the Liberte school since violence spiked in early December, leaving hundreds massacred in a matter of days.
Before the latest unrest there were 1,600 of them; now there are about 7,000.
At the entrance, soldiers from the African Union peacekeeping force MISCA keep watch, balancing AK-47s on school desks.
Nearby, former Seleka rebels, clad in combat gear but unarmed, have been confined to small white houses.
Only aid workers dare to venture between the two camps.
“It is sad,” said Bossangoa’s Archbishop Nestor Desire Nongo Aziagbia as the sun set behind the cathedral. “The town belongs to all of us, and now we are each in our own corner. The future here is in jeopardy. What kind of a society is it where we can no longer tolerate each other?”
Accusations swiftly begin flowing against the Muslims.
The archbishop charges that on Monday, the ethnic Fulani, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, slit the throats of 24 Christian women in the region.
Bossangoa’s Christians accuse Seleka of terrorizing the community as they made their way to Bangui in March for a bloody coup in which their Muslim leader Michel Djotodia became president.
Christian militia groups known as “anti-balaka” (“anti-machete” in the Sango language) formed to defend their communities.
“The fault is shared, but in the beginning it was the Seleka who began looting and committing atrocities,” said Philippe Modompte, a representative of the Christian camp.
The Muslim community in the Central African Republic has accused French troops recently deployed there of favoring the Christians, disarming Seleka fighters and leaving them vulnerable to the anti-balaka militia.