Trapped in a Nightmare

As the Central African Republic falls into barbaric violence between the country's Christians and Muslims,23,000 refugees — traumatized, malnourished and dying — remain stuck in the town of Boda

Photographs by William Daniels/Panos for Al Jazeera America

Words by Amanda Delabre

Produced by Vaughn Wallace

Edited by Mohammed Ademo, Lisa De Bode, Vaughn Wallace

Published on April 11, 2014

Lead image (above): Ousman Sustapha, age 29, has been partially paralyzed for a week. Boda, housing some 14,000 Muslims and 9000 Christians, is surrounded by anti-Balaka forces who kill anyone attempting to leave the town.
About the anti-Balaka
The name anti-Balaka has roots in local defense groups whose members have undergone spiritual initiations (and hence are impervious to balles-AK, Kalashnikov bullets). "Balaka" also means machete in the Gbaya language, spoken in western CAR. Read more

Starved bodies and emaciated faces are illuminated by rays of light filtering through the planks of the barn. The heat is stifling in this confined space where about a hundred Peuhl tribesmen are staying. Living in the Muslim community, tolerated but not assimilated, these nomadic cattle farmers are forgotten human beings in a landlocked enclave – an additional conflict in a city already beset by violence amid a humanitarian catastrophe.

In Boda, a mining town 200 km west of the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, 14,000 Muslims are trapped in a perimeter that boils down to a single street lined by a few houses. Nicknamed “Boda the Beautiful,” the city has been surrounded since January 29, following the departure of ex-Seleka (Muslim) rebels, a group responsible for a coup in March 2013. Driven from Bangui in December by anti-Balaka (anti-machete) militiamen, they withdrew in the cover of darkness to Boda.

Unlike many rural towns where they had sown anarchy, the Seleka’s presence in Boda didn’t make waves. But since their departure, the city has plunged into unprecedented fighting that has drawn battle lines through the area.

The city is totally transformed: a Muslim enclave formed at the center of the city, surrounded by a no man’s land where anti-Balaka and Christians have entrenched themselves. “They all need to leave,” say the anti-Balaka, who are based near a church where thousands of Christians have fled following the destruction of their homes. They number around 500, primarily local youth.

Map: The Conflict in Boda, Central African Republic

Opinion: On CAR's Violence
"In CAR, the seemingly contradictory impulses of openness and mistrust are fundamentally interwoven." Read more

In such a tense situation following months of violence, few are willing to identify themselves fully. Some have wondered if they plan to exploit the situation and take control of the gold and diamond mines owned by Muslims who can no longer reach them. The anti-Balaka claim their only goal is to “make the Muslims leave,” said one. They organize day and night patrols to make sure that the “red line” around the Muslims clustered in Boda isn’t broken.

“Here, the Muslims are businessmen and Christians are workers,” said the head of the gold and diamond trading office in Boda. “In all of Central Africa, the economic actors are Muslim.”

"Manioc [also known as cassava, a type of root] will become the new diamond," said the young Bachir, who resides in Bangui but became trapped in his hometown during a visit with his family before the violence broke out.

Photos: Surrounded by anti-Balaka forces, a slow starvation

Top: Peuhl children suffering from malnutrition and diarrhea in Boda. Bottom left: With no way to secure adequate nutrition during the conflict, children are slowly starving to death. Bottom right: Forced from their destroyed homes, refugees in Boda are confined to a small area in the center of the city. (Click to enlarge images)
Opinion: Finding Sustainable Peace
"The challenge is to build trust for the first time, across Central African society. The immensity and difficulty of that task does not diminish its necessity," writes Louisa Lombard. Read more

"You know, 75 percent of Muslims want to leave Boda to go to a city within [CAR] where they know they are safe,” said Mahamat Alami, aka Bony, who is sitting on a wooden bench in the Muslim enclave. “I was born a Central African and my parents are Central Africans. I don't want to leave my country. I ask God to protect [French President] Francois Hollande and [the] Sangaris so that they can help us leave. We just want to be free.”

For now, the Peuhl tribespeople holed up in the barn do not yearn for freedom, but simply for access to food. Some have already succumbed to hunger; we may never know precisely how many have starved to death. “I asked the head of the district for a map of the food distribution points. But when I went there, there was nothing for me. My name was not on the list,” said Khadidja, a woman in Boda. For more than a month and a half, neither she nor her large family have eaten a solid meal. “I do not have the proper nutrition to give to my kids. No clothes, no beds.” The mayor of Boda, a Muslim, assures them they will be cared for. His name appears first on the list submitted to the World Food Programme, which thus far has only organized two food distributions.

Both were insufficient and late. ◆

Slideshow: The Victims

  • Unable to leave Boda without risking death, Bouba lacks proper access to medical care. (Click to enlarge image)
  • Hamadou Saleh, 20, is stricken with malaria. Suffering vertigo and weakness, he eats only a single piece of bread and some coffee each day. After his community was attacked in the bush, Saleh walked 80 kilometers to reach Boda. (Click to enlarge image)
  • A Christian woman and her baby in the Muslim enclave of PK5 outside Bangui. Prior to the conflict, Christians lived in Muslim neighborhoods, saying they have nice relationships with Muslims. The anti-Balakas, also Christian, consider them traitors. (Click to enlarge image)
  • Gadjama Belo, 50, is a nomadic Peuhl who escaped an anti-Balaka attack on his community. His wife and three children disappeared during the attack; he doesn't know if they are still alive. While fleeing, he was impaled by a tree branch. Stuck in Boda without access to medical care, he is now blind in one eye. (Click to enlarge image)
  • Elderly Hamadou Magazi suffers from tuberculosis without treatment in Boda. (Click to enlarge image)
  • Said Bouba, 46, is a cow breeder. He was attacked by anti-Balakas while working in the bush. Struck with machetes four times, he survived the attack and fled to Boda, where he remains trapped. (Click to enlarge image)

Feeling ill, 50-year-old Seidou Baler walked a few dozen meters out of the PK12 enclave outside Bangui. Unable to walk to a pharmacy in his weakened state, he wanted to ask a Christian to purchase medicine for him, but was shot by anti-Balaka just outside the enclave. (Click to enlarge images)

Top: French Sangari troops patrol the no man’s land between the Muslim and Christian neighborhoods in Boda. Bottom, left: Ali Ali, 24, was working in a diamond mine in Boda when he was attacked by anti-Balaka. They killed two of his colleagues before turning on him, shooting him in the head and leaving his body in the river. Ali was found injured and brought to Boda. Bottom, right: Displaced Christians in a makeshift camp near the church in Boda. (Click to enlarge images)

Top: Displaced Muslims pray in a mosque in Begoua, an enclave outside Bangui where 2000 displaced Muslims seek refuge. Bottom left: In Boda, A Christian woman prepares for Sunday Mass. She lives in an IDP camp in Boda with 9000 other Christians. Bottom right: Christians pray in Boda. (Click to enlarge images)
Boda's gold and diamond mines encourage Muslims to remain in the besieged village. Claiming they were exploited by Muslims, Christians have announced they will now take over the mines. (Click to enlarge image)

A doctor and two nurses visit Boda when possible, treating those with injuries. But the most dire concern may be hunger; the last distribution of food occured five weeks ago. The WFP delivered a single week of food (above), but it was uncertain whether they would be able to return. (Click to enlarge images)
A displaced Muslim woman and child in the PK12 enclave in Bangui. (Click to enlarge image)