Tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing what the U.N. calls a campaign of "ethno-religious cleansing" in the Central African Republic. On Sunday, African forces provided a military escort to hundreds of people on a slow convoy toward the Western border with Cameroon.
Midway, in the town of Bouar, Amadou Gambo is parked outside the local mosque waiting for the troops to arrive so that he, too, could drive over the border to Cameroon. He has packed a giant truck with 40 of his relatives and the remnants of his looted shop.
'Get Out Foreigners'
When the longed-for phone call comes, Gambo starts up his vehicle and pulls into position behind a French gunship. It's a little more than 100 miles to the border, and it's the first time he has ever left this town of Bouar, where he was born.
On the side of the road, a small mob of Christians jeers, "Get out foreigners."
A man in a black T-shirt next to a music kiosk introduces himself as Dali Zuisse Bab the Savior. He says that if not for the international troops, he'd kill Gambo and everybody else. And he explains the reason why.
Zuisse says he was a shopkeeper until last spring, when a coalition of rebels called the Seleka from the mostly-Muslim north along with mercenaries from Islamic countries Chad and Sudan, deposed the president and imposed a reign of terror against the people.
He says they killed his mother, grandmother, his sister and his youngest son.
Zuisse's friend Alexandre, wearing an Eminem T-shirt, says he was shot in the thigh by the Seleka and pulls down his pants in the street to show his bullet wound.
Revenge And 'Magic'
The men say they joined a gang called anti-balaka, meaning "anti-machete" in the local language. It's a Christian revenge militia, bent on driving out Muslims. Their campaign is also fueled by economic resentment of the Muslim minority that makes up most of the merchant class. The majority-Christian Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. Zuisse blames that on a Muslim "magic" called Yasin.
Even while demanding a Muslim expulsion, the Christian militias have blocked Muslims from escaping. A convoy like this one led by African peacekeepers was attacked on the road Sunday, and least two people were killed. The French military is adding 400 troops to its force of 1,600.
Still, the anxious procession continued. Muslim trucks and vans, roofs piled with mattresses and bicycles and furniture, are sandwiched between military trucks trying to get them out of the country safely.
Patrick Dial stands in the doorway of his shop watching.
"I don't know what will happen in the future. I can't define it. We used to live together," he says.
Fueled By Poverty
But as a crowd gathers, including Zuisse the Savior and other Christian militants, Dial's language turns more xenophobic and his grammar becomes cruder.
"[The Muslim population's] absence won't matter. We can solve our problems for ourselves," Dial says. "We can build our country with our own efforts. We see in countries where there aren't any Muslims, the Christians make progress."
What the world has decried as ethno-religious cleansing is framed here as economic empowerment. Young men calling themselves anti-balaka invoke the spirit of Robin Hood when they loot Muslim houses and shops. It's a message that's found takers in a country that's had so little for so long.
Update at 11:15 a.m. ET: Convoy Attacked
The convoy that stopped in Bouar was attacked by anti-balaka Christian militias just before reaching the border with Cameroon. There was heavy fighting, and one civilian in the convoy reportedly was killed and several were wounded.