900 Muslim Refugees Take Shelter In One Central African Republic Church

Carnot, Central African Republic — Men so old their eyes are clouded with cataracts. Orphans who witnessed their parents' slaughter, left alone to make their way to safety. Widows caring for seven or more children, not sure how they will survive once they leave a church that has become their one place of safety from Central African Republic's religious violence.

The Rev. Justin Nary and his colleagues have been caring for 900 Muslims at the Catholic church in Carnot since early February, when Christian militia fighters attacked the town. In the weeks that followed, hundreds more Muslims trekked to the church as word spread in the forests that it was a safe haven.

Armed Cameroonian peacekeepers at the church compound's gates have so far kept the Christian militants at bay.

Those staying here sleep at night inside the church or in tents on the grounds of the compound.

Christian fighters in the area have threatened to burn down the church and have made death threats against the priests who work there. One Muslim man who recently left the church was gravely wounded by Christian militiamen in town, Nary said.

Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, runs a health clinic here.

"Some people have been living there, virtually locked up, for more than three months. They have food, drink and access to health care — thanks to MSF — but they are tired and are aging prematurely," Muriel Masse, the aid group's project coordinator in Carnot, wrote in a recent dispatch. "There's nothing we can do. We listen, because they need to talk. When we can, we treat chronic illnesses and minor injuries. But while they may not be particularly ill, they are battered psychologically."

The displaced Muslims rise each morning with the sun. Merchants line the fence where Muslims can buy food and other goods from the Christians outside. Armed peacekeepers escort the young boys as they walk the cattle and animals brought to the church by families staying here, an Associated Press team saw when they visited in April.

Ladi Soudi, 33, spends her days inside the church looking after her seven children after her husband was slain in front of his family three months ago. She pulls back her lavender headscarf to show where she was struck with a machete. Her hands bear the scars of defensive wounds from the morning when six Christian fighters attacked her home.

When it was clear her husband Mamadou would not survive she took the children and headed deep into the bush, still bleeding from her head and wrists. She now wants to leave the country where she has lived since she was 12 years old.

"I have lost everything," she says as her 4-year-old son Ibrahim rests his head on her lap and listens to his mother recount their suffering. "I just want to go to Cameroon now."

The peacekeepers say their mandate is to protect the civilians, not escort them from the country. French forces trying to stabilize the former colony also hope families in Carnot will return home.

But few of the Muslims in the church envision a future in Central African Republic after fighting that began in December left thousands dead in the country.