'Wall' of religious hatred divides Central African town

Boda (Central African Republic) (AFP) - The outbreak of violence that plunged the Central African Republic into chaos in 2013 has left a legacy of suspicion, fear and hatred that still plagues places like the southern mining town of Boda.

"There's an invisible wall. It's as if we're in prison," says Bouburori Bindowo, deputy mayor of the town of around 11,000 people, whose Muslim residents, of whom he is one, live segregated from the often hostile Christian majority.

The violence erupted after the 2013 coup that ousted president Francois Bozize and pushed the country into a conflict that took on an unprecedented religious dimension, pitting sections of Christian and Muslim populations against one another.

Largely Christian "anti-balaka" -- or anti-machete -- militias were formed to avenge atrocities by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels behind the coup, resulting in waves of killing, rape and pillaging since.

Despite the deployment of French forces and the United Nations MINUSCA mission to restore peace, the UN's refugee agency says continuing violence displaced around 30,000 people within the country since last December alone, with another 20,000 having sought refuge in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Violence around Boda in 2014 saw anti-balaka militias massacring Muslim Fulani shepherds, and destroying most shops in the centre of town.

As a result, local Muslims -- whose extremist elements also engaged in killing sprees -- now live massed together for protection, relying on the ruins of walls in central Boda to serve as a buffer zone between the two communities.

Tensions in the town still run high, says Evariste Mitolo, a soldier with the MINUSCA mission, despite a period of calm the past two months.

"The illness comes quickly, but it is cured slowly," Mitolo says of the situation.

Congolese soldiers from the UN force operate from a hill overlooking the diamond mining town, whose Christians and Muslims no longer interact, despite often living just metres apart.

Wounds inflicted by the violence continue to dampen any desire for intermingling.

- 'Nowhere to go' -

Saidou Bouba, a Muslim farmer with scars from machete blows criss-crossing his face, recalls how he was attacked on March 25 last year by anti-balaka militants as he was trying to flee the nearby town of Ngkontikil with his family.

The militants killed his two wives -- one of whom was pregnant -- and four children, and left him for dead.

These days many Muslim residents do not venture out of their enclave, are caught in a limbo and subsist primarily on humanitarian aid.

"We can't work in the mines, can't go into the fields, look for firewood, trade, travel. We sell our belongings to survive. We don't have the means to leave, but we don't have the means to stay," says Bindowo.

"We have nowhere to go (although) we are sons of this land," comments Ahamat Ali as he walks through the ruins of his former shop, estimating the losses he and his partners suffered at between 50 million and 100 million CFA (75,000 to 150,000 euros, $82,600 to $165,100).

Fear runs high on both sides of the divide.

Christelle Dovasio, a 22-year-old Christian, says her husband and father-in-law were killed in attacks by Muslim assailants that she escaped by fleeing with her three children into the bush.

"We're scared," she says. "We want the Muslims to leave!"

Both communities accuse the other of stockpiling arms and preparing new attacks -- suspicion that may not be entirely unfounded.

"There are arms caches on both sides, but now is not the time to attempt to disarm (them) -- it's too early," said the deputy chief of the local police, which has moved its station to the town's invisible Christian-Muslim border.

Nearby, a Christian merchant named Blaise opens a new store -- his previous shop having been "destroyed by Muslims", he says.

Blaise believes Boda will only begin to heal when full light has been shed on past crimes.

"There can be no reconciliation before there is justice. There must be justice for both sides," Blaise says, preparing to welcome customers to the store he has baptised "Promised Land."