VICTIMS: Thousands have had to flee as rebels clash in Central African Republic, destroying villages and killing civilians. Picture: EPA
On both sides of the rutted, 200 km dirt road that runs from Bria to Bambari in Central African Republic, villages lie empty and desolate. Cramped mud huts with thatched roofs have been reduced to ashes and rubble. Everything of value has been looted.

In Goumba - a small, Christian village to the west of Bria - Ludovic Valongere sat by the side of the road scooping cooked insects out of a large plastic bowl. He had returned to bury his brother, killed when rebels from a group called the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) swept into the village a few months before.

“We were hiding from the rebels in the bush with no food,” Valongere, 38, explained. “One day, my brother decided to return to Goumba for supplies but the rebels were still there. When they found him, they shot him in the head.”

To Valongere’s right a large pot of alcohol bubbled over a fire in preparation for the funeral. Save the militiamen who sat languidly at nearby checkpoints, it wasn’t clear anybody from the village would be brave enough to attend.

The Central African Republic has been wracked by periodic bouts of conflict since a largely Muslim rebel alliance called the Sé* éka overthrew the government of Francois Bozizé in 2013, triggering reprisals from a Christian militia called Anti-Balaka.

Now it is descending into levels of violence some say have not been seen since the peak of the conflict in 2014. Recent clashes between armed groups have left hundreds dead, villages destroyed, and more than 100 000 displaced.

Days of fighting this week in the south-eastern town of Bangassou killed 115, according to the Red Cross, while fighting in Bria left five dead and 15 000 displaced, said the UN. The week prior also saw five UN peacekeepers killed around Bangassou by Anti-Balaka.

A fight between factions

Much of the upsurge in violence is being caused by two factions of the now disbanded Sé* éka fighting one other. On one side is the Fulani-dominated UPC; on the other an ad hoc coalition of rebel groups led by the Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic (FPRC). The new coalition includes elements of the Anti-Balaka, the FPRC’s sworn enemies just a few months ago.

A rift between the FPRC and UPC first emerged in 2014 when the former called for an independent state in northern CAR, rejected by the latter. UPC leader Ali Darassa has since rebuffed multiple FPRC calls to reunify the Sé* éka, threatening the FPRC’s hegemony over CAR’s rebels and resource-rich territory.

Clashes between the groups erupted around a gold mine in Ndassima late last year and have grown into a full-blown bush war.

At the beginning of the year, fighting was clustered around Bambari, a UPC stronghold wanted by the FPRC. Desperate to prevent a battle in the city, which hosts tens of thousands of internally displaced people, the UN’s peacekeeping force Minusca deployed helicopters to stop FPRC rebels from advancing, while negotiating the removal of Darassa.

Bolder blue helmets

The operation was considered a success for a mission that has often failed its mandate to protect civilians.

“There was a willingness by Minusca to use much more robust force to deter attacks,” said Evan Cinq-Mars, UN policy adviser at the Centre for Civilians in Conflict.

But while preventing a bloodbath in Bambari, CAR’s second largest town, the operation failed to prevent violence from spreading to other parts of the country.

Dislodged from its stronghold, the UPC went in search of new territory. So did the FPRC.

In March, UPC and Anti-Balaka elements clashed around the town of Goubali 2. Last month, more clashes were reported in Bakouma and Nzako. Recently, 56 civilians are thought to have died in Alindao, 100km south of Bambari.

Security vacuum

In the past, Minusca has been able to count on Ugandan soldiers and US special forces to help in a part of the country where its peacekeepers are thinly spread.

Both countries had troops stationed in the south-east as part of a campaign to capture Joseph Kony, leader of the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group

But that mission has ended and a dangerous “security vacuum” is emerging, said Paul Ronan, researcher with Invisible Children.

“Ugandan troops had a presence in places like Nzako until relatively recently and did not allow fighting of this nature to occur. The violence we have seen in the last two weeks shows the withdrawal of US and more significantly Ugandan troops is creating a vacuum that other armed groups can fill.”

While the conflict is rooted in a struggle for land and mineral resources, violence is also following ethnic lines. Anti-Balaka and FPRC have targeted Fulani civilians associated with the UPC and UPC fighters have targeted non-Fulani in response.

“A couple of Fulani are killed, then a couple of non-Fulani are killed in return. They increase and increase until we get to massacres of 15 to 20 civilians,” said Lewis Mudge of Human Rights Watch

Pushed out of FPRC territory in Bria in November, the UPC went on a rampage, killing and looting and burning villages like Goumba where many Christians lived.

At a makeshift camp beside a UN base in Bria, 1500 Christians live in deplorable conditions. Josephene Lengba, 50, said UPC combatants forced her family of 15 to flee in late March after the rebels “killed (people) and burnt down homes”.

“We saw the people they had killed. There were many of them. Some of the dead people were lying on the ground for many days because there was nobody to bury them.”

Enclaves are not safe

On the other side of town, Fulani civilians are living in enclaves under the protection of UN peacekeepers. Those who leave face harassment, extortion and even death. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Abdouley Aiclia, 40, said her Fulani husband was decapitated, stuffed in a bag and thrown into a river. Now she is unable to feed her four children.

“There is nobody who can help me,” she said, cradling her youngest.

Even the enclaves are dangerous. In March, Anti-Balaka breached a UN checkpoint and attacked the population. “Go! Kill them! Slaughter them!” Yerima Ahmatou, remembers hearing as he was praying at the mosque. Three people were shot, he said.

FPRC general Ibrahim Alawa denied the group was targeting Fulani civilians. “Our problem is Ali Darassa,” said the coarse 54-year-old. “He has decided to be king of the Fulani and wants to make them into an army. We tried to tell him: ‘We are one country, you can’t rule with one wing’.”

But the FPRC has repeatedly cast the UPC as a foreign force, playing on a stereotype that views the traditionally nomadic cattle-herding Fulani community as outsiders. As things stand, mutual antipathy towards Fulani has been enough to hold together an improbable alliance with Anti-Balaka. But few believe it will last.

International interveners also face an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable environment.

Last week’s attack “was the deadliest incident against Minusa since being deployed”, said Mars.

Meanwhile, 33 incidents targeting humanitarians were recorded during the first quarter of the year, including 16 since March in the northern province of Ouham.

“We are not able to deliver (aid) any more,” said Kathy Kabeya, head of mission for Intersos, an Italian NGO that recently suspended operations in the Ouham region.

In Bria, displaced people face squalid conditions with scant food, water, or medical supplies.

“We don’t have money to buy anything to eat,” said Roger Mapouka, 34, laughing grimly as a storm turned the camp into a swamp. “We just sit here like this.” - IRIN

Philip Kleinfeld is a freelance journalist and IRIN contributor