Pope Francis attempts to quell Christian-Muslim violence on Africa trip

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Saturday, November 28, 2015
Pope Francis meets with young people at the Kololo airstrip in Kampala, Uganda, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, part of a six-day visit to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic.
Pope Francis meets with young people at the Kololo airstrip in Kampala, Uganda, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, part of a six-day visit to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic.
kgo-Giuseppe Cacace/ Pool Photo via AP

BANGUI, Central African Republic -- Georgette Dossio mourns a son whose body she can never bury. Sitting on the dirt under a tent of scrap wood and tarp, she is comforted by her neighbors at the airport displaced-persons camp where she has lived for nearly two years.

A day earlier, she received the horrific call: Her 35-year-old son Sincere had come across a group of Muslim rebel fighters on the outskirts of the camp that is home to thousands of Christians.

"They bound his hands behind his back, shot him in the head and then cut him apart piece by piece," she says, her eyes filling with tears.

No one has found his remains. His mother can only clutch an old photo of him as she wails in grief, thinking of her four fatherless grandchildren.

On the other side of the sectarian divide, in another part of Bangui, some 15,000 Muslims are essentially blockaded in a neighborhood called PK5, unable to leave without fear of death at the hands of Christian militia fighters known as anti-Balaka who have the section encircled and enforce its boundaries with grenades.

This is the maelstrom of Christian-vs.-Muslim violence into which Pope Francis will step when he lands in Central African Republic on Sunday with a message of peace and reconciliation.

The capital of this long-chaotic country of 4.8 million exploded in fury nearly two years ago, leaving thousands dead, and violence erupted again in September, just when it seemed the nation was stabilizing amid the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping force. At least 100 have died in the latest bloodletting in and around PK5, according to Human Rights Watch.

All told, the unrest has left nearly half a million Central Africans displaced within their country; almost another half-million have left for neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Congo, U.N. figures show. The capital's Muslim population has dropped from about 122,000 to just 15,000 or so, according to Human Rights Watch.

The pope intends to travel to the heart of PK5 to meet with members of the besieged Muslim community. Inside the enclave, there is guarded hope the pope can open the hearts of the city's most hardened fighters. Catholic and Protestant clergy say the anti-Balaka cannot truly be Christians if they are raping, looting and slaughtering civilians.

Oumar Ben Oumar, a 29-year-old Muslim, lost his younger brother Ahmed three weeks ago when he was shot to death in their PK5 neighborhood while walking down the street. Most of Oumar's family and his in-laws had already fled the country. With his brother died any hope Oumar had of staying.

Oumar and his wife, Chamcya, live with their two small children in a small concrete home with a metal roof that they built on the grounds of PK5's Central Mosque, which the pope intends to visit.

"We will welcome him as an elder if he comes," Oumar said. "But how can we have dialogue when there is always gunfire? We hear gunshots morning, noon and night. It's only God that protects us."

Oumar and his young family no longer dream of one day returning to their neighborhood of Miskine, where not a single Muslim remains. A friend showed them cellphone video of their old home in ruins. The shop where Oumar used to sell soap, salt and other items is also looted and destroyed.

The bloodshed dates back to early 2013, when a coalition of mostly Muslim rebel groups from Central African Republic's anarchic north overthrew the Christian president. Their power grab was more about greed than ideology, yet their reign saw hatred rise as the rebels carried out brutal attacks on civilians. After the rebels' leader stepped aside in early 2014, a wave of retaliatory violence by anti-Balaka fighters forced most of the capital's Muslims to flee.

Central African Republic was organizing democratic elections for December when the death of a young Muslim taxi driver in late September reignited tensions. Within hours, Muslim fighters known as the Seleka retaliated with attacks on Christians in the neighborhoods surrounding PK5.

Patricia Kpanenou had lived in her multifaith neighborhood of Ngbeguewe for 30 years before the bloodletting drove her to leave her home two months ago and join the masses at the airport camp.

Muslim fighters killed her neighbor, decapitating the pregnant woman and trying to cut her baby from her belly, she said. She has returned twice in hopes of taking something back with her from her life in Ngbeguewe. The first time, she took her mattress. The second time, the home her parents built had been burned to the ground.

Still, she said, she is willing to live among Muslims again if there is peace.

So far there is only calm through isolation, and the Muslim footprint on the city is disappearing outside their enclave.

In the PK12 neighborhood last year, Muslims gathered before dawn to pray for the last time at their mosque. After carefully locking the door, they joined a huge convoy of more than 1,200 people, with a heavily armed escort.

Moments later, neighbors descended en masse to tear the mosque apart piece by piece. As peacekeepers stood by and watched, they took the doors off their hinges for scrap wood and even dismantled the loudspeaker used for the call to prayer.

Where Muslims once prayed is now a soccer field.