By Sudarsan Raghavan
21 March, 2014
The door is unhinged; the rooms are bare, signs of that afternoon when Christian vigilantes arrived at Henriette Oumpo's mud-brick house to murder her husband.
"They broke down the door," she recalled, her face etched with grief, "and they began searching for him."
Her husband, who is a Muslim, escaped through a back window. Clutching knives, the fighters looted their possessions. Then, they prepared to kill Oumpo, 60, and burn the house down. But some neighbours intervened and informed the fighters that she was a Christian by birth. So they spared her life - on one condition.
"Renounce Islam," one of her attackers said as they left. "Or else we will return and kill you for marrying a Muslim."
Marriages between Christians and Muslims have survived the chaotic upheavals that the Central African Republic has endured since gaining independence from former colonial power France in 1960. But the latest cataclysm is shattering these mixed unions, dividing families and communities. U.N. officials and aid workers are concerned that the brutality and vengeance could permanently destroy the relationships between Christians and Muslims.
"They will get lots of pressure from one side or the other, 'this is not the group to marry with, this is not the group to go with,' " said Abdou Dieng, the top U.N. humanitarian official for the Central African Republic. "Many families will fall apart."
Today, Oumpo's husband, Idriss Alaas Muhamed, lives in a bleak enclave of charred and looted shops and houses called PK5. It's one of the last remaining Muslim areas in a capital paralysed by sectarian hatred and violence.
Their 11 children, ages 22 to 40, have also fled their homes. One son was killed by a Christian mob as he walked to work in mid-January.
"I have lived in this place for 40 years, and all my children were born here," said Muhamed, 67, perched on a bench across from a mosque compound crowded with refugees. "I never expected this. None of us did."
The attacks that have killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands began with a coup one year ago. As Muslims seized power for the first time in this majority Christian nation last March, they brutally targeted Christians. In response, Christian militias rose up and targeted Muslims enclaves. Their assaults intensified after the country's first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia, resigned in January under pressure from regional leaders.
Shadowed by fear, tens of thousands of Muslims have fled the country. Entire Muslim neighbourhoods have emptied out, homes torched, bodies set afire in streets. As the exodus continues, more mixed families are likely to be shattered, U.N. officials and aid workers say.
During a recent visit to the northern town of Kaga Bandoro, Dieng recalled meeting a Muslim imam who was married to a Christian. The imam was fleeing to neighbouring Chad but leaving his wife behind, an act that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
"The tendency is they don't leave the families behind," Dieng said. "They take them with them."
Abdel Hafiss is trying to do just that. He is Muslim. His wife is Christian. They were married for two decades, and had seven children. Five months ago, Christian militias raided their neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bangui, the capital. Hafiss fled, but his wife stayed to protect their house. Three of their children left with him, four stayed with his wife.
Today, Hafiss, 40, and his children are living in a mosque. It is only five miles from his home, but a visit back could get him killed. The Christian vigilantes now reign over his community. He hasn't seen his wife and four other children since he fled. And they can't visit him without risking the wrath of the vigilantes.
Hafiss, a slim, mild-mannered teacher, senses that his family is disintegrating. For months he has been trying to convince his wife by cellphone to flee to Chad with all their children. But she has refused. Chad is a predominantly Muslim nation, and she is also worried about abandoning the only home she has known in her adult life.
"My wife says, 'If we leave, they will destroy our house,' " Hafiss said. "I told her, 'Our life together or the house: Which is more important?' "
Hafiss knows he must leave. The mosque is constantly attacked by Christian militias, known as anti-balaka or "anti-machete" in the local Sango language. On a recent day, a boy was hacked to death.
Now and then, Haffis's mind drifts back to a better time. "I was a student when we married. I visited her family. She visited mine. She was welcomed in my family. I was welcomed in hers," he recalled. "Christians and Muslims lived in peace. That is all gone now."
As in most African nations, tribal identity is more important than national and religious affiliations. Muslims and Christians can be found in most tribes here. Many people marry outside of their faith, and it's not uncommon for one partner to retain his or her religion rather than convert.
But these days religious identity is trumping tribe.
Take Herve Ouassiri's predicament. When he was in his 20s, he converted to Islam. At the mosque, he was known as Abubakar. His Christian in-laws embraced him. But several months ago, as Christian militias took control of his neighbourhood, his relatives gave him an ultimatum: Convert back to Christianity or else.
So Ouassiri fled the area and returned to his father's home, along with his Christian wife and baby son. His in-laws have severed all contact with them. Ouassiri and his wife spend their days inside the compound and have not left the neighbourhood. They fear the in-laws might target them.
"They want to force me to stop going to the mosque," said Ouassiri, now 43. "I don't know what they will do to me if they find me praying. They might try to kill me."
That's what happened to Alpha Passi. The 37-year-old Muslim shopkeeper lived with his Christian girlfriend, Eugenie, and his two boys from a previous marriage.
"Eugenie was like my mother," said Abache, Passi's teenage son.
On January 20, all that changed.
The couple had an argument so loud that neighbours could hear. Passi ordered Eugenie to leave the house. Neighbors recalled that outside, she screamed: "This will be the last time for you to have a girlfriend." Then, she left.
That evening, Christian vigilantes showed up at the house. They said they were Eugenie's relatives and had come to pick up her belongings, recalled neighbours and Abache. The fighters also accused Passi of harbouring some Seleka Muslim rebels. Passi told them to return in the morning. But they fired bullets through the door. Passi and Abache hit the floor.
There was a long silence. Thinking that his assailants had left, Passi stepped out onto the porch. From behind a tree, the gunmen took aim.
"They shot him dead," Abache said.
Passi is buried in a grave next to his house. Eugenie has vanished.
Around Bangui, a socially seismic shift is under way. Muslims are leaving mixed areas; Christians are taking their place.
Seated outside her house on a recent day, Oumpo's broad face was filled with anguish. She has made a difficult decision.
Muhamed has decided to leave for Chad, but she won't join him. She knows no one there. "When he leaves, it's finished," she said. "We will never see each other again."
She hopes to live with relatives in a Christian neighbourhood. But she is worried they may no longer accept her because she converted to Islam. "If they don't welcome me, I will go somewhere else," Oumpo said.
Wherever she goes, the vigilante's ultimatum will haunt her. She has already given up the headscarf worn by many Muslim women. "I will not wear any Muslim clothes. I will not go to a mosque," she said. "I will pretend I am a Christian."