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Bouca, Central African Republic - The first sign of trouble was at 4pm on a Sunday. Maria Lamy was making soap when she heard the shouts. A boy was riding on a bicycle through the streets of Bornou, the poor Muslim area in Bouca.
“He was shouting: ‘Run! Run!’” she said. “He said people were coming to attack the town.”
Parents began looking for their children. Lamy gathered her five inside. She was a widow. It was her job to protect them, she said. She spent the night waiting.
It was still dark when Lamy finished her morning prayer the next day and she lay back in bed for a few moments more of sleep.
Lamy knew the sound. Not automatic weapons or pistols but homemade guns used by locals for hunting.
The town was under attack.
She took her children and ran. The air was filled with whistles and screams and somebody shouting: “Charge! Charge!”
She looked back and saw fire. Bornou was burning.
In the Christian quarter, Marguerite Kosi woke up to gunfire.
Armed men were moving through the area on foot, setting houses alight.
The decision to run into the bush surrounding the small town was immediate.
“Those who did not run were burnt to charcoal,” Kosi recalled. “I saw only their bones.”
The family took nothing with them.
At 6am, people began knocking at the convent door.
For half an hour, Sister Angelina Santagiuliana had hidden herself in a dark corridor with some of the foreign doctors staying at the convent after hearing the gunshots. Then people streamed past the fountain of the Virgin Mary and the stone well and the neat yard to Santagiuliana’s front door.
The first group was about 20 people. By the end of the day, close to a hundred sat on the floor of the entrance hall, with Pope Francis and a map of the world looking down at them. There were children – many, said Santagiuliana.
“Everybody was on top of each other, like a puzzle. Everybody was incredibly still and quiet. Stepping outside, all you could see was smoke. There was the noise of shots from everywhere. I was thinking it was just an absurd situation.”
At 8.30am, a group of merchant Muslims arrived. They were armed.
“People were very scared that they were coming to get us,” said Santagiuliana.
The original attack had been against the Muslim community, after all. Nothing happened. The Muslims asked the doctors to come and care for their wounded, then left.
“If this were only a battle between soldiers, it would be easier to explain,” said a town head, Umar Gibril. “But the whole society has been mixed up.”
Christian and Muslim lived peacefully in Bouca. They traded. They married. They had for years.
“We were like children of the same family,” Gibril said.
And when soldiers with the rebel group Séléka – now the new government forces – moved through Bouca on their way to the capital in March to overthrow former President François Bozizé, there was looting and pillaging but little violence.
Then the riot of September 9.
“What really happened on September 9 was revenge from those close to the former regime – that’s the truth,” said Pierre Ngao, Bouca’s district official, the town’s government representative working on 35 months’ back pay.
The riot wasn’t part of some religious war, he said, but a reaction against the mostly Muslim Séléka troops, who also came to the defence of the Muslim community in the attack. The fighting and fires spread to the Christian quarter.
But who that reaction came from – whether a self-defence militia group from inside Bouca or something else, something orchestrated externally by former Bozizé supporters – is still speculative.
“It’s about social justice,” said Ngao. “If it doesn’t exist in a nation, peace also can’t exist. Those who don’t receive the same piece of the the pie are always going to come back with guns.”
Bouca’s was not the first outbreak of violence.
On September 7, attacks in nearby Bossangoa left an estimated 36 000 internally displaced people and doctors treating burn wounds – gunshot wounds, machete wounds.
“People have no shelter and they sleep wherever they can – inside the church, school or under trees. It is crowded and people cook, eat, sleep, wash and defecate in the same area.
“Under these disastrous hygienic conditions, the risk of disease outbreaks is high,” says head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in the country, Ellen van der Velden.
On September 12, thousands fled from Paoua when rumours of imminent violence hit their town.
Then Garga. Bria. Dangbatro. Hodjo. Satema.
By the end of September, the number of displaced in the Central African Republic was nearly 395 000.
Nearly two months later, Bouca – a town of 18 000 – is largely empty.
Kosi lived off cassava in the bush for three weeks before joining the group of about 450 residents camped outside the Catholic church, metres from their burnt homes.
All she could salvage were a few charred pots and a plastic water container. She wears donated clothes. When it rains, the camp turns to mud, and it always rains.
Lamy is one of about a hundred Muslims being sheltered at the imam’s compound. He is fast running out of food and doesn’t know how he will be able to keep supporting the crowd.
The International Committee of the Red Cross was helping with relief efforts, distributing food and household kits, but there’s tension.
“We remain concerned about the rise in inter-communal tension in the area and its potential consequences on the population,” said Red Cross delegation head, Georgios Georgantas.
Lamy hasn’t gone home yet. She’s one of the lucky few: Her roof was made of tin instead of grass and her house survived the blaze.
But she’s scared.
She saw her neighbour shot and killed. Another man’s hands were cut off. Two women and four children were burnt in their homes.
Hawa Lary’s older brother was hacked to death with a machete.
Eli Kpanga was separated from his wife and children in the escape and only found them 10 days later. His brother was killed.
Habiba Abdullahi buried six relatives in the same grave, their remains so badly burnt, she didn’t know how to separate them.
But estimating the dead is just that. Red Cross volunteers and the committee buried about 50 bodies – that’s not including those buried according to local customs and traditions soon after the violence broke out. And it’s not counting how many may have fled to the bush and died.
“The neighbourhood leader was the first person to be killed,” said Lamy. “How do you expect me, a civilian, with no power or influence, to return there?” - The Star