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In the Central African Republic, tens of thousands of Muslims have fled a violent campaign of what United Nations officials and Amnesty International now call ethno-religious cleansing. This presents a dilemma for the U.N. Should it help the rest of the country's Muslims to escape? NPR's Gregory Warner reports on what an ongoing exodus looks like.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: These days, it's almost impossible to buy a bar of soap in most small towns in the Central African Republic. The same is true with sugar and powdered milk, batteries, baby formula, any imported good that in the stratified society of this country would've been, up until January, almost always sold to you by a Muslim behind a counter.
For the last few weeks, bands of Christian militia groups called anti-Balaka have waged war on Muslims and their property. Here in the town of Bouar, thousands of Muslims who didn't have the chance or the means to flee have been pinned down around the mosque. They're guarded by a couple of dozen U.N. peacekeepers. But as night falls, the people squeeze as close as possible to the walls of the mosque to stay inside the zone of safety.
It's here I meet Fatimah William. She's wearing a brown hijab with little sequins that glint in the bright sun. It's her only piece of clothing, she says.
FATIMAH WILLIAMS: (Speaking foreign language)
WARNER: The armed men looted everything from her house while she was camped here, even the furniture, the children's clothes. They stole the cows, the delivery truck that her husband drove for work. Not surprisingly, Fatimah's one wish is to take her family on the hour's drive west, over the border to Cameroon, where her big sister lives. But that hour's drive is impossible these days for Muslims without a heavily armed escort to protect them.
WILLIAMS: (Speaking foreign language)
WARNER: We can't stay here, she says. But she also can't leave. The militias terrorizing Fatimah and other Muslims have their origin in a popular resistance movement. Last year, a coup by Muslim-led rebels called the Seleka ushered in an oppressive regime, where mostly Muslim fighters committed atrocities against mostly Christian civilians. When those fighters were swept out with the help of the French army, the Christian militias known as anti-Balaka started attacking the country's entire Muslim minority.
George Okoth-Obbo is the Africa director for the UNHCR, that's the U.N. agency that deals with refugee protection and political asylum. He's been going around talking to Muslims who are hunkered down like this in mosques and friendly churches.
GEORGE OKOTH OBBO: The one appeal that all these people were making to all of us is to be helped to leave the country.
WARNER: But he is concerned about how it looks if United Nations troops and United Nations trucks are used to offload one ethnic group out of a country, even if that group itself is pleading to go.
OBBO: In helping people find safety through exodus from the country, are we at the same time making possible ethno-religious cleansing? That is the dilemma.
WARNER: It would further rend the social fabric of the country, making reconciliation less likely, he says. And it destroys the economy if those stores stay shuttered. Of course, this debate in the U.N. headquarters in Geneva can feel academic among the people in the mosque in Bouar, which feels like a bus stop where thousands of people are waiting for a bus that's not scheduled.
Ali Aoudou Mommin is the town's former mayor. He's Muslim, now here among the displaced.
ALI AOUDOU MOMMIN: (Speaking foreign language)
WARNER: We Muslims are like birds plucked of our feathers, he says, and slouches his shoulders to illustrate. But then he says that they don't want to depart forever, they just go to Cameroon and get some air, and return when there's peace. But George Okoth-Obbo of the United Nations says that even if Muslims were to leave this country en masse, that would not stop the anti-Balaka Christian militias, which are using looted riches to get better weapons and expanding their targets.
He says there are still hundreds of thousands of Christians displaced in camps around this country and their number one fear of going home is being attacked by the anti-Balaka, their own supposed defenders. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Bouar.