Kaga Bandoro (Central African Republic) (AFP)
Returning to the scene of the massacre for the first time, Sylvie pointed to the ruins of the small home she built in what was a settlement for 8,000 civilians displaced during years of unrest.
“That’s where I lived for three years,” she said, recovering a comb from the scorched ground between the low walls of now roofless huts.
On October 12 the predominantly Christian settlement was attacked by remnants of the mostly Muslim rebel “Seleka” coalition, which overthrew the national government in March 2013, only to be dislodged the following January.
In apparent reprisal for the death of one of their own, the attackers killed at least 37 people and set fire to the camp.
“People were burned on the spot, like two children and a grandmother over there,” said site watchman Michel Kenze, near a pump where children were drawing water.
After the attack, victims’ corpses were left in the open to be eaten by wild pigs and other animals.
Thousands of survivors, including Sylvie, fled to set up another camp between a base of the UN’s MINUSCA peacekeeping force and the runway of the town’s airport.
– No longer in school –
Sylvie now makes ends meet selling peanuts and fritters in a marketplace opposite the MINUSCA base.
On the edge of the runway, young girls sing songs and play games. They are not in school.
“We had just started the school year on September 19. On October 12, an education inspector was killed. After that, inspections shut down,” said an aid worker with MINUSCA.
“Civil servants had returned (to Kaga Bandoro), but they went back to Bangui after what happened,” said local government official Paul Fradjala, who never ventures far from the UN base.
The large country’s army, police and government have a very limited presence outside the capital, Bangui.
In 2013, Seleka’s coup led to the formation of “anti-Balaka” vigilante units, drawn from the Christian majority, which began to target Muslims.
Both sides committed widespread atrocities in different parts of the country, even after Seleka was chased from power.
“We want peace, we want the armed groups to be disarmed,” Sylvie said in her new home, a hut made from plastic sheeting where she stores her few possessions: a notebook, a jerrycan and an old mosquito net.
A national programme to disarm fighters in CAR was officially launched a year ago, but in practice little has been done since to actually collect weapons or demobilise combattants.
Sylvie no longer dares to visit Muslim traders on the far side of town over a bridge guarded by a few Pakistani UN troops — members of the MINUSCA contingent accused of standing by as last month’s massacre unfolded.
The Muslim quarter is busy with shops selling food and clothes, a motel and a garage fixing motorbike taxis.
In this part of town, Seleka fighters, along with gunmen from neighbouring Sudan and Chad, rub shoulders with civilians, residents say.
“In the displaced persons’ camps, there are also armed men among the civilians and MINUSCA sees and knows about them,” counters Idriss Al Bachar, a young Seleka leader.
– Tax on cattle –
As much as he condemns the October massacre, Bachar is not in favour of disarmament, arguing that the rights and safety of the Muslim minority — between 15 and 20 percent of the country’s 4.5 million people — are not yet guaranteed.
“There is a climate of impunity in CAR, where members of armed groups and militias alleged to have committed appalling human rights abuses and crimes under international law, move freely throughout the country and continue to fuel violence,” Amnesty International’s Central Africa Researcher, Ilana Allegrozzi said Friday.
There is an economic aspect to this impunity, according to Azrak Mahmat, an official in Kaga Bandoro’s cattle market.
“I pay 11,000 CFA francs ($16) in tax to Seleka for every head of cattle, he said.
“When I load my vehicle to go to Bangui, the anti-balaka threaten me as well”, he added.
In the town’s Muslim quarter, Abdelkarim, 56, and his Christian neighbour, Isakho Ndenga, 71, have enjoyed a decades-long friendship that has survived civil war and sectarian violence.
Could they be an example for their country? “Inch Allah”, the Muslim replies. If God wills it.