In the Central African Republic people are being hacked to death with machetes, shot dead or lynched as religiously-motivated violence escalates. But there are also people willing to help those targeted by the killers.
Women squat on the ground, cooking at open fires. Children struggle to get at the water stored in heavy canisters. The women wear headscarves, the men are attired in long robes and also have their heads covered. They are all Muslims, now living in a refugee camp in Boali, a town some 80 kilometres (49 miles) from Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic. Most have terrible tales to tell, many have lost close relatives. All fear for their lives.
Some 700 Muslims now live in this provisional camp. Its location - in the grounds of a Catholic church - sets it apart from other camps. The refugees live and sleep in the church building. They only cook outside.
Making way for Mass
Today is Sunday. The refugees wait on the grass outside the church so that the Christian congregation can take their places on the benches inside. The camp inmates' belongings are pushed against the walls and into corners for the duration of the Mass. As soon as the service is over, the refugees go back inside.
Father Xavier-Arnauld Fagba is the man who brought the Muslims here, to rescue them from the wrath of pro-Christian anti-balaka militias and other Christians living in the vicinity. The mob is out of control, in Boali and elsewhere. If a Muslim is seen on the street, he or she risks being killed. Human rights organization Amnesty International uses the term "ethnic cleaning" to describe what is going on. The United Nations warns of genocide. Since majority Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew President Francois Bozize almost a year ago, religiously-motivated clashes between Muslim and Christian militia groups have become frequent.
"What I do here is very little compared with what is really necessary," Father Xavier-Arnauld told DW after the Sunday service. "If someone else were in my place, he would have to do the same." But hardly anyone does. It is only thanks to such courageous individuals that Muslims in the Central African Republic are able to survive.
Saved at the last minute
"While others just watched as crimes were being perpetrated, the deacon and I agreed in mid-January that we had to do something," the priest said. "We decided that we had to save the Muslims who were not getting help from anyone else." At the entrance to the town he and the deacon found many frightened Muslims hoping desperately for a last chance to flee. Father Xavier-Arnauld told them to follow him. The two priests then went from house to house to find more Muslims. Many had already fled into the bush. "We followed them and were able to persuade many to come with us," the priest said, adding that "some very committed Christians" had also helped in the rescue effort. "We brought the Muslims to our church, and since then, they have been here."
In the meantime, some Christians have also fled to the church, also targets of the allegedly pro-Christian anti-balaka militia. They include Christians who had helped the Muslims with food and water or had hidden them in their own homes.
No one is safe
The priest is himself frequently a target of threats. Once he only just escaped with his life. After Sunday Mass he planned to visit a sick member of his congregation – no sooner had he reached the road outside the church grounds, than his car was surrounded by anti-balaka militias. "They were yelling and shouting that they wanted to finish me off." The priest got out of his car and asked the crowd what they wanted from him. "I said they could do what they liked with me. I had no fear of death." At that moment, one of the militia leaders arrived and dispersed the crowd. "He saved my life." Father Xavier-Arnauld said.
That experience did not deter him. Since then, militia members have several times entered the church grounds – despite the presence of soldiers of the African intervention force MISCA along the road outside. The Christian militias managed to injure two refugees within the church compound and since then the Muslims have trusted no one. Except perhaps Father Xavier-Arnauld and his deacon. But while the refugees are grateful for the hospitality they have received, all they can think of is flight and how to leave the country as quickly as possible.