Peacekeepers and aid groups are trying to ease tensions between Christians and Muslims in a diamond mining area of the Central African Republic. The town of Boda is one of the last in the western C.A.R. still inhabited by a large number of Muslims. The government has told militiamen there to stop threatening this community, but the fighters say the Muslims must leave.
In the past three months more than 100,000 Muslims have fled the west of the Central African Republic, but tens of thousands more are trapped in virtual ghettos and threatened by the anti-balaka, the largely Christian militia groups that prompted the Muslims to flee.
The largest of these ghettos outside the capital of Bangui is in the town of Boda, a diamond mining center where there are about 12,000 to 14,000 Muslims.
About two weeks ago the C.A.R. government sent a delegation to Boda, led by Joachin Kokate, who is a coordinator of the anti-balaka and also a government adviser.
Kokate came back reporting the anti-balaka had agreed not to attack Muslims in Boda.
VOA decided to investigate and arrived in Boda on March 19. The road into the town is lined with burned out and roofless buildings. Our driver and guide, a Christian, grew nervous as he entered the Muslim zone.
He asked a Christian at the roadside whether the Muslims, further up the road, are well armed.
We drove on and arrived at the Muslim checkpoint.
“Hello, how are you?” said the guide. “We thought you were going to kill us, but fortunately you have not."
"We do not kill or harm anyone,” replied a young Muslim.
But that does not mean the communities are reconciled.
Despite the presence of 80 French peacekeepers, and their helicopters circling ahead, all the Muslims in Boda that VOA spoke to said they want to leave. Several people said the French have improved security, but there are still threats, that grenades were thrown into their area a few days ago and several Muslims’ bodies were fished out of the river at the weekend.
Diamond dealer Mahmat Adoum, who says he was born here and has never left the country, sums up the general mood.
He said everyone wants to leave because there is insecurity, the Christians want them out and it is impossible for Muslims to move more than 200 meters outside their quarter.
And if the Muslims leave Boda and its diamond business, they are finished in the west of the country, he predicted.
He says 95 percent of C.A.R. diamond buyers are Muslims. A Christian source put the number at 50 percent.
The Christians will lose out if the Muslims leave, says Adoum.
It is serious for the country, he said, because the diamond exporters in Bangui trust the Muslims to repay loans, and they may not trust the people who want to replace them.
Two hundred meters from the Muslim quarter, a group of youths say they are anti-balaka. Their leader gives his name as Flavien Edgar. VOA asked him if they have agreed not to attack the Muslim quarter.
He said,"we do not want the Muslims to stay here because they have burned our houses and killed our relatives."
He denied they have agreed not to attack Muslims as government adviser Joachin Kokate reported. He also denied that they need Muslim diamond dealers.
"Are you kidding?" he said. Even among ourselves, the Christians, he says, we can buy diamonds. For example, he continues, I work in the diamond mines, I know diamonds. And the whites can come here and buy them, he adds.
But Bangui economist Cyriaque Motoumba says the exodus of Muslims will have a negative impact on the diamond trade. He says there will be less money to pre-finance the diggers, lower prices due to fewer buyers, and a loss of tax revenue because, he says, the non-Muslims do not have the money to pay for dealers’ licenses