CAR children. Credit: Pierre Holtz via UNICEF (CC BY SA 2.0).
Thousands of Muslim refugees have fled deadly militias in the Central African Republic thanks to Bangassou's Bishop Juan José Aguirre Munoz.
“They would risk death if they venture out,” the Spanish-born Bishop Munoz told the BBC program Newsday. “For us, there's no such thing as a Muslim person or a Christian person, everyone is a human being. We need to protect those who are vulnerable.”
The approximately 2,000 refugees sought help at the Catholic seminary in the southeastern city of Bangassou after the most recent outbreak of fighting in May.
In 2013, the largely Muslim Seleka rebels seized power and were accused of killing non-Muslim civilians. Since then, the Central African Republic has suffered sectarian violence. Self-defense groups called anti-Balaka formed, composed mainly of Christians. Those groups too have been accused of atrocities.
The refugees at the Bangassou seminary say they fear what is outside.
“Nearby, there are anti-Balaka militias who prevent them from going out to search for food, water or firewood,” said Bishop Munoz. “So they are completely confined inside the seminary.”
Both anti-Balaka and Seleka militias have attacked the Church's properties, but the bishop says the Church is determined to protect the vulnerable on all sides.
Stephen O'Brien, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, warned that severe violence is possible.
“The early warning signs of genocide are there. We must act now,” O'Brien said. “Violence is intensifying, risking a repeat of the devastating destructive crisis that gripped the country four years ago.”
Some of the refugees at the seminary have been shot at, including a 10-year-old boy. He said one of his brothers was shot in the heart and another was shot in his chest.
Ernest Lualuali Ibongu, a doctor with Doctors without Borders, told the BBC that many refugees need medical care but cannot leave the seminary compound to go to the hospital.
According to Bishop Munoz, that appeals to the militia to allow aid workers into the seminary were not successful.
“The anti-Balaka are armed and very violent and capable of killing children,” he said, adding that it is “very difficult” to reason with them.
Since the conflict began, thousands of people have been killed and at least a million people have been displaced. At least half of Central Africans depend on humanitarian aid, the U.N. reports.
A tentative peace deal was signed in June. The government and 13 of 14 armed groups agreed to end fighting in return for political representation and integration of the militias into the military. Pope Francis visited the country in 2015.