Armed groups of vigilantes called anti-balaka, comprised of Christians, animists and former troops loyal to the toppled government, have spent months trying to rid Central African Republic of most of its Muslims. Many claim they’re exacting revenge against Séléka, the disbanded coalition of mainly Muslim rebels who staged a coup more than a year ago and initiated horrific abuses like rape, torture and random killings, largely against non-Muslims. But their retaliatory atrocities have amounted to reports of ethnic cleansing and warnings of religion-fueled murder, destabilizing the land to the darkest period in its modern history.
Tens of thousands of Muslims, at a minimum, have fled to Cameroon, Chad and Democratic Republic of Congo. But those who haven’t been forced out or killed, or who don’t remain in the western region either at will or by force, have moved to the eastern part of the country, where fighting that has gripped the west for months is just starting to creep in, or at least be documented.
French photojournalist William Daniels spent much of his fourth trip since November covering the impact of the conflict on people in the capital, Bangui, and the northwest. As French troops shifted into the third phase of their intervention begun in December, he traveled east to peek into life where ex-Séléka rebels reign and where few aid workers and journalists have yet ventured. “It’s definitely the next stage of the story,” he says.
Daniels, 37, and a few other journalists had a good contact in a ex-Séléka general stationed in Bambari, the capital city of the Ouaka region and viewed as the gateway to the east. Bambari appeared normal as both Muslim and Christian neighborhoods in the city seemed peaceful. “We hadn’t seen that in the West in a long time,” he says. Local Christians said they were pleased with the general’s arrival months ago because he batted down intercommunal tension that began to permeate and worked to oust the more radical rebels.
But that didn’t mean all was well. After Bambari, Daniels traveled to nearby Grimari, where clashes between anti-balaka and ex-Séléka and then heavy rains would keep him for three days. At the Catholic mission, where hundreds of people had sought refuge, Daniels heard about an attack in a nearby village, Gulinga. Near a burning house were the bodies of two men and one woman. Their blood hadn’t yet dried when he arrived. He surveyed the scene, taking pictures of the wailing relatives over the corpses, then left amid rumors the perpetrators were circling back. Ex-Séléka admitted the next day they were responsible, claiming the men were anti-balaka and the woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time, a sort of collateral damage.
The number of displaced at the mission grew by thousands of people over the next few days before Daniels returned to Bangui. The entry of French troops allowed residents to return home and bring back food and supplies, whatever they could carry, showing the beginnings of a new camp. “The first day, you had people completely scared [of the situation]. The second, you had people beginning to cook. On the third day, you had a small market,” he recalls. “The life of the city had completely moved into the camp.” That scene has become familiar across Central African Republic. When life will again move out of the camp is anyone’s guess.
William Daniels is a photographer represented by Panos Pictures. Daniels previously wrote for LightBox about his escape from Syria.
Andrew Katz is a homepage editor and reporter covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @katz.