For the Christian Militias in the Central African Republic, it is time for revenge. Since last fall, the groups–called antibalaka, or antimachete, in the Sango language–have been hunting down the mainly Muslim rebels who toppled the government last March and then went on a violent rampage for much of the year. The rebels, known as Séléka, mainly targeted Christians and continued their pillaging and killing even after their leader, Michel Djotodia, dissolved the group in September. On Jan. 23, days after Djotodia resigned as President, Catherine Samba-Panza, then mayor of the capital, Bangui, took over as interim President.
Samba-Panza seemed like a figure of hope for a country that has seen five coups since it gained independence from France in 1960, but the violence has only intensified as the hunters have become the hunted. While the antibalaka seek to kill remaining Séléka members, the bloody payback has increasingly taken on the characteristics of a purge fueled by religious hatred. Antibalaka have tortured and killed Muslims who had no ties to Séléka.
The country had very little history of violence between Christians and Muslims, but a growing sense of dispossession in the Muslim stronghold of the northeast led some Muslims there to form Séléka. Once the bloodletting started, anger quickly grew between the Muslim and Christian communities.
About 1 million of the landlocked country’s 4.6 million people have fled their homes because of the violence, and at least 2,000 people have been killed in the past 11 months. In December, in a bid to end the conflict, France sent 1,600 peacekeeping troops to its former colony under a U.N. mandate. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters on Feb. 11 that he had asked France to send more troops. Three days later France said it would increase its forces in the country by 400 soldiers. The African Union has deployed over 5,000 peacekeepers there.
French photographer William Daniels arrived in Bangui on Jan. 21 and spent part of the next two weeks on assignment for TIME. “You don’t meet many people telling you, ‘No, it’s O.K. I’m sure we can find a solution to be together later,'” he says. “I don’t see that much hope.” During his trip, Daniels encountered some examples of immense courage, including that of a priest who provided shelter to Muslims in his church, but he also noticed an undercurrent of suspicion that bodes ill for the desperately poor country. “We don’t want to attack the Muslim civilians–we just want to attack the Séléka,” one antibalaka fighter told Daniels. Then, in the next breath, the man added a menacing qualification: “All Muslims are Séléka anyway.”
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This appears in the March 03, 2014 issue of TIME.