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One million people have fled their homes in Central African Republic. Others are still waiting to go. Credit: Aurelio Gazzera/Caritas

One million people have fled their homes in Central African Republic. Others are still waiting to go. Credit: Aurelio Gazzera/Caritas

Gunfire crackles daily. Smoke plumes up from burned out villages. Gangs of young men hang menacingly on the streets, machetes in hand. There is no rule of law and no police.

The government has no power. Basic services like healthcare and education have collapsed.

The Central African Republic is on the edge.

“The people are gripped by an incredible fear,” said Sr. Elvira Tutolo, the director of a Church organisation in the town of Berberati.

The local diocesan Caritas director in Bouar, Fr Aurélio Gazzera said, “Minds have started to overheat. The anxiety has become a psychosis.”

Incidents quickly spiral into wider conflict. There is little logic to the violence.

In the town of Bossemptélé, two men are brought to the hospital to be treated for serious injuries caused in the fighting. The colleagues who brought them to the clinic end up threatening to steal the hospital vehicles. In a panic, the medical staff and most of the patients flee.

The Catholic mission fathers and local Muslim religious leaders feared the incident will spark reprisals so try to initiate dialogue with the rival militias. But at 8.30 the next morning, the fighting started again.

“Mediation didn’t deliver a mouse because of the blindness of both militias,” said Fr. Gazzera.

On one side of the conflict there is Seleka. They seized power in March 2013. Since then their fighters indulged in a rampage of looting, rape and murder. Against them is the Antibalaka, self-defense militias who launched a counter-offensive in December last year.

In the middle are the ordinary people of the Central African Republic.

Fighting has forced one in five people from their homes. At least 900,000 people are trapped in 115 makeshift camps across the country, many in church compounds.

The chaos hinders aid getting through. There have been four violent attacks against NGOS in the first week of February. The Church has had hundreds of vehicles stolen.

Churches are protecting thousands of people.

Churches are protecting thousands of people.

Despite the fighting, Caritas is still able to operate. As Bangui turned into a warzone in December, Caritas was still able to deliver 30,000 food rations.

In the Catholic mission compound in Bossangoa in the north, the Church has been able to provide protection and healthcare to 30,000 people.

Both militias have tried to enflame religious conflict in the majority Christian, minority Muslim country. Seleka fighters identify themselves with the Muslims and targeted Christians. The Antibabalaka retaliated against Muslims.

As the Seleka forces have begun to withdraw into their strongholds in the north or into friendly neighbouring countries since December, they have burned and pillaged as they go.

“They uttered threats, they stole vehicles, they demanded more money, people were picked up and tortured, they said ‘before we go we’ll make a killing’,” said Sr. Tutolo.

Antibalaka then come in, continuing the mayhem.

“The Antibalaka became the problem,” said Fr. Gazzera. “Many are thugs without leaders. They’re there to break , kill and loot.”

It’s no surprise that thousands of Muslims have fled their homes, either into the bush or to neighbouring countries.

In Boda in the south, 75 people were killed last week. Christians have fled to the forest and Muslims into one neighbourhood.

“In Bozoum, Muslims have been forced from their houses and shops,” said Fr Gazzera. 2500 Muslims are packed into one street, sitting on their bags, waiting to leave.

“There is little food or water and no toilets. Every day Caritas brings 1000 litres and water and 250 kilos of rice,” said the priest.

Both Christian and Muslim religious leaders stress the conflict isn’t religious but political.

Aid is getting through.

Aid is getting through.

“When I speak to ordinary people you don’t hear voices of hatred, only voices of fear who are desperately asking for peace,” said Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, Caritas Central African Republic President.

Caritas has been supporting Archbishop Dieudonné and the national Muslim leader Imam Omar Kabine Layama to travel around the country, delivering messages of peace. Caritas has also funded announcements on the radio and banners promoting peace.

“I cannot keep quiet as Central Africans of whatever faith are still abused, hurt and killed,” said the archbishop.

He and the imam have also been traveling outside the country urging for international engagement, including a UN peacekeeping force with enough resources to re-establish security.

There are currently 1,600 French and around 5,500 African Union peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. In a country the size of Ukraine or Texas, without any police force, they are stretched.

One of their tasks is to disarm the militias, but it’s not easy. In Bozoum, an African Union soldiers gets shot and when they try to find the culprit, the town erupts in burnt tires and shooting in the air.

Caritas says time is running out for  the Central African Republic.

A food crisis is on the immediate horizon. Farmers are too scared to return to their fields. If the March planting season is missed, widespread hunger will follow in a country dependent on subsistence agriculture.

Muslims are traditionally the merchants. As they have fled, another source of food has gone and the local economy has withered.

Speaking in January, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church will continue “working generously to help people in every possible way and, above all, to rebuild a climate of reconciliation and of peace among all groups in society.”