BANGUI: Ibrahim Abakar sleeps with a machete at his side, terrified the darkness will bring death or disappearance as it did for his wife and young sons when armed Christian fighters showed up at their door in the capital of Central African Republic.
Returning to the land of his birth isn’t an option though – South Sudan is now on the brink of civil war, mired in conflict just as the area was when he fled from there more than two decades ago.
“I can’t return and I can’t stay here,” the 38-year-old Muslim said. “I just want to go somewhere there is peace. I have seen too many people here killed in front of me.”
Death is possible if he stays, or if he goes to the only other country that will take him.
Abakar has spent most of his life in Central African Republic, where he also married his wife, but has no passport to travel with.
Abakar’s dilemma underscores the volatility of this corner of the world, where the deepening crisis in Central African Republic has forced some to flee across borders to desperately poor and unstable countries like Chad and Congo. Others are now escaping to home countries where they don’t even speak the local language fluently and have few remaining relatives or job prospects.
Central African Republic has long teetered on the brink of anarchy, but the new unrest unleashed by a March 2013 coup has ignited previously unseen sectarian hatred between Christians and Muslims. More than 1,000 people were killed in December alone and nearly 1 million displaced.
The United States closed its embassy in Bangui last year and urged its citizens to leave. Many Africans with businesses and family ties to Central African Republic, though, chose to stay after the March coup. The imperative to leave now has spiked as the country’s minority Muslim population has come under growing recriminatory attacks from Christians.
Abakar is one of 67 South Sudanese who are currently stuck in Bangui, according to Daniel Anakleto, a representative for the community of South Sudanese refugees that includes both Christians and Muslims.
Tens of thousands of other Africans – mostly Muslims – have been repatriated home to Cameroon, Chad, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal in recent weeks, according to the United Nations.
Hundreds of Malians have been brought back to the capital of Bamako after seeking refuge at the Senegalese Consulate in Bangui because the Malians do not have an embassy there. Another 550 people were being brought back to Mali Tuesday and Wednesday by the International Organization for Migration.
Malian national Aissata Daf was born in Central African Republic and said she and her family had lived through all kinds of political crises there but had never chose to leave until last week when she was brought to Bamako.
She recalled the horror of watching a pregnant neighbor in labor brutally attacked by the Christian militia known as the anti-balaka.
“Even before she could get to the hospital, the anti-balaka found her and they opened her stomach with machetes and killed the baby,” the woman said. “It was horrible – there was blood everywhere. And they only attacked her because she was Muslim.”
Daf doesn’t know what she will do now in Mali, where she and other repatriated Malians speak to each other in Sango, the national language of their adopted country.
Nearly 4,000 Cameroonians have been airlifted free of charge from Bangui to Douala since mid-December. Upon arrival in Cameroon, they were given bus fare to the town of their choice.
Nigerian Ahamdu Mandako, 43, had lived in Bangui for 20 years building his business. His shop was razed by Christian fighters, though he escaped with his life. Now he, his wife and five children have returned to Adamawa State in northeast Nigeria.
“A lot of Nigerians have been killed and their corpses burned. Others are still trapped in Central Africa,” he said. “We have lost everything we labored for, but we thank the Nigerian government for rescuing us, and we hope we can start life again.”
Abakar, the native of South Sudan, has not seen his wife or 8-year-old son since the night he crawled out of a window when the Christian militiamen came to their door. His 12-year-old son Isaka’s body turned up at a neighborhood morgue.
“We don’t sleep at night out of fear for our lives,” said Abakar, who has left the shelter of a mosque to stay with a friend. “We are asking for people to come and save us.”