BOSSANGOA, Central African Republic: The Christian camp is on one side, the Muslim camp on another, separated by a red dirt road littered with abandoned homes, a no man’s land swirling with bitterness, rumors and accusations.
Wrenched apart by sectarian violence, the Central African Republic town of Bossangoa has become little more than a ghost town.
Religious tensions in the country have exploded in the past two weeks, following months of crisis sparked by a March coup, and has sent residents in Bossangoa, 300 km north of the capital Bangui fleeing for their lives.
The Christians fled to a massive camp around the archbishop’s office.
“Spontaneously and in waves, in the past two months, 40,000 Christians in Bossangoa and surrounding villages have gathered around the archbishopric, crammed onto only four hectares,” said an official from the aid group Action Against Hunger.
The teeming camp has taken on a life of its own. A small hairdressing salon has sprung up and women busy themselves behind sewing machines.
A teenager sells cigarettes and men prepare manioc flour – many of them wearing T-shirts glorifying Francois Bozize, the president ousted in March by the Muslim rebel coalition Seleka.
About 800 meters further north along the red dirt road, thousands of Muslims have swelled a camp on the grounds of the Liberte school since a spike of violence in early December which left hundreds massacred in a matter of days.
Before the latest unrest there were 1,600 of them, now there are about 7,000.
Groups of children tear between tarpaulin shelters in the camp and a woman recites verses from the Quran while breastfeeding.
At the entrance soldiers from the African Union peacekeeping force MISCA keep watch, balancing their Kalashnikov rifles on school desks.
Nearby, former Seleka rebels, clad in combat gear but unarmed, have been confined to small white houses.
Only aid workers dare to venture between the two camps.
“It is sad,” says Bossangoa’s Archbishop Nestor Desire Nongo Aziagbia as the sun sets behind the cathedral.
“The town belongs to all of us and now we are each in our own corner. The future here is in jeopardy. What kind of a society is it where we can no longer tolerate each other?”
Accusations swiftly begin flowing against the Muslims.
The archbishop charges that Monday, the ethnic Fulani who are overwhelmingly Muslim, slit the throats of 24 Christian women in the region.
Bossangoa’s Christians accuse Seleka of terrorizing the community as they made their way to Bangui in March for a bloody coup in which their Muslim leader Michel Djotodia became president.
Christian militia groups known as anti-Balaka (anti-machete in the Sango language) were formed to defend their communities.
“The fault is shared but in the beginning it was the Seleka who began looting and committing atrocities,” said Philippe Modompte, a representative of the Christian camp.
Back at the Muslim camp, in a makeshift tent, Imam Ismail Nafi says 557 Muslims have been killed since September in the small villages surrounding Bossangoa.
“The people who killed these Muslims are at the diocese at this very moment. There are weapons over there,” he said.
“Since the French arrived we have lost everything we own. Our houses have been burned down, where is the security?” he added.
The Muslim community in the Central African Republic has accused French troops recently deployed there of favoring the Christians, disarming Seleka fighters and leaving them vulnerable to the anti-Balaka militia.
Like the majority of his community, Nafi blames the Christians and their vengeance squads for the massive scale of the current chaos.
“I have never seen a situation as catastrophic,” lamented Seydou Camara, the head of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF in Bossangoa who goes back and forth between the two camps.
“Normally danger comes from the outside. Here the threat is inside the town. There are armed groups inside the camps which makes our work a lot more complicated,” said Camara.
In one example of the fear stalking the town, those at the Liberte camp are too scared to go to the hospital for treatment as it is right next to the Christian camp.
And Christian laborers working at the UNICEF camp, situated near Liberte, refuse to go in on their own.
A committee for dialogue and reconciliation was launched a month ago, headed by the imam and the archbishop. It has met four times “but we are going in circles,” says Nongo Aziagbia.
He says the committee is in a limbo of “accusation and counteraccusation.”
“At each meeting the Muslims put forward their wounds and the Christians put forward their wounds. And when you put those wounds side by side, there is just blood that flows.”