Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) – Hit by looting and brutal violence, Muslim shopkeepers in the Central African Republic have fled in huge numbers, leaving locals to confront a new menace of food scarcity and soaring prices.“Now the hard part begins,” said Herve Songo, a teacher in the capital Bangui. “Now that all the Muslim shops have been looted, ransacked and destroyed, prices have increased substantially.”
The cost of everyday items like cooking gas, flour and sugar have gone up by a quarter in a matter of weeks, he said.
That is if there is anything left to buy.
The Sambo market was once the place where shopkeepers from across the capital came to stock up their stores.
It is now “a shadow of its former self,” said Assise Kayolo, a Christian shopkeeper. “The Muslims are gone, so there is nothing left in the market.”
A few Muslims have continued to work, in constant fear for their lives.
“They lynched a Muslim man here three weeks ago. They beheaded him with an axe and cut him into pieces,” said Moomin Abdallah Ahmed, a Muslim trader in the Lakouanga suburb.
“I have a few young people who protect me and allow me to open my store. They don’t ask me for anything, but you can’t be ungrateful with people who you owe your life to.”
The impoverished country has plunged into sectarian violence since a coup by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group in March 2013.
Rogue Seleka fighters unleashed a wave of atrocities against the Christian majority, who responded by forming vigilante groups.
Thousands have been killed in the unrest and around a quarter of the country’s 4.6 million people have been displaced.
Reprisal attacks by mostly Christian militia groups known as “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) against Muslims and those accused of supporting the former rebel regime have prompted many Muslims to flee the country.
With the mass exodus, the Bangui economy has gone into rapid decline, made worse by violence on the roads into the capital that has all but cut Bangui off from outside supplies.
A statement by Oxfam and Action Against Hunger on Tuesday highlighted the increased threat of food shortages in a country where 1.3 million are already in dire need of food.
The price of cassava, a local staple, has shot up 20 percent since November, they said, while wholesalers have reported a drop in sales of 85 to 95 percent over the last two months as a result of collapsing incomes.
– Re-opening routes –
French and African forces on the ground have made it a priority to re-open supply routes to Bangui, particularly from neighbouring Cameroon.
General Martin Tumenta Chomu, commander of the African Union-led MISCA forces, said Saturday that the trade corridor between Bangui and the border town of Gamboula had been re-opened, with 115 vehicles arriving on Saturday under military escort.
“The route is secure enough to allow all drivers to return,” he said. “There is no more reason for trucks to stop using it.”
He said MISCA will escort three convoys per week between Bangui and Cameroon.
The closure of the road had also threatened operations by the World Food Programme, with some trucks stranded at the border since January 6.
With the route re-opened, WFP was able to deliver over 600 tonnes of supplies over the weekend to Bangui, WFP spokesman Alexis Masciarelli told AFP.
On Wednesday, the UN agency also launched one of its largest-ever emergency food airlifts, starting with a delivery in Bangui of 80 tonnes of rice. In the coming weeks, WFP aims to fly in some 1,800 tonnes of food from Cameroon.