World

C. African Republic town turns on Muslim leader

MBAIKI, Central African Republic (AP) — The swarm of people showed up on their deputy mayor's doorstep late on a Friday morning, just before the time of the Muslim prayers.

By then, it no longer mattered that he was the deputy mayor. It didn't matter that the mayor called him a brother, or that his family had lived in Mbaiki for almost a century. It didn't even matter that his wife was seven months pregnant.

It mattered only that he was Muslim. The fate of Saleh Dido shows how far the violence in the Central African Republic has gone, redefining who belongs here by their religion alone. It poses a deeply troubling question in a nation where hundreds of Muslims have been killed in just a few months: If even a prominent local official interviewed by a prominent Western aid group could not be saved in his own hometown, who can?

No police officer tried to stop the attack on Dido. No resident helped him as he ran to escape. And by the time the peacekeepers arrived, it was too late. "Dido's killing is a stain on the world's moral conscience," said Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis adviser with Amnesty International who had spoken with him several times. "It's terribly disappointing that the community — including his neighbors — didn't protect him."

Mariner noted that many Christians who have tried to help Muslims were threatened themselves, and that Dido trusted the international community to protect him. But nobody did. Mbaiki is a small town sixty miles south of the capital of Central African Republic, a country of 4.6 million people torn apart by intercommunal violence since early December.

Dido's family had lived in Mbaiki for generations, part of a Muslim minority in Central African Republic of about 15 percent. However, his ancestors hailed from Chad to the north - sharing the same roots as the Muslim rebels who overthrew the country's government in March last year.

Many of these rebels were paid to torture and kill civilians. So when the rebel-backed government fell apart in January, retaliatory attacks against Muslims escalated. As the threat of carnage grew, thousands of Muslims fled Mbaiki in convoys.

Not Dido. The 46-year-old lanky father of seven still proudly wore his deputy mayor label pin. He vowed to carry on his duties. People started to call him the last Muslim of Mbaiki. "I was born here; I had my children here," he told the French newspaper Le Monde in mid-February. "I have been at the mayor's office for five years. I took an oath. I am patriotic — why should I leave? I want to live in my country."

When the French defense minister came to visit Mbaiki, the mayor called Dido "a brother" and promised the community would protect him. On Feb. 10, Christians who wanted Dido gone looted his store. Dido lectured the mobs that they were stealing not only his things but the future of Central African Republic.

Then the Muslim mayor of another community was killed, and the tension mounted. Dido's brother-in-law begged him to leave, friends say. He refused. He even invited a fellow Muslim traveling to the capital to stay at his home.

For the Christians of his community, that was the final straw. The word spread — not only was Dido refusing to leave, he was encouraging other Muslims to come back. On Feb. 28, a crowd of nearly 100 people turned up at his home, according to witness accounts.

"All the other Muslims have left. Why are you still there?" they demanded. What happened next is disputed. Some neighbors allege Dido fired arrows into the crowd first, wounding several people. Others say he did so only in a desperate attempt to defend his life.

Then he began to run. The path to the police station took him a mile (2 kilometers) uphill, past dozens of tin roof homes and phone-charging shacks. No one tried to help. The mob chased him, armed with knives. Panting and exhausted, he made it to the roundabout a few hundred meters (yards) from the police station. There, as he caught his breath, the crowd descended on him.

They ripped off his clothes. They slit his throat. They attacked him repeatedly until his head nearly fell off. One woman even cut off his genitals. Two police officers were there. But the attackers threatened to harm the families of anyone who sheltered Muslims, so they did nothing. Police commandant Yvon Bemakassoui declined to discuss the case.

By the time peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo arrived, Dido was dead. His corpse lay in a drainage ditch on the side of the road. The peacekeepers arrested 22 people, including five women, and handed them over to the police. Photos show the suspects lying face down on the ground.

They all were set free. Most escaped into the jungle forest outside town, residents say. Nobody was charged. In the meantime, neighbors had ferried Dido's family to the safety of a Catholic church. The Congolese peacekeepers took them to the capital, where his widow is now weeks away from giving birth.

There is one other Muslim man in Mbaiki, who thought he was safe because his family is not from Chad. But after Dido's death, he is preparing to spend a few months with his children in the capital. Is there a future for Muslims here? He cannot say. Once his laundry dries, he plans to pack.

Men still walk about Mbaiki in traditional Muslim gowns and white prayer caps. But they are not Muslims. They are parading about in clothing stolen from the pillaged shops of Muslims like Dido. Mbaiki's two mosques lie in ruins. Christians stripped the metal roof off one to sell, and now the early rains have flooded it.

The looters have also descended upon Dido's house. The concrete structure is reduced to rubble. On a recent afternoon, small children helped strip what remained of his blue Toyota four-by-four for parts.

In the end, even in death, Dido never got his wish to stay in Mbaiki. The Red Cross buried his body in another town three miles away. There are no longer any Muslims in that town either.

Follow Krista Larson on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/klarsonafrica

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