BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Elodiane Baalbe hid underneath her bed as gunfire echoed around her on Christmas Day in the capital of Central African Republic. When it finally died down on Thursday, she made a dash for safety, hiding behind houses as she fled her neighborhood.
On her way out she passed the calcified car of a unit of Chadian peacekeepers, the charred body of one soldier still upright in the vehicle inside. The sight was so horrifying that she looked away immediately. "I had my 3-year-old on my back. I looked for a second, and then I kept running," she said.
A total of six Chadian soldiers from the African Union peacekeeping force were killed on Christmas Day in the Gobongo neighborhood of the capital. Their destroyed car, with at least one body still inside, had not been removed a day later, underscoring how dangerous this chaotic country has become, even for the international forces tasked with pacifying it, said African Union spokesman Eloi Yao.
As the African Union was struggling to secure the crime scene, they discovered another: Close to the presidential palace, peacekeepers discovered a mass grave.
"We found around 20 bodies in a state of decomposition in an area that we call Panthers' Hill. The 20 were scattered in different graves in a small area. You found five bodies in one hole, three in another, two in yet another and so on. The bodies were wearing civilian dress, but we cannot know if they really were civilians or if they were militiamen," said Yao.
The Central African Republic has tilted into anarchy, as the country's Christian majority seeks revenge against the Muslim rebels who seized power in a coup nine months ago. Both Christian and Muslim civilians are now armed, and the international troops brought in to try to rein in the violence have been sucked into the conflict, accused of having taken sides.
The Chadians, part of an African Union force, are Muslim and are seen by the population as backing the Seleka rebels who toppled the nation's Christian president in March. Earlier this week when Christians marched on the capital, an Associated Press journalist saw a unit of Chadian peacekeepers drive into the crowd. Moments later, gunfire rang out, suggesting they had opened fire on the demonstrators.
On the flip side, the 1,600 French troops who were deployed here in the first week of December are accused of backing the nation's Christian majority. Their patrols have come under fire in Muslim neighborhoods, like the tense streets of Kilometer 5.
Caught in the middle are civilians, both Christians and Muslims, who are now bearing the brunt of collective punishment. Militiamen have been seen desecrating the corpses of their victims. An AP journalist saw Christian fighters known as anti-Balaka brandishing the severed penis of one dead victim, and the hacked-off foot of another. Unclaimed bodies left to rot were found missing their genitals. Another was missing his nose.
The barbarity unleashed on the streets of this capital has surprised many. Although chronically poor, Central African Republic was relatively stable for the 10 years following its second-to-last coup in 2003.
That military takeover brought Christian leader Francois Bozize to power. Though he was accused of favoring members of his ethnic group, and further marginalizing the Muslim minority, based in the country's north, the country never saw violence on the scale it is witnessing now.
On Thursday, the United Nations emergency response office said in a statement that some 639,000 people out of a population of 4.5 million are displaced. Altogether 2 million people need humanitarian aid — almost half the country.
Baalbe, a 36-year-old midwife, is now at the airport, sharing the asphalt with tens of thousands of other mostly Christian refugees. At her side are her six children — the youngest a 3-year-old.
"I carried him on my back and like that I ran all the way here, to the airport. In Gobongo, I saw the burnt-out car. They burnt those people (the Chadians) just like that. I saw their cadavers inside, and then I fled," she said.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press staffers Rebecca Blackwell in Bangui, and Baba Ahmed in Dakar, Senegal, also contributed to this report.