BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Central African Republic went ahead with a presidential runoff vote Sunday that many hope will solidify the country’s tentative peace after more than two years of sectarian fighting left thousands dead and nearly 1 million people displaced including most of the capital’s Muslim population.
Armored U.N. personnel carriers roamed the streets of Bangui as residents headed to the polls not long after sunrise. Some 2,000 U.N. peacekeepers are deployed in the capital while 8,000 others were working to secure the vote in the largely anarchic provinces.
Residents said they planned to set aside painful memories of the chaos that intensified in late 2013 when Christian militia fighters known as the anti-Balaka attacked Bangui, unleashing cycles of retaliatory violence with mostly Muslim Seleka fighters. At the height of the violence people were killed and dismembered by mobs in the capital’s streets. More than 460,000 people fled for their lives to neighboring countries, many aboard trucks that came under attack even as refugees tried to leave.
The conflict at the time was a political dispute over who would lead Central African Republic, but it divided communities among religious fault lines: Hundreds of mosques and churches were destroyed, interreligious marriages unraveled. A new spasm of violence late last year effectively barricaded most of Bangui’s remaining Muslims inside the PK5 neighborhood for several months.
Now voters are being given a choice of two former prime ministers — both promising to unite the country and bring the peace people here desperately want. Front-runner Anicet Georges Dologuele received about 24 percent in the first round and also was endorsed by the third-place finisher. However, Faustin Archange Touadera has strong grassroots support after placing second in the December ballot.
Noel Poutou, 74, is a lifelong resident of the PK5 neighborhood, never venturing outside it over the last two years. Even when bloody stones on the ground marked where fellow Muslims had been beaten to death by mobs, he stayed.
“Everything has a beginning and an end,” he said with his wooden cane at his side, dressed in a deep green traditional Muslim tunic and white prayer hat. “For me, this is the end of the crisis. Everyone here has lost loved ones and friends. I ask God to bring peace so that people can forget and become a family here again.”
Voters lining up at 6 a.m. in the Fatima district of the capital said they too hoped the vote would bring a definitive end to the violence. Tensions, though, were high as some were momentarily blocked from voting because they did not have photo identification along with their voting cards.
Such ID was not required in the first round of balloting, and many frustrated voters said they had lost their papers along with their homes during the latest wave of violence late last year as Seleka fighters attacked predominantly Christian neighborhoods.
“I’ve been standing here in line since 5 a.m.,” said Anne-Marie Betaboye as she clutched her Catholic rosary beads in her right hand. “My house was burned to the ground; I’m living on the grounds of the church.”
Authorities said they were talking to neighborhood officials about finding a solution. Other voters said their names did not appear on the list at the polling station where they voted during the first round in December.
A period of relative peace has taken hold in the months since Pope Francis pushed aside suggestions it was too dangerous to visit Central African Republic. The pope set an example for many, residents said, by coming to PK5 in November to meet with Muslim community leaders even as peacekeepers manned sniper points from the minarets in case the pope’s entourage came under attack.
Sunday’s vote, which was delayed several times, is designed to bring an end to the transitional government set up two years ago. Its formation was the culmination of a chaotic period when the last elected president was overthrown by rebels, then the rebel leader forced to step aside as his fighters carried out atrocities against civilians.
And yet even as conditions improve, tens of thousands are casting their ballots from refugee camps in neighboring Cameroon and Chad. Two of the most prominent anti-Balaka leaders are on the ballot, running for legislative seats.
Junior Yangangoussou, 30, a finance administer in Bangui, acknowledges it’s a delicate situation. While voting day is expected to go smoothly, things could become tense once the ballots are counted, he says.
“We are somewhat afraid of the results, and we are praying to God for peace,” he said. “The country has not been disarmed. Weapons are everywhere in every district of Central African Republic.”