BANGUI, Central African Republic – Surrounded by hostile Christian militias, Muslim civilians in the volatile Central African Republic town of Bangassou have paid small fortunes to United Nations contractors to hide them in vehicles and take them to safety after U.N. peacekeepers repeatedly refused to do so, according to multiple people who made the journey.
Some paid $100 each to lie under the tarp of a truck escorted by armed U.N. peacekeepers for the 700-kilometer (435-mile) journey over unpaved roads through dangerous countryside held by armed groups.
Others paid off contracted pilots to be flown to safety aboard planes that had brought food and material to U.N. troops, according to one Bangassou resident who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was concerned for his safety.
Bangassou has been a flashpoint since the conflict in Central African Republic reignited earlier this year, and already nine U.N. peacekeepers have been killed in the southeastern town. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited on Wednesday as part of efforts to highlight what he has called a forgotten crisis.
Some 2,000 Muslim civilians have sought refuge on the grounds of the Catholic church in the town, forming a makeshift camp to escape death at the hands of militias who are nominally Christian.
Ashanta Ngaye, 35, said the threat of death loomed just beyond the gate.
"Life at the cathedral is desperate," she said. "There is no way to get out."
So in September she decided to try to reach the capital, Bangui, with her four children and two other young relatives. They made the day-long voyage with about 30 others who also had bribed the drivers. She scrounged up nearly $200 - a massive sum in a country where most people make about a dollar a day - to pay the drivers with the Dubai-based company ECOLOG International.
It appears the U.N. was aware of the practice as early as mid-August, according to an internal document obtained by The Associated Press. The document acknowledged that on one journey, rebels "targeted the ECOLOG truck transporting Muslim civilians traveling in the convoy."
The U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MINUSCA has sent a letter to the contractors demanding that they take concrete steps to prevent future unauthorized transport of civilians.
"The most severe sanctions will be applied once all investigations are concluded," MINUSCA spokesman Vladimir Monteiro told the AP.
One U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, acknowledged that militias are more likely to attack convoys if they believe Muslims are aboard.
"The issue causes security problems along already strained supply routes and feeds into the public perception that we are slanted in favor of the Muslim population," the official said.
Pierre Die Chachay, a spokesman for ECOLOG, declined to immediately comment when reached by the AP. The company, which describes itself as a "leading provider of supply chain, construction, technology, facility management and environmental services," has a $53 million logistics contract with the U.N. peacekeeping mission.
The recent violence has its roots in 2013, when Muslim militias called the Seleka violently took power in Central African Republic. Largely Christian fighters known as the anti-Balaka took up arms to fight back. The conflict left thousands of people dead and more than a million displaced inside and outside the country.
Fighting between Christian and Muslim armed groups has continued in the impoverished countryside, with levels of displacement recently reaching their highest point since the peak of the conflict.
Communities of Muslims in places like Bangassou have effectively been encircled by those who would do them harm.
In Bangassou, Muslims have sheltered on the grounds of the Catholic church since mid-May, Bishop Juan Jose Aguirre said. While guarded by a contingent of U.N. peacekeepers, Aguirre said the camp is still "extremely exposed on all sides."
"Every day they risk death," Aguirre said.
The road to safer parts of the country has its own perils. Rebel groups control an estimated 70 percent of Central African Republic, according to international human rights organizations.
U.N. authorities, though, have decided not to evacuate the Muslims from Bangassou after "clear opposition" from senior government leaders, including President Faustin Touadera, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
A government spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for comment. When asked whether they had received any requests to evacuate civilians, MINUSCA officials declined to answer.
"MINUSCA must refocus and prioritize the essential component of its mandate: the protection of civilians," said Natalia Dukhan, Central African Republic analyst for the Washington-based nonprofit Enough Project. "Unfortunately, there are too many examples of MINUSCA failing to deliver on this mandate, which tragically results in the continued grip of conflict and corruption on the people of CAR."
Civilians who made the journey on ECOLOG trucks and those still in Bangassou recounted trips dating back to mid-August. On Aug. 12, about 40 civilians paid about $100 each to hide under tarps on ECOLOG trucks that were returning to Bangui.
The following day, a U.N. peacekeeping convoy escorted another group of Muslim civilians hidden in ECOLOG trucks. This time, the Christian anti-Balaka militias were waiting. The convoy was attacked three times, according to the internal U.N. document provided to the AP.
In Bangassou, the Catholic bishop said life remains arduous for the Muslims still stuck at his church. They can't leave to go to the market, to get drinking water or to buy firewood.
While the U.N. vows to crack down on civilians fleeing aboard its convoys, the bishop says desperation is growing and he expects the ECOLOG drivers will continue to transport people out of the city.
"This is not first time, nor the last," he said.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed.