Have You Seen What's Happening in the Central African Republic?

December 4, 2013

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the violence gripping Central African Republic (Photo Credit: Matthew Alexandre/AFP/GettyImages).
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the violence gripping Central African Republic (Photo Credit: Matthew Alexandre/AFP/GettyImages).

By Natalia Taylor Bowdoin, Amnesty USA Country Specialist on the Central African Republic

If we were warned that a disaster, including the mass slaughter of civilians, was brewing, wouldn’t most of us want to do whatever we could to stop it? Or would we rather live with the knowledge that, despite all our promises to never see another human tragedy on a grand scale, the global community let it happen again?

That is the question before world leaders this week as the United Nations Security Council decides on intervention options in the Central African Republic (CAR), a country at the heart of Africa that has been largely ignored by the world for decades, yet a country whose people now are crying out for assistance from unconscionable acts of violence. But will the world respond this time?

When I last wrote a blog post in March of this year, the Seleka armed coalition had just taken over power and ousted former CAR. president, François Bozizé, leaving a trail of human rights abuses in their wake and leaving Central Africans and members of the international community to fear for the future of this impoverished country that has been struggling for decades.

The fears of many have finally become a daily reality as hundreds of thousands live a precarious existence on the brink of survival as the situation around them continues to spiral out of control. United Nation’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, has warned of possible genocide while the Prime-Minister of the country, Nicolas Tiangaye, has declared that the country has descended into anarchy and has called it a “nonstate.”

And Tiangaye’s statements came in August, before things got even worse.

Extreme Humanitarian Crisis

The numbers are staggering. In August, the figures from United Nations organizations such as OCHA, UNHCR, the U.N. Security Council and the humanitarian group Save the Children reported that the entire population of the country, 4.6 million Central Africans, are being affected by the crisis and that 1.6 million of them are in “dire need of assistance.”

What does dire assistance mean? Roughly 400,000 are internally displaced, many of them living in the bush with no humanitarian assistance, no shelter, no clean water and very little food. 100,000 of these are children.

The estimates are that 484,000 people are severely food insecure. Approximately 68,000 others have sought shelter in neighboring countries, mostly the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). When you head to the DRC for safe haven, you know things have gotten pretty bad.

Less than 20% of the country’s medical facilities are operational and 70% of children are unable to attend school. UNICEF now reports the numbers of children that have been recruited and coerced into armed groups has effectively doubled in recent months to approximately 6,000.

Dieudonné Pinali’s left leg was injured by a grenade planted by a Seleka soldier (Photo Credit: Godfrey Byaruhanga).
Dieudonné Pinali’s left leg was injured by a grenade planted by a Seleka soldier (Photo Credit: Godfrey Byaruhanga).

Violence against women is happening at unconscionable levels. One local NGO in the capital, Bangui, reported to the State Department’s Senior Advisor on the CAR that between April and August, ten women per day came to its office to report being raped. And these numbers barely scratch the surface given the extreme stigmatization of rape in the CAR.

Foreign Troops and Inter-Community Warfare

Earlier this month, the United Nation’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, stated that the seeds of genocide are present in the country and “If we don’t act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring in the Central African Republic.”

On November 19th, in a special Hearing of the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. State Department, Robert Jackson, stated that the country is in a pre-genocide state. The Most Reverend Nestor-Désiré Nongo-Aziagbia, the Catholic Bishop of Bossangoa (a northern C.A.R. town currently under siege), Mike Jobbins, Senior Program Manager for Africa at Search for Common Ground and Philippe Bolopion, United Nations Director for Human Rights Watch, gave compelling and heart-breaking testimony to what that actually looks like on the ground.

In the town of Bossangoa alone, 35,000-40,000 Christians are camped out at the Catholic mission because they are too afraid to return to their homes, or, they no longer have homes to which they can return. In another part of town, about 4,000 members of the Muslim faith have taken refuge in an old school and court building. Meanwhile, former Seleka forces patrol the borders of the town, preventing people from leaving, effectively putting it in a state of siege. And only a handful of humanitarian workers are there to help.

Internally displaced people shelter at the catholic church of Bossangoa (Photo Credit: Pacôme Pabandji/AFP/GettyImages).
Internally displaced people shelter at the catholic church of Bossangoa (Photo Credit: Pacôme Pabandji/AFP/GettyImages).

In Bossangoa and other parts of the country, former Seleka forces have been targeting Christian communities while Christian vigilante groups known as Anti-Balaka (or “Anti-Machete” in the local Sango language) target and attack Muslim communities in revenge.

Then, Seleka forces return for more reprisals in an on-going tit-for-tat that is leaving families homeless, broken, and in many cases, obliterated. In September in the town of Bouca, a northern town dear to my heart where I lived during happier times in the CAR, an attack by Anti-Balaka forces on the Muslim community in Bouca followed by a counter attack by Seleka elements on the Bouca Christian community resulted in the destruction of approximately 485 homes. Amnesty International has documented this destruction with satellite images of the area.

Having spent much time in Bouca and witnessing the previous easy co-existence of the two faiths, it is shocking to see this kind of inter-religious violence occurring now. And yet, it is not so hard to see the factors that have played into this situation. The debate as to whether genocide is happening or is about to happen is probably the result of hopes that this designation might increase the pressure for the desperately needed response by the international community.

But surely what is going on currently is bad enough to merit a swift response and the debate on what to call the events in CAR is secondary, since we already know crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed on a grand scale.

When the Seleka coalition originally took power in March, it was estimated that there were around 4,000 armed members. Today, there are somewhere over 20,000. Although there are no definitive numbers available, it is estimated that somewhere between 75-85% of these fighters are from Chad or Sudan, they do not speak the local language and are basically mercenaries with little motive other than to profit economically from the current chaos in the country.

They bring with them tactics developed in Darfur and Eastern Chad, namely terrorizing, raping and pillaging communities – in this case Christian ones (the original Seleka coalition was primarily made of members of the Muslim faith though only about 15% of the CAR population is Muslim). The Anti-Balaka forces that have risen up to combat these Seleka elements are composed of Christian CAR nationals, primarily supporters of the former CAR President ousted by Seleka, François Bozizé. They in turn are using eerily similar tactics to those of their adversaries, targeting communities of civilians and spreading fear.

Although the current CAR self-proclaimed President Michel Djotodia officially dissolved the Seleka coalition in September, this has done nothing to reign in the violence being committed by this rag-tag, undisciplined army which is continuing to operate under no central authority. Not only that, but Djotodia went on to nominate a Seleka fighter to take command of 10 of 12 military regions of the country.

Other ominous signs abound, including, as stated in the House Subcommittee Hearing by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs, Djotodia has recently told foreign interlocutors on multiple occasions that he might lead the north in seceding from the CAR if pushed. Meanwhile attacks continue, both in the countryside and in the capital.

The International Community Must Act Decisively – and Immediately

An African Union force known as the International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA) consisting of roughly 3,600 troops has been approved which will take over from the current African peace mission called MICOPAX (led by the Economic Community of Central African States, or ECCAS) and will involve many of the same countries and troops. The transition is scheduled to occur this month.

France announced last week that it would bolster its current troops in the CAR by 800 to 1,000. But is this enough? The current MICOPAX force has been unable to prevent the levels of violence and destruction which we see now destroying communities across the CAR and serious questions have been raised by Human Rights Watch and others about the ability MISCA will really have to protect civilians in this crisis. And, unfortunately, there’s no time to experiment.

We already know crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed on a grand scale. Surely that is bad enough to merit a swift response.
On November 15th, Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, made a report to the U.N. Security Council outlining the options for the international community to help turn the tide in the CAR. Among those was the option for an U.N. peacekeeping operation under a Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians in addition to other crucial elements like supporting the political process, key elements of the transition to elections and the restoration of State authority.

This week, the U.N. Security Council will determine whether the international community effectively comes to the aid of the Central African people or whether the slip into the abyss of human tragedy is allowed to continue. Nothing but the deployment of a robust peacekeeping force to protect civilians will reverse the current course to catastrophe. And preparations for that deployment must begin immediately.

True humanitarian assistance is virtually impossible until a basic level of security has been restored. Any peacekeeping mission and transitional mechanisms implemented must have a strong human rights mandate to protect civilians from crimes under international law and to protect internally displaced persons and refugees. Additionally, the force should have a strong capacity and expertise with respect to sexual and gender-based violence and women’s human rights, as gender-based violence has become rampant in the current conflict.

Yes, a U.N. peacekeeping mission is costly. But inaction, or inadequate action now, will lead to much greater cost later on – particularly in the cost of human lives. Without adequate action now, not only will the human toll increase, but there is the very real possibility for other armed groups to take further advantage of the situation. The lack of security in the country has already provided the perfect stomping grounds for Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army to commit atrocities in eastern CAR. Others are not far behind.

Raise Your Voice for the People of the CAR

The U.N. Security Council must think clearly and responsibly about the best way to help protect the people of the Central African Republic and reverse the spiral into anarchy and unthinkable human tragedy. They must authorize a robust peacekeeping force for deployment immediately. The United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were responsive to the crimes against humanity and genocide of the Second World War.

It was the world’s way of starting to make real the statement “never again.” Too often since then, we have not lived up to our promise.

Let’s not do it again with the hundreds of thousands of people caught in the unfolding crisis in the Central African Republic. We as U.S. citizens have a responsibility to spread the word and let our representatives in the State Department and United Nations know of our concern for the people of the CAR who are currently teetering on the brink and looking to the international community for help.

If you are on Twitter, please tweet for the people of the CAR in the next two days when time is of the essence. Please tweet one of the following messages to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., the State Department, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs for France, the UK and the USA:

It may seem like a small act but our voices together can make a loud noise. And perhaps the one that will help bring this crisis to an end.