In late 1991, Somalia was well on its way to becoming the archetype for a so-called failed state, a status that it is still struggling to shed. More than two decades later and over two thousand miles away, nestled in the middle of the continent, the Central African Republic is rapidly becoming more like the Somalia of the early 1990s, as thousands are displaced and the state is well under way towards collapsing entirely. The danger that comes with failed state status, however, is combined in the CAR with the potential for the deadly violence seen in Rwanda that took the lives of hundreds of thousands.
In the eight months since President Francois Bozizé fled as rebels approached the capital city, violence has been widespread with the government becoming practically non-existent. The ragtag collection of rebel groups that swept into Bangui — known as Seleka, a word that means “alliance” in the Sango language — have terrorized the countryside, raping and looting, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing into the bush. More worrying, the violence has taken on a more sectarian tone the longer the crisis has gone on.
“We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion and my feeling is that this will end with Christian communities, Muslim communities killing each other,” U.N. special advisor on the prevention of genocide Adama Dieng told reporters after an informal U.N. Security Council meeting on the crisis in late October. “If we don’t act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring in the Central African Republic.”
Actress and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow recently visited the Central African Republic, briefing the United Nations in Geneva on her way back to the United States. She spoke with ThinkProgress on Monday about what she saw there, agreeing that the “seeds of genocide” could be seen within the country. When she first visited in 2007, Farrow recalled, people were referring to the situation on the ground in the Central African Republic as the “Forgotten Crisis,” a name that she rejects. “It implies that it was ever remembered,” Farrow said. “I came away thinking ‘these are the most abandoned people on Earth.’”
For years before the current crisis, Farrow’s description was accurate. Weak governance under the Bozizé regime led to the rise of roadside bandits, roving bands of warlords, and various other marauders acting with the impunity that comes from having a nearly non-existent police force. The country’s porous borders didn’t help matters, allowing that anyone who wanted anything the Central African Republic had to offer — be it women, livestock, or mineral wealth — was able to walk in and take it. When Seleka first began to gather steam, those open borders allowed for fighters from neighboring countries including Chad and the Sudan to join the party. Unable to pay wages, the leaders of Seleka instead gave them free license to loot and pillage the country as their reward.
After former rebel Michel Djotodia grabbed the reins of power and officially disbanded Seleka, the situation actually grew much more dire for the Central Africans that face the now-leaderless bands of pillagers. Mostly Muslim in background, many of these fighters have turned their attention to the CAR’s Christian communities, sending thousands fleeing and killing hundreds more. Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, recently wrote about his time among 40,000 internally displaced taking refuge in the yard of a Catholic church in the town of Bossangoa.
“Those who have made it to Bossangoa live in desperate conditions: Every structure and inch of space around the town’s Catholic church — its seminary, guest house, school, library, storage rooms, soccer pitch, and the surrounding fields — have been taken over by displaced people, all Christians,” Bouckaert wrote. “The camp is so crowded, and filled with noise and the smoke of cooking fires, that it is difficult to walk among the tiny tents, hardly large enough for two people but sheltering entire families. We had to use local guides to avoid getting lost.”
The Seleka, as violent as they are, would be enough to make the situation in the Central African Republic a nightmare. But they’re no longer alone. In response to their targeting of Christians, militias known as the anti-balaka — or anti-machete — have risen up to protect their communities. In doing so, however, they’ve gone above and beyond merely defending themselves and their neighbors; they’re now targeting Muslim families, leading to further acts of retaliation and the threat of ever increasing violence. According to Bouckaert, anti-balaka forces working with military elements loyal to former preseident Bozizé launched a coordinated attack on Seleka bases and Muslim communities surrounding Bassangoa. One woman escaped by convincing the killers she was a Christian, hiding in the bush for weeks and “disguis[ing] her 3-year-old son as a girl with earrings to save his life.”
Farrow visited several camps hosting the internally displaced while traveling the country with UNICEF, touring the safe spaces that UNICEF sets up in each of their camps, a place where children can draw and do other things that children who don’t have to worry about looming massacres do. The images that some of them produced of their time prior to reaching the safety of the camp are harrowing. Farrow spoke to one of the young Muslims being housed in a community’s school who told her “they killed my brother, they killed my uncle, they hit my little brother with a machete.” Sure enough, Farrow said, the child’s younger brother displayed a huge gash on the top of his head that was only just closing. The boy’s father was cast onto the fire that was once their home.
CREDIT: Mia Farrow
The fact that the violence in CAR as of yet isn’t between the armed groups makes it all the more dangerous and unpredictable. NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice lawyer Sarah Knuckey told ThinkProgress of “numerous horrific reports” from human rights advocates working in the CAR that she’d received just in the last 36 hours, including arbitrary detention, torture and killings at the hands of Seleka forces. “Among those tortured or killed include individuals working with well-known NGOs, a judge and his staff, and individuals subsequently protesting the killing of [a] judge,” Knuckey, who also serves Special Advisor to the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, wrote to ThinkProgress.
Aid workers are now frequently targeted within the capital, Farrow told ThinkProgress, a change that highlights the descent into chaos that Bangui has seen. Carjackings at gunpoint have become frequent, even against UNICEF workers. “Two precious vehicles for UNICEF that are very much needed on the road to bring supplies outside Bangui — simply taken,” she said, “and they can be viewed being driven around Bangui. There’s no one, there’s nothing — there is no law and order. Impunity reigns, even in the capital.”
When traveling outside of Bangui, Farrow said, for the first time she was told to wear a flak jacket for hours at a time during long stretches on the road. Local warlords were the danger during previous visits, who have now given way to the Seleka and anti-balaka as the primary threat to civilians. The African Union force dispatched to help keep the peace on the ground currently only numbers about 1,100 in a country of 4.6 million people, one roughly the size of France. Another 250 troops have been deployed to help protect U.N. workers on the ground, pulled from a United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but even when that number increases to 560 it’s not nearly enough to adequately protect civilians.
Little good news emerges from a new report from the United Nations on the situation. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was ordered in October to examine the feasibility of inserting a strengthened peacekeeping force. The result of the assessment mission he deployed to the country in early November offered a bleak view of the situation on the ground.
“The assessment mission found the capacity of the country’s armed forces and other security services to confront such threats virtually non-existent,” it reads. “On the human rights front, the assessment mission heard testimonies of widespread violations against civilians, including summary executions, sexual- and gender-based violence, torture, illegal arrests and detentions, looting of property, illegal checkpoints, and extortion.”
The humanitarian crisis on the ground adds to the disaster unfolding in the Central African Republic, with more than 390,000 people estimated to be internally displaced. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Director of Operations John Ging warned in October of just how mind-boggling the need for aid truly is. “Half the population of the Central African Republic is in need of humanitarian aid,” Ging told reporters.
“People have no shelter and they sleep wherever they can, inside the church, school or under trees. It is crowded and people cook, eat, sleep, wash and defecate in the same area. Under these disastrous hygienic conditions, the risk of disease outbreaks is high,” Ellen Van der Velden, Doctors Without Borders’ head of mission in Central African Republic, said following a visit to the country in October. She added that Doctors Without Borders “is currently one of the few aid organisations working in conflict-affected areas in the country, providing healthcare including surgery, water and sanitation, and nutritional support. But much more is urgently needed.”
“To date, very little of what food, water, and medical assistance have been sent has reached the displaced,” Bouckaert said of his time in the Central African Republic, “in many of the villages we visited, we were the first foreigners anyone had seen since Seleka took power.” The difficulty in getting aid to those who need it has placed 1.1 million Central Africans at risk of going hungry, according to an Emergency Food Security Assessment from the World Food Program. Another $20 million is needed for the WFP to feed the CAR just until April, with current stocks not certain to last beyond February 2014.
The U.N. Security Council is now considering boosting the African Union’s mission to the CAR through a number of possible methods. Ban, in his earlier referenced report, suggested four ways that the Council could assist, including through individual countries offering up financial or logistical assistance, or possible a group package from the United Nations to do so. A fifth option was also presented, one in which the A.U. mission would become a full-fledged peacekeeping mission, donning the blue helmets the organization is known for. Under that option, 6,000 troops would be initially authorized, with another 3,000 possible should the situation worsen.
Security Council diplomats told Reuters on Monday that it was unlikely that a French proposal to aid the African Union would get a vote before December and the A.U. had more of a chance to prove themselves. Whatever the international community decides, however, it should be fast. Violence is already spreading across the border into neighboring Cameroon, where at least seven men in Central African army uniforms were killed after attacking military instillations and markets, the third such incursion across the border this year.
President Djotodia has promised elections in 2014, but seems unlikely to be able to deliver while the security situation remains so dire. That span of time before the international community acts and elections take place could see the Central African Republic truly become “Somalia, and maybe in a more organized way, because of the strength of these armed groups,” Farrow warned ThinkProgress. “And it will be an all-out slaughter.”