International efforts to protect civilians in the Central African Republic have been an “utter failure,” a top international organization said on Tuesday, calling weak attempts to tamp down the violence that has seized the country “the effective abandonment of the Central African population.”
Since the conflict in the country exploded in December, Doctors Without Borders — also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) — has been working on the ground to treat more than 3,600 wounded in the capital and across the country. From the packed locations that house the more than 700,000 Central Africans who have fled their homes, the NGO has been trying its best to staunch the flow of blood in the country. But now MSF is calling out the international community for not doing enough to help protect the civilians from the militias and former rebels who have killed thousands since last April.
“Our foremost concern is protection. We are caught in a sense of helplessness faced with extreme violence, treating thousands of wounded, and seeing hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes as it is their only option to avoid being slaughtered,” Dr. Joanne Liu, MSF International President, said in a statement released Tuesday morning. “There is a shocking lack of engagement and mobilization of political leaders in the UN Security Council, and a too limited one from African countries and the African Union to address the violence that is literally tearing apart the Central African Republic.”
Currently the African Union and France have taken the lead in providing security support to the CAR government as it works to rebuild after last year’s rebellion that toppled long-time leader Franciois Bozize. In the months afterwards, the former rebels were officially disbanded but rather than dispersing looted and pillaged their way across the Central African countryside. In response to the mostly Muslim ex-Seleka fighters’ atrocities, Christian communities formed local militias known as the anti-balaka to defend themselves.
The anti-balaka, however, have now become the cause of many of the atrocities seen now, to the point that the United Nations now fears an ethnic cleansing of the CAR’s Muslim community may be occurring. Interim president Catherine Samba-Panza, only in office for less than a month, conceded on Monday that her government was unable to guarantee the security of Muslims in the CAR.
The lack of security, MSF says, has severely hampered efforts of their doctors to treat wounded Central Africans in the field, in camps for the internally displaced, and in and around hospitals. In one instance last week in a town called Berberati, “men armed with machetes and guns entered the hospital where MSF is working, firing shots and threatening patients,” the NGO said.
“Two patients fled the hospital, fearing for their lives,” the release from MSF continued. “On countless other occasions in various locations, local leaders, religious clerics, and MSF medical staff have had to physically intervene in situations in which armed men were attacking or threatening to kill individuals, including sick and wounded patients. Patients are regularly refusing to be transported in ambulances to avoid further abuses.”
Liu, who recently returned from CAR, went on to describe some of the “horrific conditions” she observed during her visit. “When I was in Bozoum, we found 17 injured people with wounds from gunshots, machetes, and a grenade, hiding in a small courtyard,” Liu continued. “They were too scared to go to the hospital in case they were targeted again. Their injuries were serious — yet they were all sitting in silence, bleeding. That’s how terrified people are of seeking medical care. They just sat there in silence, having lost all hope.”
While France this weekend pledged to increase the number of soldiers taking part in Operation: Sangaris to a total of 2,000 troops on the ground, bolstering the AU’s 5,400, the difficulties in containing the violence remain legion. When asked recently about just who constitutes the anti-balaka, French commander Gen Francisco Soriano was forced to respond, “We don’t know.” The European Union recently voted to send additional troops to support the AU and French mission, planning a deployment of around 500 troops to be inserted in the coming weeks with hopes of doubling it in the near future.
Currently members of the U.N. Security Council — who approved the launch of the French, A.U., and E.U. missions — have been hesitant to transform the disparate deployments into a full-fledged United Nations peacekeeping mission, primarily due to the high costs associated with such a mission — which could require as many as 10,000 blue helmets, per the French ambassador to the U.N. — compared to the cheaper authorization of regional deployments. “We need more men, more assets,” Chadian president Idriss Deby, whose troops have provided the bulk of the A.U. forces said on Monday. “Only the U.N. can provide this. We need to move to a U.N. force.”
That hesitancy to launch such a mission, along with slow delivery of aid to the internally displaced camping out at the international airport and other locations, raises the question of whether “a form of deliberate neglect” is occurring in the country, Liu said. “The human crisis we are witnessing today is unprecedented in the Central African Republic, a country that has been neglected for years,” Liu concluded. “A mobilization must come now, not in one month, or six months down the line. We see atrocities every day. This is a massive catastrophe unfolding in full view of international leaders. To not respond is a conscious and deliberate choice to abandon the people of the Central African Republic.”