You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Central African Republic — or CAR — was a country conceived for a television show, baring an improbably simple name and lacking much in the way of resources and population. But the country is not only real, it’s in the middle of a spate of lawlessness that has left the population terrorized and the government nearly non-existent.
It has been six months since the CAR’s president Francois Bozize was overthrown, ending his ten-year reign in the landlocked country, sending him fleeing to nearby Cameroon. Bozize was no model democrat, having taken power himself in a military coup in 2003. The ragtag collection of rebel groups that swept into the capital of Bangui — known as Seleka, a word that means ‘alliance’ in the Sango language — at least has promised elections in the near year.
But it is those same rebels who are currently making life a hell for the citizens of the CAR. When the Seleka started its advancement towards the capital last December, local police and military forces withered away, either donning their civilian clothing to blend in with the populace or melting into the bush. The group that started out as being a small set of bandits numbering no more than five thousand swelled to 20,000 at its peak, facing little to no resistance as they made their way to the country’s seat of power. Unable to offer wages to those who stood in support of them, who included not only locals demanding change but also those from neighboring countries including Chad and the Sudan looking to join the party, the leaders of Seleka instead gave them free license to loot and pillage the country as their reward.
And loot and pillage they did. A new report out from Human Rights Watch — provocatively titled “I Can Still Smell the Dead” — details the campaign of terror the rebels now in power have unleashed towards civilians:
Human Rights Watch recorded more than 1,000 homes destroyed in at least 34 villages along these roads. Schools and churches were also looted and burned. The Seleka killed scores of civilians while they were trying to flee and have prompted whole communities to flee into the bush — including 113 families from Maorka. “Now I sleep in the fields,” one Maorka resident said. “I made a small hut out of leaves for my wife and our three children. I cannot come back because we do not have beds or our food stock and there is no security. [The Seleka] took all of our farming tools, they took our hoes. We have to use our hands.”
“Seleka leaders promised a new beginning for the people of the Central African Republic, but instead have carried out large-scale attacks on civilians, looting, and murder,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “What’s worse is that the Seleka have recruited children as young as 13 to carry out some of this carnage.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights came to a similar conclusion, issuing a report last week to the U.N. Human Rights Council detailing the human rights abuses seen in the CAR since March. Both sides, according to the report, engaged in “summary executions and extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and looting of private and public property.” Adding to the wantonness of the violence, the U.N. also says the Seleka “engaged in sexual violence and grave violations against children,” leading the report to determine that gross human rights violations had occurred, possibly on the level of constituting war crimes.
Two weeks ago, CAR president Michel Djotodia, a former Seleka leader who grabbed the reins of power, declared that the umbrella group would henceforth be dissolved. But that order came the same week that fights between Seleka and forces still loyal to Bozize ended with at least 100 dead and with little detail about just how the state’s security forces would enforce disarmament. Unfortunately, Djotodia controls little of what goes on outside of Bangui at this point, according to Enough Project researcher Kasper Agger.
ThinkProgress spoke with Agger, who has visited the Central African Republic twice since the coup in March, via Skype about the situation on the ground in the CAR. Aggar described a country filled with fear and rumors, where civilians flee into the bush for the night due to rumors of pending attacks from rebels. Hospitals and police stations stand empty and deserted, a symbol of the breakdown in the rule of law.
And according to Agger, the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. “No one is investing anything in getting this country back on track,” he said. And given the relatively small numbers involved in the humanitarian crisis — as of June there were 206,000 internally displaced persons within the CAR, and another 58,000 who’ve fled to neighboring countries, out of a total population of only 4.25 million — none of the world’s major powers seem very much interested in the tiny African country. French president Francois Hollande has announced, however, that he would hold a “mini-summit” on the country on the sidelines of Malian president Ibrahmim Keita’s inauguration next week. “The idea would be to mobilize 3,500 African men under an African mandate to stabilize the country,” Hollande told reporters.
So far the most prominent donation of troops to the African-led force is the Republic of Congo, which has thus far pledged 350 soldiers to help patrol the country; currently only two military trucks make up the resources available to the peacekeepers currently on the ground. Regional powerhouse South Africa is unlikely to join in, given that the most interest shown in the CAR in recent months was when 14 of their peacekeepers were killed, leading to Pretoria withdrawing completely from the country. And with this lack of desire to help from the world’s leading countries, it seems all the more likely that the citizens of the Central African Republic will be left on their own — again.