Twenty years after the Hutu genocide of almost a million Tutsis, the lawless, forgotten Central African Republic is suffering a similar outbreak of violence. And the world is doing little to stop it
Lynch mob: members of the Central African Armed Forces with a man suspected of being a Seleka rebel. Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty
Suffering: Nina Yabingui, who is 30, cradles her three-year-old son, Dieu Fera. Photograph: Martti Penttilä
Suffering: Justine Sanze with her 14-year-old son, Octave, who was hit in the back by a stray bullet. Photograph: Lara Marlowe
Nina Yabingui, who is 30, cradles three-year-old Dieu Fera in her arms, slowing spooning gruel into his mouth. The child’s head looks too big for his famished body. His listless, half-opened eyes show no expression. His stick arms dangle beside him.
Dieu Fera suffers from severe malnutrition and anaemia. His evangelical Christian farmer parents named him God Will Do. Evangelicals are the most prominent religion in the Central African Republic, and they believe that everything – even the violence that has racked their country for the past year – is God’s will.
Nina met her husband, Diyonbo, 14 years ago, when her parents sent her to stay with an aunt in Damara, 75km from the capital, Bangui. Although Diyonbo was 17 years older than Nina, he had never married or had children. “He asked my aunt if he could marry me. I loved him because of his simplicity and because he was a servant of God. He was a deacon in our church,” she says.
The couple had a straw house in Damara village and a mud-and-leaf hut in the manioc fields they cultivated. When the mainly Muslim Seleka militia rampaged through the area last December the Yabinguis took their five children to hide in the bush, where they survived on cassava leaves, palm oil and a little corn. “That’s why the children got sick,” Nina says.
When the first child fell ill in mid January, Diyonbo ventured into the village to buy medicine. “We thought things were quiet,” Nina says. “The Seleka don’t want to see any Christian men. Three of them shot him dead. I didn’t hear the news for a week. When I came out of hiding he had already been buried. I don’t know what to do now, because my husband took care of us.”
The first child recovered, but then Dieu Fera, the baby, fell ill. Nina strapped him on her back and walked 75km through the bush, in the heat, to the only paediatric hospital in the Central African Republic, which is supported by Unicef, the World Food Programme and the French charity ACF International. She does not know what has happened to her other four children. “Someone must look after me,” she says with tear-filled eyes. It could be the collective cry of this country of five million people.
The African Union has deployed 6,000 peacekeepers, known by the acronym Misca, and France has sent 2,000 soldiers in its Opération Sangaris, named after a blood-red butterfly that lives in the jungle. That’s 8,000 peacekeepers for a lawless country the size of France and Belgium combined. As French commentators note, 2,000 police are deployed each time Paris Saint-Germain play Olympique de Marseille in Paris. A UN report this month said the French and African forces are “not sufficient, and lack the civilian component to adequately protect civilians”.
These days even God seems to have abandoned the Central African Republic, the continent’s forgotten country and one of the poorest in the world.
In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, on April 7th, comparisons are often made between Rwanda and the Central African Republic. Guilt about Rwanda was a factor in the French deployment, and French generals fear that they will again be accused of standing by if the Rwanda scenario is repeated.
This week the Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, who headed the UN mission in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, made an urgent appeal for UN intervention in the Central African Republic. The UN is taking weeks to draft a Security Council resolution that might deploy a peacekeeping mission. At least six more months would be needed to establish the force after a vote.
The EU has held four conferences to muster a 500-strong EU force, but that too has been delayed, because governments are reluctant to contribute money or endanger the lives of their soldiers.
“The problem today is that the Central African Republic interests no one, because an airliner crashed, because there’s a crisis between Russia and Ukraine,” says Fabienne Pompey of the World Food Programme.
The Rwandan precedent may be exaggerated: 800,000 Tutsis were massacred by Hutus in 100 days in 1994; about 3,000 people have been killed in Central African Republic in the past four months. Ethnic lines are less clearly drawn in the Central African Republic, where there was a great deal of intermarriage. Some Christians joined the mainly Muslim Seleka militia; some Muslims joined the mainly Christian anti-balaka.
Yet atrocities committed by both sides ensure that revenge attacks will continue. People have been thrown to crocodiles, buried in wells. Mosques and churches have been burned to the ground, sometimes with civilians inside them. Attilia Serpelloni, an Italian nurse with the aid group Emergency, says she has been particularly horrified by machete wounds on the hands and heads of children.
Human Rights Watch witnessed four grisly lynchings by the anti-balaka in Bangui. On February 5th, at the close of a ceremony presided by the interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, to re-establish the Central African Republic’s army, attended by the diplomatic corps, a man was singled out by uniformed soldiers and accused of belonging to the Seleka. He was slashed with machetes. A foot and a leg were cut off and his head was crushed with stones. Someone piled tyres on the body and set it alight. A crowd formed to watch the body burning, filming it on phones.
A few days later a Lebanese businessman was coming out of an embassy in central Bangui when he saw a man surrounded by a mob. The terrified man rushed to a French armoured vehicle, but the crowd pulled him out, kicked him on the ground and cut off one hand and both legs at the knees.
“I saw a man pick up a leg and a hand and gnaw at them,” the businessman recounted. “The crowd poured petrol on the dismembered man and burned him. He was still alive. If the French had fired in the air, I think they would have run away.”
The cannibal lyncher, known as Mad Dog to residents of Bangui, was subsequently arrested and imprisoned. His family had allegedly been killed by the Seleka.
The Central African Republic is now virtually partitioned, with Muslims to the east of a diagonal line that runs from Kabo, in the north, to Mobaye, in the south, and Christians to the west of that line. When the mass exodus of Muslims began in December, Chad and Cameroon took in 200,000 who had originated from their countries. Another 200,000 Christians and Muslims were displaced within Bangui; 600,000 countrywide, bringing the total to a million – a fifth of the population – ethnically cleansed and living in precarious conditions.
Malaria, the biggest killer in the Central African Republic, will worsen now with the start of the rainy season. Farmers should begin planting, but many ate their seeds last year, after the Seleka militia destroyed crops. If the violence continues, another season will pass without crops. And it was Muslim merchants, now dead or displaced, who distributed food.
“Far more children are at risk of dying from malnutrition than from bullets,” says Judith Léveillée of Unicef. Over the weekend at Bangui paediatric hospital, “nine children were treated for bullet wounds, but there are more than 100 children being treated for severe malnutrition”.
The Central African Republic has seen a coup, followed by mayhem and looting, on average every decade since independence from France, in 1960. Each time, France sent paratroopers to restore order. This time has been different. In late 2012 the coalition of Muslim groups calling themselves the Seleka (the Alliance) descended from the northeastern “region of three borders”, where the Central African Republic, Chad and Sudan meet. The Bangui government has always been an empty shell, providing little or no basic services, but neglect of the Muslim northeast was total.
Their ranks swollen by Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, the Seleka made their way to Bangui, where, on March 24th, 2013, they deposed the Christian president, François Bozizé. Relief at his departure was short-lived. The Central African Republic’s first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia, could not control the Seleka, who went on a rampage of rape, killing and looting against the Christian majority.
The tables began to turn last September, when Christians formed the anti-balaka. (Balaka means “machete” – the weapon of choice of the Seleka.) At the beginning of December, as the UN Security Council approved a French military intervention in the Central African Republic and President François Hollande convened a Franco-African summit at the Élysée, the anti-balaka attacked Bangui. An estimated 1,000 people were killed in two days, but the massacre went all but unnoticed because it coincided with the death of Nelson Mandela.
The deployment of French troops “reversed the balance of power in favour of the anti-balaka,” says an official with a French NGO. “The French could not control the exactions of the anti-balaka against the Muslim population. It’s not surprising that the Muslims consider France an enemy.”
The Misca are perceived to have sided with the country’s Muslims, the French with the Christians. Human Rights Watch has documented collusion between Chadian Misca troops and the Seleka militia.
At the paediatric hospital Justine Sanze sits beside the bed of her 14-year-old son, Octave, who was hit in the back by a stray bullet on Monday night. “We’d sent him out to buy food,” Justine says, sighing. Octave moans with pain as he prays with rosary beads. He’s a choirboy at the local Catholic church.
“It’s hatred now between the Muslims and us,” Justine says. “Everything is the fault of the Muslims and the Burundians.”
On Wednesday night President Samba-Panza delivered a radio and television address asking her compatriots to stop attacking African and French peacekeepers. Christians are furious that a Muslim enclave in PK5 – French shorthand for Kilometre Point 5 – has not yet been disarmed. Muslims are enraged that peacekeepers have been much slower to disarm the mainly Christian anti-balaka. The anti-balaka have a certain credibility with the Christian majority. “They protect us,” Justine Sanze says. “If it weren’t for the anti-balaka we’d all be dead.”
The few Muslim enclaves left in Christian territory are flashpoints for violence. These include PK5 and PK12, in Bangui, and the western town of Boda, a diamond-trading centre where several thousand Muslims are surrounded by anti-balaka, who have prohibited anyone from selling food to them. The French are deployed between Boda’s Christians and Muslims but have been unable to break the food blockade. The Muslims of PK12 survive on food handouts from UN agencies. The UN Refugee Agency has registered 1,600 who want to leave, but Ibrahim Al-Awad, a gold trader and the Sudanese-born leader of the community, claims there are 2,750. “I don’t trust the UN,” he says. “For weeks they’ve been saying tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. This is Alcatraz. Every day we bury one person. No one wants to stay in this hell.”
The anti-balaka fire on PK12 from a wooded ridge opposite and from the adjacent Christian neighbourhood. Nearly every night they lob grenades in the hope of killing more Muslims. If the Muslims run away the militiamen rush in to loot the houses.
The conflict, Al-Awad says, “is not about Muslims and Christians. If it were, we have Iran. We can bring in al-Qaeda and Boko Haram and make jihad and in five days it would be over.
“The real problem,” Al-Awad continues, “is France. The French took the weapons from the Seleka and let the anti-balaka keep their weapons. They are the white anti-balaka. The Central African Republic will be worse than Rwanda if the French stay here . . . I don’t hate Europeans or white people. But they don’t know our traditions. How can they solve our problems?”