This update on the sorry state of affairs in the Central African Republic (CAR) is in memory of my closest brother, who died a year ago today just before his 64th birthday. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer on rural health projects in what was then Emperor Bokassa‘s Central African Empire during the late 1970s, and later went on to become one of the tiny handful of academic experts on the country. For his memorial service, his old Peace Corps colleagues recommended redirecting contributions to Water for Good, which builds wells to provide clean water throughout the CAR.
The following excerpt is from a detailed and depressing firsthand report in Foreign Policy by Ty McCormick headlined ‘One Day, We Will Start a Big War’: Outgunned by powerful rebels in the Central African Republic, the U.N. can’t even protect civilians. Now it’s pushing for early elections that could destroy a fragile peace.
There are scarcely 200 paces of tarmacked road in Bambari, a sprawling city of rusty tin kiosks and crumbling concrete edifices, smudged with rust-colored clay, deep in the heavily forested interior of the Central African Republic (CAR). They span the length of a single-lane bridge across the Ouaka River, a muddy torrent that cleaves Bambari in half from north to south. They also happen to be the most important 200 paces of road in town, though for reasons unrelated to the quality of the driving surface. The bridge marks the boundary between two dangerously divided communities, a red line across which visitors from the other side risk death, occasionally by decapitation.
The east bank of the Ouaka is controlled by remnants of the Seleka, a largely Muslim rebel coalition that pillaged and raped its way across CAR before seizing power over the country for a brief period in 2013. The west bank belongs to the anti-Balaka, the knife- and machete-wielding Christian self-defense militias that sprang up to counter the Seleka but managed to make the Muslim rebel coalition’s abuses look relatively mild by comparison. “Muslims are too afraid to travel to the [west] bank,” the mayor of Bambari, Abel Matchipata, told me recently. “Some Christians are traveling to the [east] bank, but they are doing so with a lot of fear.”
Bambari’s stark divisions mirror those in the rest of CAR, a Texas-sized swath of rainforest and savannah that is sandwiched between Chad, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other troubled neighbors. Even before the latest crisis, CAR was “worse than a failed state,” according to the International Crisis Group. Now, after two-and-a-half years of turmoil stemming from the Seleka coup, the country is de facto partitioned: anti-Balaka in the southwest and former Seleka fighters in the northeast, where they fled after the coalition was disbanded and its leader stepped down under intense international pressure in January 2014. (They are now known as ex-Seleka, an umbrella term that refers to a smattering of armed groups lacking an organized central command.) Outside of CAR’s capital city, Bangui, virtually nothing is under government control. At least 6,000 people have been killed and 832,000 displaced — 368,000 inside the country and 464,000 abroad. About half of the country’s 4.7 million inhabitants are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.
When I visited Bambari last month, ahead of planned elections that many fear could be destabilizing, the city of just under 50,000, the third-largest in CAR, was still reeling from its latest spasm of violence. On Aug. 20, a Muslim taxi driver was plucked from his car outside the city and beheaded by anti-Balaka fighters. The incident provoked a backlash from the Muslim community and a counter-backlash from the Christian community, both of which have acquired a healthy appetite for revenge. By the time the dust had settled, at least 10 people were dead and dozens more wounded, including two aid workers from the Red Cross.
The unenviable task of keeping Bambari’s residents from each other’s throats falls mainly on a single battalion of U.N. peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is itself home to the largest peacekeeping operation in the world. The Congolese are part of a 12,000-strong U.N. force in CAR known by its French acronym, MINUSCA. Authorized with a robust Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians and support the transitional government that replaced the Seleka, MINUSCA has been dogged by persistent charges of abuse and incompetence since taking over for a beleaguered African Union force in September 2014. U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of rape and of firing indiscriminately on civilians. They have also struggled to halt periodic outbursts of violence, like the spate of clashes and looting in late September that paralyzed the capital for close to a week. “Plagued by accusations of sexual abuse and facing mounting violence, MINUSCA threatens to turn into a disaster for the U.N.,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.