Central African Republic: Torn Apart by Violence by UNHCR Photo Unit
Central African Republic: Torn Apart by Violence by UNHCR Photo Unit

20 Years After Rwanda Genocide, a Humanitarian Crisis in the Central African Republic Fails to Stir International Interest

After the mass genocide that killed 800,000 people in Rwanda 20 years ago, the international community vowed ‘never again.’ But today, history seems to be repeating itself. Another central African country faces a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, yet few know about it and even fewer are doing anything to help.

Former Colony, Forgotten Nation

The Central African Republic (CAR) is a landlocked country in the heart of Africa, rich in natural resources but poor in infrastructure (1). Carved out and colonized by the French until the 1960s, CAR is an ethnically diverse nation, where cultural lines often don’t adhere to its borders with the Congo, DRC, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan and South Sudan.

CAR’s 50 years as a nation have been unstable and often bloody, marked by periodic uprisings and coups that never fail to destabilize the livelihoods of its citizens (1). The forest in the northern part of the country has harbored the Lord’s Resistance Army, a cult-like group that kidnaps, coerces, and brainwashes children into fighting. CAR has often served as a safe haven for refugees from bordering conflicts, most recently those from South Sudan. But today, many of those refugees are fleeing home.

To draw a simple picture of a complicated issue, severe unrest in CAR began in December 2012, when Séléka fighters began a rebellion against the president, François Bozizé (2). By March 2013, Bozizé had fled and Séléka leader Michel Djotodia gained control of the government, quelling civilian protests with violence. Another armed group, called anti-Balaka, revolted against him, forcing his resignation in January 2014 (3). Many members of the Séléka movement were Muslim, and the anti-Balaka fighters (largely Christian) retaliated against them (4). This ethnic cleansing has created rifts between religious groups. Militias controlling various regions of the country have begun to splinter, spreading terror far and wide as their armed attacks are most often focused on civilians (5).

Humanitarian Crisis

According to Amnesty International, Séléka fighters massacred Christian civilians, performing extrajudicial executions, rape and torture. They also looted and destroyed villages in their efforts to gain control of the country (2). In retaliation, Muslims are being driven away by anti-Balaka fighters and civilians alike. The violence has caused at least 5,000 deaths (6), including the brutal beheading of women and children, and the internal displacement of 25% of the country’s population since December 2013, while 190,000 were forced to flee to neighboring countries. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre lists at least 438,500 internally displaced people as of Jan 2015, twice the number in 2007 (7). A UN World Food Program report shows that 1.5 million are in a moderate to severe food security situation (8).

“The elements are there, the seeds are there, for a genocide.”

These words came from the director of operations for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, John Ging, when the violence was at its peak in January 2014 (3). Yet much of the world seems to not have noticed the dire situation, or have failed to take action. On the European Commission indices of Global Vulnerability and Forgotten Crisis Assessment, CAR scored the highest of all countries measured (9). In January 2015, UN investigators warned of the war crimes being committed in CAR, calling for an international tribunal to judge those responsible (10). The past two years have shown blatant crimes against humanity, sectarian killings and ethnic cleansing (2), yet the response of the international community has been weak.

Intervention in CAR

Child in a rebel camp in the north-eastern Central African Republic by hdptcar
Child in a rebel camp in the north-eastern Central African Republic by hdptcar

Ten months after unrest began in CAR and 7 months after Séléka’s coup, the African Union (AU) deployed 6000 peacekeepers into the country (11). France followed up with an additional 2000 two months later. By that time AU peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo allegedly tortured to death 2 anti-Balaka leaders. By March 2014, more peacekeepers from Congo were involved in the disappearance and execution of between 11 and 18 civilians.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon paid Bangui (the capital of CAR) a 4-hour visit last April, sending a message to lawmakers:
“The international community failed the people of Rwanda 20 years ago, and we are at risk of not doing enough for the people of CAR today. It is your responsibility as leaders to ensure that there are no such anniversaries in this country” (12).
The UN also approved a new peacekeeping mission to send 12,000 troops to protect civilians (12). During the same month, the AU pulled out 850 Chadian troops after clashes with civilians killed 30 people. By September 2014, the UN had completely taken over for AU peacekeepers (6), trying with little success to regain security in the region (13). In January 2015, France announced its plan to reduce its force in CAR to 800 troops by the fall (6). With the announcement, French president François Hollande stated:

“We allowed this country —one of the poorest in the world— to begin healing.”

Yet with the continued violence in CAR, it is clear that France’s agenda lies elsewhere. Their response to CAR’s plight stands in stark contrast to their reaction to a similar conflict in Mali, another former colony. Just like in CAR, insurgent Islamist groups ousted the Malian president (14). In response, France worked with the Malian military to regain control of the northern part of the country, and then turned over peacekeeping responsibilities to the UN. Although the Mali conflict has not been completely resolved either, it has resulted in far fewer deaths compared to CAR’s 5000 and counting.

Why France has adopted starkly different strategies to a similar issue in CAR and Mali remains to be explained. Vincent Darracq, an African analyst who works for the French Institute for International Relations, opines that France has less of a strategic, economic, or business interest in CAR than in Mali (15). Their decision to intervene a year after the crisis began was based on the knowledge that if they did not intervene at all, CAR would collapse as a state, becoming a safe haven for rebels from its neighboring countries, many of which are suffering their own instabilities.

Media Silence

Aside from the lacking response from world powers, the media is also culpable in underreporting the crisis compared to other news. The isolation of CAR and its limited infrastructure has made it a very expensive place for journalists to travel (3). As a result, wire reports regarding the conflict are often coming from Europe. News outlets have also prioritized reporting on other current issues, such as conflict in Israel and the Ebola crisis.
According to Peter Bouckaert, the head of the Human Rights Watch’s emergency team:

“It used to be easier, when budgets were larger, to convince editors to send reporters to so-called underreported or obscure conflicts. But that’s becoming difficult” (3).

A Google Trends search for CAR news demonstrates how few headlines there are about the country (16). Interest peaked in December 2013, during the worst of the violence. Though CAR has not seen near as much news coverage in the past two years of conflict than it did in 2004, for offering asylum to former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide. Since July, the number of news headlines has returned to more or less pre-crisis rates.
The underreporting of conflicts in Africa is not a new development. Americans are notorious for oversimplifying issues in Africa, so much so that ‘another African war’ is thought to be commonplace. Martin Bell, a former journalist turned UNICEF ambassador, has harsher words about the media silence on CAR:

“It is the response of the news organisations themselves to the difficulties and dangers of foreign news-gathering and a preference for a domestic agenda increasingly driven by gossip” (17).

Lack of Interest and Funding

To give the news organizations some credit, nearly everything they choose to report on must be based on the interests of their viewers/readers. Jason Straziuso of the Associated Press East Africa Bureau believes that the CAR crisis shows no clear implications for the American public, which fuels their lack of empathy:

“On a story like Kenya’s Westgate Mall massacre, many Americans … can imagine themselves at that mall. On CAR, to me it seems that this jungle of conflict full of base human depravity is just one world too far away” (3).

In December, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum spoke up about the CAR crisis, warning that genocide may be imminent (18). Similar efforts to raise awareness about the persecution of Rohingya in Burma last year resulted in new legislation and a confrontation with Burma’s president by President Obama. So far, the Museum’s appeals regarding CAR have gone unnoticed.

Public apathy may also be affecting the livelihoods of CAR citizens in terms of aid. Souleymane Diabaté, a UNICEF representative in the country, said that concurrent crises in Mali, Sudan, Syria and Ukraine are attracting more donors than CAR (19). In an interview with journalist Joshua Keating, he stated:

“Central African Republic is not well known by most of the donors. They don’t know if it is a country or just a region of Africa. This might be one of the reasons why we are not getting a lot of visibility.”

During the height of the violence in 2013, CAR was number five on the list of underfunded UN appeals (20). According to a report by Global Humanitarian Assistance, the total amount of humanitarian assistance granted to CAR by December 2013 was $136 million, compared to South Sudan, which received $897 million and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at $681 million (20). Although the violence subsided considerably in 2014, the UN Refugee Agency just launched a new appeal this January to fund help for the 450,000 CAR refugees still misplaced today (4). The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates 2.7 million people still require humanitarian assistance in the country (21).

Back in November 2013, Salil Shetty, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, stated:

“The international community must take action before it is too late to ensure that the abuses come to an end and that CAR isn’t catapulted into the international spotlight because it became a human catastrophe” (9).

So far, his words have gone unheeded.

An Uncertain Future

In January 2014, a transitional government was appointed with Catherine Samba-Panza as president, in hopes of returning some stability to the nation. However, according to a recent press release by the Human Rights Watch (13), the UN peacekeeping mission and interim government have largely failed to establish security over the past year. Efforts have been made to disarm militias, but violent incidents are occurring throughout the country, and tension between Christian and Muslim rebels are still strong. A Google search for current CAR news brings up stories of continued violence and high profile kidnappings.

For those civilians fortunate enough to flee and avoid the most violent parts of the country, their biggest worry is how to feed their family. Approximately 30% of the country’s population is suffering from moderate to severe food insecurity (8). Many farmers have abandoned their crops, and two seasons without production will affect their livelihoods for years to come.

Once UN and French troops return peacekeeping duties to the CAR government, there is no way to ensure that armed attacks will not resurge. French president Hollande sees his country’s departure as a way to allow wounds to heal, but the situation on the ground suggests that CARs wounds are still bleeding dangerously.

Ban Ki-moon offered eloquent words last April:

“There is a hole in the heart of Africa. Every day, I wake up thinking about your trials and troubles … Everywhere, I have called on leaders to step up their efforts. Some say this is a forgotten crisis. I am here to help make sure the world does not forget” (12).

Nine months later, it seems the world already has.

References

References

1. CIA, ‘Central African Republic.’ (CIA World Fact Book) <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ct.html> [28 January 2015]

2. Amnesty International, ‘Human Rights in Central African Republic.’ (Amnesty International) < http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/countries/africa/central-african-republic> [25 January 2015]

3. Jared Malsin, ‘Western Media: Stop Ignoring the Central African Republic Crisis.’ (Columbia Journalism Review, 13 October 2014) <http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/western_media_stop_ignoring_th.php?page=all> [23 January 2015]

4. UN News Centre, ‘Central African Republic: UN Launches Appeal for Refugees amid Ongoing Conflict.’ (UN News Centre, 23 January 2015) <http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=49889#.VMe662TF8ud> [23 January 2015]

5. UNHCR, ‘2015 UNHCR Country Operations Profile – Central African Republic.’ (UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, 2015) < http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e45c156.html> [25 January 2015]

6. The Associated Press, ‘France to Pull 1,200 Troops from Central African Republic.’ (The New York Times, 14 January 2015) <http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/01/14/world/europe/ap-eu-france-central-african-republic.html?_r=0> [23 January 2015]

7. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, ‘Conflict and Violence-Induced Displacement.’ (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre) < http://www.internal-displacement.org/global-figures> [25 January 2015]

8. UN News Centre, ‘Central African Republic: UN Agency Warns of Food Insecurity amid Ongoing Instability.’ (UN News Centre, 13 January 2015) <http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=49787#.VMfBoGTF8ue> [23 January 2015]

9. Amnesty International, ‘Central African Republic: UN Must Tackle the Looming Human Catastrophe.’ (Amnesty International News, 25 November 2014) <http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/central-african-republic-un-must-tackle-looming-human-catastrophe-2013-11-25> [25 January 2015]

10. UN News CENTRE, ‘Central African Republic: UN Investigators Urge Establishment of War Crimes Tribunal.’ (UN News Centre, 21 January 2015) <http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=49863#.VMfBnGTF8ud> [23 January 2015]

11. Human Rights Watch, ‘Central African Republic: Civilians in Danger.’ (Human Rights Watch News, 15 September 2014) <http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/09/15/central-african-republic-civilians-danger> [25 January 2015]

12. Andrew Katz, ‘UN Chief Visits the Central African Republic.’ (Time, 5 April 2014) < http://time.com/50841/u-n-chief-visits-central-african-republic> [23 January 2015]

13. Peter Bouckaert, ‘Central African Republic: Chaos and Catastrophe in the Central African Republic.’ (Human Rights Watch, 27 January 2015) <http://allafrica.com/stories/201501270643.html> [27 January 2015]

14. The Telegraph, ‘Mali Crisis: Timeline.’ (The Telegraph, 15 January 2013) <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/mali/9801760/Mali-crisis-timeline.html> [28 January 2015]

15. Vincent Darracq, ‘France in Central Africa: The Reluctant Interventionist.’ (Al Jazeera, 11 February 2014) <http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/02/france-central-africa-reluctant–20142975859862140.html>[25 January 2015]

16. Data Source: Google Trends (www.google.com/trends)

17. Martin Bell, ‘Disaster on a Colossal Scale—But as Far as the Media is Concerned, it isn’t News.’ (The Independent, 14 November 2013) <http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/disaster-on-a-colossal-scale–but-as-far-as-the-media-is-concerned-it-isnt-news-8937791.html>[23 January 2015]

18. Flannery Wasson, ‘Walls Bear Witness for Forgotten Crisis in Central African Republic.’ (United to End Genocide, 16 December 2014) < http://endgenocide.org/walls-bear-witness-forgotten-crisis-central-african-republic/> [25 January 2015]

19. Joshua Keating, ‘The World’s Most Ignored Conflict Could Soon Become a Genocide.’ (Slate: The World, 12 May 2014) <http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2014/05/12/central_african_republic_the_world_s_most_ignored_conflict_could_soon_become.html> [23 January 2015]

20. Global Humanitarian Assistance, ‘Central African Republic: the Forgotten Crisis.’ (Global Humanitarian Assistance, 2013) <http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/report/central-african-republic-the-forgotten-crisis> [25 January 2015]

21. USAID, ‘Central African Republic – Complex Emergency.’ (Fact Sheet #7, Fiscal Year 2015, 20 January 2015) <http://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1866/car_ce_fs04_01-21-2014.pdf> [25 January 2015]

About Courtney Malcom

Courtney studied anthropology at Washington State University in the USA. She graduated with a master’s degree in evolutionary anthropology in May 2014, after studying maternal and infant behavior and health in the Central African Republic. She now resides in southern Ethiopia, where she is collaborating with local development workers to establish an NGO with the mission promote access to healthcare services for vulnerable individuals.

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