Shortly after a mob looted his Bangui neighborhood and killed a Muslim man in broad daylight in December, Khaled Dea Oumar joined other young Muslims in the street. Exasperated at what he saw as a lack of protection from French and African Union forces supposed to be keeping the peace in the Central African Republic capital, he ran up to a group of African Union soldiers who had arrived on the scene too late. “We tell you to come, and you don’t come,” he shouted. “What are you doing?”
As the United Nations Security Council finally authorized an official peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic last Thursday, Mr. Oumar’s words proved eerily prescient. The French and African Union troops he castigated had been expected to stop the fighting months ago. Instead, after a series of missteps and negligence by the United States, France and the African Union, the Central African Republic’s Muslim population has been decimated. The United Nations force will not even take over until September.
As the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide is solemnly commemorated, the crisis in the Central African Republic grows more ominous by the day, grimly illustrating the ineffectiveness of the international system meant to stop catastrophes like these from unfolding. It is already too late for many in the country, and the further delay may well determine the fate of many more.
The conflict began when the Seleka, a predominantly Muslim rebel alliance, overthrew the corrupt government of François Bozizé in March 2013 and proceeded to terrorize the country with impunity, looting, raping and killing. In response, mostly Christian self-defense militias known as anti-balaka rose up — and then committed atrocities of their own.
After intense fighting in early December left hundreds dead in Bangui, it appeared likely that the Security Council would authorize an official United Nations peacekeeping mission. But after the African Union insisted it could do the job and the United States, voicing concern over costs, refused to support a French-authored peacekeeping resolution, the council instead mandated France and the African Union to increase their existing small-troop presence.
The idea was that once the Seleka were neutralized, the anti-balaka would be easily contained. But in those first few weeks of December, it was clear to everyone in Bangui that something bad was building. “They are only disarming the Selekas,” Mr. Oumar said in his outburst on the street, referring angrily to the French and African Union troops, “and the anti-balakas follow every time and kill Muslims.”
Four months later, the postponements of the United States and its allies appear woefully reckless. Given time to fester, the Christian-versus-Muslim divide has been mapped onto ethnic and economic differences in a country with little history of religious animosity. What began as a political fight for power has sown seeds of deep hatred. Although there was no religious ideology behind the Seleka’s reign of terror, many Christians came to blame the Muslim minority for the Seleka’s actions and turned on them with a vengeance.
The extent of that revenge and the sheer brutality of the killings that have come with it have been shocking. According to the United Nations, the number of Muslims in Bangui has dropped from approximately 130,000 to less than 20,000. Many have fled the country. Those less fortunate are scattered in graves around the capital and at the site of massacres to the north and west. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has stated that the entire western half of the country has been “cleansed” of Muslims.
For months after the balance of power tipped in favor of the anti-balaka, the French insisted that disarming the Seleka in Bangui was their primary objective. The African Union also played down the extent of the slaughter, even as its own troops have been implicated in atrocities themselves: The United Nations human rights agency reported that the Chadian contingent was assisting the Seleka in attacks. In rural areas, the slaughter of Muslims has been carried out by disorganized anti-balaka, often armed with machetes, hunting rifles, even bows and arrows. If peacekeepers had been properly deployed outside Bangui, these atrocities might have been prevented. Instead, as Muslims fled in greater numbers, the French assured journalists that violence was abating. In the strictest sense they were right, but only because so many were already gone.
Although an official United Nations mission is desperately needed in this country, the recent record of United Nations troops in Africa also gives pause. Recently released documents portray those in Darfur as inept and susceptible to intimidation — in some cases standing by as civilians were abducted and killed. In South Sudan, despite adequate warnings, the peacekeepers were caught off guard by internal conflict that broke out in December. But troops there were able to open their bases to tens of thousands of displaced people, offering them at least some of the protection so glaringly absent in the Central African Republic, where Muslims have been preyed upon as they have tried to flee the country on unguarded highways.
Meanwhile, government officials debate costs — the financial kind. The first year of United Nations peacekeeping in the country is expected to cost the United States at least $150 million — still less than what it spends each day in Afghanistan. By delaying the transition to an official United Nations mission until September, the Obama administration is able to defer most of its payments to the 2015 fiscal year. And so, with the addition of 1,000 European Union troops as a small stopgap measure by the United Nations in January and just arriving now, the same French and African Union forces that have been unable to prevent ethnic cleansing will remain the peacekeepers in the country through September.
What will we commemorate 20 years from now?
Danny Gold is the head staff writer at Vice News. Samuel Oakford is the United Nations correspondent for IPS News.