No matter how often one interviews victims of human rights abuses, there are times when people’s images stay with you.
This month, in northern Central African Republic, I met an elderly Muslim herder who described in painful detail how a militia member slit the throat of each of his 11 children and grandchildren, ages 6 months to 25 years, before also killing his two wives. He struggled with tears while trying to spell the long list of names. He had lost everything.
On the steps of a church that has become the center of a squalid camp of more than 35,000 people seeking refuge from violence, a young woman was trying to nurse an infant who had been struck in the arm by a bullet that killed the woman’s husband. No matter how hard she tried, the mother was helpless to comfort her baby.
These are two facets of the tragedy unfolding in this landlocked country of 4.6 million people. The Central African Republic is one of the poorest places on Earth, with mostly underexploited resources and no real strategic interest. However, i t is beginning to grab international headlines and could soon stain our collective conscience if the sectarian killings and counter-killings engulfing many towns and villages are allowed to expand to the whole country.
The violence started in March, when predominantly Muslim armed groups from the north, called the Seleka (“alliance”), staged a ruthless rebellion and installed one of its leaders, Michel Djotodia, as the first Muslim president of this majority-Christian nation.
Human Rights Watch has documented how, all the way to power and since, the Seleka has killed, raped, pillaged and burned. Its victims include scores of women, children and the elderly. While Muslim communities were not always spared, the Seleka has proved particularly merciless toward Christians and their churches.
A conflict that had more to do with predation and power than with religion took an ugly, sectarian turn in September, when Christian militias known as “anti-balaka” (“anti-machete”) started attacking Muslim communities, slitting the throats of women and children and at times announcing that they wanted to exterminate all the Muslims.
These attacks have often provoked brutal Seleka reprisals. Last week, Human Rights Watch saw a Seleka commander ask “loyal Muslim” villagers to donate fuel and money so his men could fight the anti-balaka in a neighboring town. When we finally got access to the area, it had been laid to waste.
Learning from past mistakes, the United Nations is raising the alarm. John Ging, operations director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, went to the Central African Republic this month. He said afterward that he was very “concerned that the seeds of a genocide are being sown.” There is also a small but growing chorus of concerned voices in the United States, including members of Congress.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon believes that a force of 6,000 to 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers could help bring the Central African Republic back from the brink. With the right equipment and leadership, they would protect civilians from the ill-equipped Seleka and anti-balaka and allow the tens of thousands in unsanitary camps around churches or hiding deep in the bush to return to their villages and rebuild their lives.
The United Nations could also bring civilian experts who could help with administration, justice, human rights and elections, in addition to supplementing the small U.N. team there. They could help rebuild the Central African Republic and reduce the risk of it becoming a failed state that is a haven for armed groups. The relentlessly abusive Lord’s Resistance Army is known to be active in the country’s southeast. The Obama administration has deployed a small number of Special Operations forces to the region to bolster efforts to apprehend that group’s leaders.
U.S. support is necessary for a U.N. peacekeeping mission, but the Obama administration has been reluctant to back one, arguing that the current force of 2,500 poorly equipped but cheaper African Union peacekeepers can do the job once they reach their full strength of 3,600.
Until the United Nations can take over — which would take months — the African peacekeepers need all the help they can get. With the help of close to a thousand French troops announced to reinforce them, they might be able to keep the situation from spiraling out of control a bit longer. But in a country the size of Texas, they will never be able to protect the population or ensure stability.
President Obama would need to explain to Americans why support for another U.N. mission, in a country most have never heard of, is so important. The recent U.S. contribution of $40 million for the African Union peacekeepers and millions more for humanitarian assistance helps, but it is insufficient. In September, Obama emphatically said, “I have made it clear that, even when America’s core interests are not directly threatened, we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect basic human rights.” It’s time to show that he means it.
Philippe Bolopion is United Nations director at Human Rights Watch.