Central African Republic spirals into chaos
The United Nations Security Council unanimously voted Thursday to send 12,000 peacekeeping forces to the Central African Republic, a nearly Texas-sized nation just north of the equator that has spiraled into chaos after the ouster of its leader in March 2013.
The Central African Republic, a former French colony, gained independence in 1960; decades of oppressive military rule followed. Ten years of civilian government crumbled in 2003, after General François Bozizé led a military coup that resulted in his installment as president. Reelected in 2011 through a process widely viewed by the national and international communities as flawed, Bozizé struggled to exert power on the countryside, where rebel groups began to launch attacks. Those groups joined peace talks in January 2013 and gained representation in a coalition government, but it collapsed. Three months later, Muslim rebels gained power, installing Michel Djotodia as president.
In December 2013, the country erupted into civil war, with Christians charging Djotodia with failing to protect them from rape, torture, and death at the hand of his forces. His government collapsed in January amid an all-out battle between the country’s Muslims and its Christian majority.
The Central African Republic is one of the poorest nations in the world, ranking at the bottom of the UN’S Human Development Index (180 out of 187). With little opportunity to go to school, create business, or otherwise earn a living, young men are being recruited to join the Muslim Séléka and the Christian Anti-Balaka forces.
The U.N. estimates that more than 2,000 people have been killed since December, and more than a quarter of the country’s five million people are in need of aid. The civil war has turned tens of thousands of them into refugees.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned of a repeat of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when an estimated 800,000 people were violently murdered in the span of 100 days while the U.N. and world powers stood still.
“The international community failed the people of Rwanda 20 years ago. And we are at risk of not doing enough for the people of the C.A.R. today,” Ban said during a visit to the country earlier this month.
“Atrocity crimes are being committed in this country,” he said. “Ethno-religious cleansing is a reality. Most members of the Muslim minority have fled.” Lynchings, decapitations, torture, village-burnings, and sexual violence against women and children have been reported.
The International Criminal Court began investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country in February. The Court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said she is investigating “hundreds of killings, acts of rape and sexual slavery, destruction of property, pillaging, torture, forced displacement and recruitment and use of children in hostilities.”
“In many incidents, victims appear to have been deliberately targeted on religious grounds,” she said.
Ban warned that the 2,000 French and 6,000 African Union peacekeeping forces in the country have been “overwhelmed” by a “state of anarchy.” The U.N. peacekeepers are not expected to arrive until September.
Photographer Michaël Zumstein has been covering the growing crisis in C.A.R. since September 2013 focusing on the country’s Bossangoa region, where people who fled their villages sought refuge in makeshift camps in the town’s catholic mission, while Muslims gathered in the Liberty School. Today, almost one million people have taken refuge in the country’s schools, churches, and even the tarmac of the French Army-controlled Bangui airport.