Drive north from the capital, and you soon discover why relief workers call the Central African Republic a post-apocalyptic country. After a year of mass murder, the villages are abandoned and the roads eerily empty and desolate.
The checkpoints are controlled by cold-eyed men from largely Christian militias who brandish knives, machetes, swords and other crude weapons. Occasionally, a decrepit taxi comes barrelling down the road, ludicrously overloaded with 15 or 20 refugees, some piled on the roof. At times, a slow-moving convoy appears – busloads of terrified Muslims, with an escort of heavily armed peacekeepers to protect them from slaughter.
They represent 15 per cent of the country’s 4.5 million people, but even where they were a substantial minority, almost all Muslims have been killed or forced to flee. The last ones in the impoverished town of Boali were removed a month ago, and a local administrator admits it is still too dangerous for her Muslim husband and children to visit, let alone come back for good.
Last year, when largely Muslim rebel forces seized power, it was the Christians who fled for their lives even though the two communities had lived peacefully side by side for decades.
A horrifyingly bureaucratic term, “ethno-religious cleansing,” has been invented to describe the massacres in the CAR. While experts argue over whether it qualifies as genocide, those inside the country know only that the killing is endless. In the capital, Bangui, bodies still pile up in the morgues, mosques and streets.
What began as a political struggle has become sectarian. “One group is trying to exterminate the other,” says Dr. Jean Chrysostome Gody, director of Bangui’s pediatric hospital. “It’s about extreme brutal revenge. They are trying to eradicate a race.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen. “Never again,” the world said after 800,000 died in Rwanda. Yet two decades later – Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the 100-day carnage – the killing continues. It continues in terrible wars such as the conflict in Syria, but also much closer to the scene of the tragedy that shocked the world in 1994.
Tens of thousands have been butchered in the CAR as well as its neighbour to the east, South Sudan, where a few months ago a dispute between the president and vice-president erupted into mass bloodshed.
As in Rwanda, politicians and military leaders in both countries have whipped up hatred and turned it deadly. And as in Rwanda, there was plenty of warning. Academics, aid workers and analysts had pointed to the danger signs for months, even years. Yet little was done.
Preventing genocide has been an official goal of the United Nations since 1948 – four years after the term was coined at the height of the Holocaust. Genocide was banned in international criminal law, enforced later by tribunals investigating the mass killings in Rwanda and Darfur. According to the world’s new moral code, enshrined by the UN as the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, any mass atrocity was never to be ignored.
African countries, motivated by altruism but also by a cold calculation of their regional security interests, have sent thousands of peacekeepers to Bangui, including 850 from Rwanda. The European Union’s contribution, however, has been slow to materialize. And Canada, despite its proud tradition of UN service, has refused for years to send substantial forces to any African hot spot.
The current carnage has provoked plenty of high-level hand-wringing. This week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon fretted that the international community has failed to “prevent the preventable.” And in Brussels, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called the CAR a prime example of how efforts to save lives have been “inadequate” and the world “lacking” in resolve.
Why has the response been so minimal?
The bloodshed in South Sudan has left a landscape depressingly similar to that of the CAR. Malakal, the strategic capital of oil-rich Upper Nile province, is now a ghost town of abandoned markets and looted compounds. Thousands have fled, fearing attack by government or rebel forces, while thousands more have taken shelter at the local UN base.
“Many people were killed in front of us,” says Robert Okeng, a 30-year-old student. “The rebels burned our houses and killed many people, even small children. They shot them and beat them with sticks.”
The growing risk of mass violence had been clear for years. A Canadian member of the peacekeeping force, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the UN troops received intelligence briefings last August about the potential for large-scale violence as a result of the deep political split between President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar. Similar warnings had been issued privately by relief agencies even earlier, last June, due to tensions in the army, badly divided because regional and tribal militias had been poorly integrated.