Central African Republic Plagued By Ethnic Conflict As U.N. Pledges Help

Apr 11, 2014

As Rwanda commemorates the anniversary of the genocide there 20 years ago this week, its neighbor, the Central African Republic, continues to suffer brutal ethnic violence.

The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously yesterday to assemble a peacekeeping force to help stem the C.A.R. conflict.

Alexandra Zavis of the L.A. Times has been covering the story and recently traveled through the country. She joins Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer to discuss the situation there.


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The violent clashes between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic have become so severe that the united U.N. Security Council voted yesterday to send in a nearly 12,000-member peacekeeping force. Thousands of people have been killed. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced. And half the population now needs humanitarian aid. The fighting began about a year ago when Muslim rebels overthrew the national government. Now Christian groups are killing Muslim civilians in revenge and driving many others out of the country.

Alexandra Zavis is a reporter at the LA Times who recently spent two weeks in the Central African Republic, and she joins us from the studios of KPCC in Pasadena. Alex, welcome.


PFEIFFER: And, Alex, what's your sense of how much of a difference the U.N. peacekeeping troops can make? And we should note that they aren't even scheduled to arrive until September.

ZAVIS: That's the key point. It's going to be months before they actually show up and can deploy around the country. There are currently about 2,000 French troops and nearly 6,000 African Union troops who are stretched very thinly across a huge area about the size of Texas. They've had a very hard time being where they need to be to stop the fighting. Things have gotten a little bit better. Some of the worst massacres that were taking place in December and January seemed to have stopped.

But there are reports of killings pretty much every single day. Just this week, at least 30 people were killed just north of the capital, Bangui, in an area that has no presence of either African or French peacekeepers at the moment.

PFEIFFER: Alex, you mentioned that one issue is that the troops already there are stretched thin. But I understand there's also an issue because the troops are largely Muslim so the Christian population doesn't like that. So how is that a factor in how the troops on the ground may not be that effective now?

ZAVIS: One contingent of the troops was coming from Chad, a country to the north which is predominantly Muslim, and they had been implicated in various ways in this conflict going back many, many years. They actually supported the rebel groups that took over in March last year. They also were involved in the departure of the government that was set up by these rebels. But the Christian population saw them as defending Muslims, who they accused of supporting a government that had been very brutal and had terrorized the country for many, many months. And they did not trust them.

And those troops were accused of opening fire on civilians. They finally announced their departure that they were pulling out a week ago. There are other troops who have come from Rwanda, from Burundi, from Congo. Those troops aren't predominantly Muslim, but they are often less trusted by the other side. So almost anybody who becomes involved gets seen as being partial. It's been a huge problem.

PFEIFFER: So is the idea that the U.N. troops will not only add volume but may be more neutral peacekeepers?

ZAVIS: That is certainly the hope that's been expressed by a lot of people on all sides of this conflict. They also come in with more than just troops. They come in with all kinds of civilian experts who can help the transitional government that's been established try to assert its authority across the country. I mean, underlining the problems that you have now is that the government has completely collapsed. It never had much authority outside of the capital.

At the moment, there are no functioning courts. There are no functioning prisons. There's a huge problem of impunity before you can really start addressing the grievances here. People keep saying they want justice. They want security. And they are not getting that from their own government. So the hope is that the U.N., which is coming in with a much more robust force and with more than just a military component, but with police, with gendarmes, with these civilian experts will actually be able to start helping them address the bigger issues that they need to address.

PFEIFFER: So as we said, you've actually been in the country. Tell us what it was like to be on the ground in the Central African Republic.

ZAVIS: Pretty much every day that we were there, we were getting reports of attacks on one side or another. It was a very sort of tense situation. There were - in the capital in Bangui, you have many more peacekeepers there. You have international organizations there. Particularly in the predominantly Christian areas, there were signs of life coming back, markets being open, a little bit of more confidence. But there were still huge numbers of people, even on the Christian side, who were living in camps for displaced people, too afraid to go back to their neighborhoods.

And then you had these small pockets of Muslims who were completely surrounded by very hostile, predominantly Christian neighbors, who were having grenades thrown into their areas at times and were absolutely terrified and just desperately wanted to get out.

PFEIFFER: Did you witness any of this violence? Or were you just getting reports of it?

ZAVIS: While we were there, there was a huge attack that took place on the airport road. We went there as that happened. We came just afterwards and spoke to people about what had happened. And the people in the neighborhood were describing it as the brave young man of the neighborhood had attacked what they thought were some Chadians and had dragged them from the vehicle and started hacking them to death. Two of them died on the spot, another one ran away. His body was found a few miles away and had been completely dismembered.

PFEIFFER: So very gruesome reports coming out of that country. And the way this conflict has been unfolding has been compared to the Rwanda genocide which happened 20 years ago this week. Do you see those similarities?

ZAVIS: Certainly the levels of hatred and fear, there are some comparisons, and the way that it has been stirred up by political leaders for their own benefits. The U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, actually just said this week, the only reason it hasn't become a genocide is because so many Muslims have now left. So he has likened it to ethnic and religious cleansing. I mean, you have huge parts of the country - the western side of the country where the entire Muslim population has just packed up and fled, either out of the country altogether or to areas in the northeast of the country which are dominated by this former Muslim rebel alliance that was in power briefly and that they see as their protector.

PFEIFFER: Really? So the idea is that had they not left, it may have been a genocide, but there just aren't many Muslims left to kill.

ZAVIS: That's right. Yeah. They estimate fewer than a thousand left in Bangui, the capital itself. Maybe 19,000 in the western half of the country. This is a population that once accounted for about 15 percent of the total population, which they estimated about 4.6 million.

PFEIFFER: Alex, based on your reporting, is this strictly a religious conflict, Christian versus Muslim, or there are other factors at play, whether political or economic or ethnic?

ZAVIS: Everybody that we spoke to made the point that Christians and Muslims have lived together for decades. They've intermarried. They used to celebrate holidays together. And there was a very strong sentiment that this was something that had been stirred up by political leaders. So people are now being killed because they are Muslim or because they are Christian. But that's not how it started out.

PFEIFFER: That's Alexander Zavis of the LA Times. She has been reporting out of the Central African Republic. Alex, thanks for talking with us.

ZAVIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.