US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, whose career has in large part been built on advocating for the US to muster all military and diplomatic force to stop what she famously called "The Problem from Hell" in her Pulitzer prize winning book on genocide, arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) today – her most important trip overseas since taking her post in August.
Though neither she nor any other US official has used the word "genocide" to describe the growing sectarian violence, that fear is lurking behind the latest efforts to quell the fighting, from the arrival of French and African Union forces in the country to diplomatic efforts at the UN.
In recent days, calls from local religious leaders’ calls have helped quell sectarian attacks and restore calm to the capital, Bangui, but tit-for-tat sectarian violence between Séléka fighters, who are mostly Muslims, and Christian militias, continue to plague the country.
On arrival, Ms. Power said the capital's airport was a "giant, makeshift refugee camp" and that she was there to assess the situation and see how best the US could help the AU-French forces there protect civilians.
This week, signs of the toll were everywhere in Bangui. Outside a small mosque on a narrow side street in the predominantly Muslim PK5 neighborhood, bodies wrapped in white plastic sheeting were lifted from a truck and taken away for burial.
"They are all victims of the anti-balaka," says Mohamat Nourou, the mosque’s caretaker, using the term Christian militias have taken for themselves. "Anti-balaka" means "anti-machete," a weapon that has been wielded against civilians often since fighting erupted a few weeks ago.
Over the past two weeks, new bodies have arrived at mosque almost every day. Many have been brutally slaughtered.
”Some were decapitated by their attackers. Others had their ears and genitals cut off,” says Mr. Nourou. “The rebels fight the non-Muslim population, and then the anti-balaka militias fight back against the rebels and the Muslim community.”
A sharp divide
Sectarian conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) has killed hundreds and displaced thousands in recent weeks. In the capital Bangui, mosques are burned and looted. Muslim homes have been razed to the ground.
Seeing the danger for all parties, religious leaders are now joining forces, reaching out to their respective communities to end the violence.
”We now have this divide, this sharp divide, between the Christian and the Muslim community. What I want to prevent is a war against brother and sisters who have been living side by side for many years,” says the Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga.
All over the city, Muslims and Christians have sought refugee in their religious communities and houses of worship. Archbishop Nzapalainga estimates 1,500 people are currently living at the Catholic Mission.
When the clashes started, Lucienne Horonfei ran to the only place where she felt safe; the Carmelite mission on the outskirts of Bangui.
"The men who broke down the door and entered the house at three in the morning accused me of hiding anti-balaka. 'No,' I told them, ”I’m hiding no one, but they didn’t believe me," she says sitting in the monastery’s courtyard. The men, Ms. Horonfei says, spoke the ”language of Muslims. They were Arabs, foreigners."
Muslims make up 15 percent of the population in the Central African Republic. They live mainly in the sparsely populated northeast. This is where the Séléka, the loose alliance of rebel groups – a majority of them Muslims – emerged a year ago. In January this year they advanced south, burning and looting as they went. In late March they seized Bangui. One Séléka leader, Michel Djotodia, named himself president, making him the first Muslim head of state from the marginalized northeast.
The Séléka was later officially disbanded, but several thousand armed fighters kept their weapons and continued pillaging and attacking the population in the capital. They mainly targeted Christian communities, which in turn mobilized self-defense units – the anti-balaka. The continued attacks fueled resentment between the Christian and Muslims communities. The sectarian violence has escalated since an attack on Bangui in early December. In the capital alone, hundreds have died and over 200,000 have been displaced, according to the UN refugee agency, UNCHR.
Many of the Séléka are perceived as foreigners by the population in the south, which is predominantly Christian. People in Bangui frequently refer to all northeasterners as “foreigners,” implying that despite their actual citizenship status as Central African, they do not belong in the country.
Some of the Séléka do come from outside the country, from neighboring Chad and Sudan. Some of the Sudanese fighters are believed to be members of the Muslim Janjaweed militia, which killed thousands during the conflict in Darfur in western Sudan.
The sectarian violence in the CAR is not a result of religious extremism, says Thibaud Lesueur, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. "The Séléka doesn’t want to Islamize the country... this religious divide is more a question of communities being pitted against each other and entering in a vicious circle of retaliations,” says Lesueur.
He adds that while Djotodia's political ambitions are clear, many of the Séléka hold no ideology or political agenda beyond personal or communal advantage.
Some analysts and human rights groups fear that the split between Christians and Muslims could become a recruiting ground for extremists. A recent UN report warns that the dynamic of religious violence might spill over to neighboring countries. In the CAR's neighbor Cameroon, militant Islamist groups have begun recruiting in mosques, according to Muslim leaders.
And Nigeria, where terrorist group Boko Haram continues to launch deadly attacks in the northeast of the country, is not far away. “Support from private people or other countries getting involved is common when you have a so-called 'failed state.' So far we have not seen any indications that this is the case in the CAR. However if things continue to get worse, there’s no government in place and the international community fail to introduce calm and order, other groups might come in hoping to take advantage of the situation,” says Mr. Lesueur.
Hurdles for the French
The growing tensions between Christians and Muslims also threaten French President François Hollande’s goal to restore order, create an environment for a caretaker government to bring stability, and prepare the country for elections in 2014, all within six months.
“The French have still not reached many of the towns where the Séléka are present, and they haven’t really come into the countryside, where the anti-balaka militias are targeting the Muslim population,” says Christian Mukosa, a researcher with Amnesty International.
Human rights groups warn that disarming the armed groups, one of the French objectives, could backfire unless both Christian and Muslim militias are disarmed at the same time. Amnesty International has documented cases where French forces disarmed Séléka rebels, who were then attacked by militia fighters, and the other way around. Analysts and security experts worry that France doesn’t have a strategy for how to stop the sectarian violence.
”What we have is a humanitarian situation that continues to rapidly deteriorate. Growing tensions between communities and proliferation of weapons among populations add to the complexity of the situation. A worst case scenario is for the conflict turning into widespread violence”, says UN Humanitarian coordinator, Kaarina Immonen.