With continued fighting in the Central African Republic between ousted Seleka rebel forces and what is called the “anti-balaka” militia, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is ready to send 12,000 peacekeepers to the conflict-riven nation.
Yet UN officials said this week it would take six months to assemble a rapid deployment UN force – 10,000 troops and 1,180 police who would supplement the 2,000 French troops and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers now struggling to control the tit-for-tat attacks between Muslims and Christians. That is leading many local Muslims to protest that they will be killed or driven out of the country by the time the blue helmets arrive.
Last spring, Seleka rebels fomented a coup in Bangui, the capital, but were unable to govern coherently. By the fall, chaos and animosity had reached a point that French diplomats and military observers described a possible “genocide.”
In December, the Seleka government was driven out of Bangui along with much of the Muslim population, after brutal fighting conducted by anti-balaka forces who say they are fighting on behalf of the nation’s majority Christian population.
The anti-balaka are now pursuing Muslims, often violently, around the countryside, particularly in the mixed-population regions of the north and northwest of CAR; human rights advocates and senior diplomats, including the former American ambassador, are warning of an evisceration of CAR Muslims, who represent a middle-class of traders and artisans who have lived peacefully here for generations.
A once-peaceful neighborhood changed completely
“The anti-balaka are killing us like animals and they won’t stop until there are no Muslims left in this country,” says Aboubacar Ibrahim, a trader who lives in Bangui's PK5 neighborhood. “By the time the peacekeepers arrive we will all be gone,” he says, standing in front of his house in a light green jellabiya, the traditional long shirt common among men in the Nile Valley.
“It’s too little, too late,” he says about the UN peacekeepers.
Until December, Ibrahim's PK5 neighborhood had been full of Muslims. But they are now scattered or have become refugees in neighboring states.
At least 2,000 people have been killed and about one-quarter of the country’s 4.6 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Hundreds of thousands, many of them Muslims, have crossed the nation's borders. Cameroon alone has received 100,000 refugees. Still, the kind of Rwanda-style genocide some international figures warned about has not taken place, and the worst violence may have come in December during the fighting in Bangui.
Seleka forces are largely Muslims who last fall hired mercenaries from the Darfur region of Sudan, according to intelligence sources. But the Muslim or Islamic identification of the group is self-constituted; the nation’s Muslim population did not ask Seleka to enter Bangui and take control, and the group lacks any broad support in the mosques of CAR.
Likewise, the anti-balaka forces, often described in the media as Christian, draw from a very wide spectrum of animists, mercenaries, thugs, and other assorted opportunists, along with some self-identified Christians. But the anti-balaka forces do not represent ordinary Christian churchgoers in CAR.
Showing little mercy
"The violence is spiking up and down, mostly in the countryside," said one NGO analyst who travels frequently to CAR and is not authorized to speak publicly. "We should not use the word 'genocide' to describe this."
Still, in Bangui, gangs of anti-balaka youths showed little mercy when they attacked PK5, says Ibrahim, who lost his shop, where he sold building materials, tools, and cooking utensils.
“They went door to door looting and burning,” he says. “My shop and entire stock went up in flames when they threw hand grenades into the market.”
In January, he put his wife and children on a plane to Chad. Now he prepares to follow them, traveling by road together with the few neighborhood inhabitants that remain.
The proposed UN force follows a call for help by the Central African Republic government. Vice-President Lea Koyassoum Doumta, sworn in two months ago, said that the backing of the idea by Mr. Ban on Monday came as a great relief.
“While the situation in Bangui has improved, we still need international support to help rid the country of the armed groups,” Ms. Doumta said.
In addition, the country will need help to train reinstated national forces and police when the international troops leave, she added.
Most of the country’s security forces were chased out of their barracks when Seleka rebels attacked the capital last March.
“From that day, the Army stopped to exist,” says a military official, Lt. Aurelien Mozongre.
On Feb. 5, Mr. Mozongre stood solemnly in front of President Catherine Samba-Panza and swore to defend the Constitution and fulfill his duties in the newly reinstated Army.
No sooner had the president left the scene than a nearby group of soldiers attacked and brutally lynched a young man they believed to be a Seleka member.
”What happened [in the lynching incident] was not good. It made the Army look bad,” says Mozongre. “We need international help to train our troops and to deploy in the countryside. Now that we have secured Bangui we need to take back the northeast where Seleka are still controlling towns and villages.”
We are ready to work with the “casques bleus,” as the peacekeepers are referred to in French, said Mozongre, using the colonial-era language of CAR.