A “forgotten crisis.” That’s how the Council on Foreign Relationsdefines the state of affairs in the Central African Republic — a landlocked stretch of scrubland and dry forest wedged between Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The Ebola crisis in West Africa has distracted international attention from developments in other parts of Africa, notably in the Central African Republic,” writes Thomas Zuber, a master’s candidate in international political economy at Fordham University and an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa studies program. “Since October 7, violence has escalated in C.A.R.’s capital, Bangui,” he reports. “The most recent renewal of hostilities has already displaced 65,000 people. On Oct. 9, a U.N. convoy was attacked on the outskirts of Bangui. The mission repelled an attack on the interim president’s house on October 11.
“These developments serve as reminders of the obstacles facing Minusca,” the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, Mr. Zuber explains: sustained conflict between the Muslim Seleka (“Alliance”) rebels and the mainly Christian “anti-balaka” (“anti-machete”), a weak interim government “and one of the worst food crises in the country’s history.”
Amanda Taub, writing for Vox, calls the situation in the Central African Republic “one of the world’s least-understood crises.” And the fighting is unlikely to stop, thanks to a government that is “weak or entirely powerless.” Military involvement, she says, “has become a way for fighters to gain everything from material goods to political power. And because the state and peacekeepers lack the strength to protect civilians, violence against Muslim and Christian communities begets reprisals, which beget more violence.”
“In other words,” she says, “until peace has more to offer, the fighting won’t stop.”
Sectarian conflict in the Central African Republic is especially notable because, until recently, its Christians and Muslims generally coexisted in peace. The Seleka was formed in 2012 “by disaffected Muslim military and political leaders,” Ms. Taub reports, “who felt they’d been sidelined for their religion. They easily conquered the capital, installing Seleka leader Michel Djotodia in power. But the campaign quickly bled into sectarian killings, with rebels slaughtering civilians from communities that did not bend to them, often by rule-by-terror methods such as burning them alive.”
The anti-balaka formed in response — a mixture of “old regime security forces” and young Christian men looking for vengeance. “The anti-balaka mission almost immediately expanded to include launching reprisal killings against Muslim civilians, and eventually expelling Muslims entirely,” Ms. Taub says.
A reason the world seems to have forgotten the Central African Republic is its general inaccessibility, says Madeleine Logan,blogging for Unicef. “Just to give you an example: One-and-a-half weeks ago, a convoy from Unicef headquarters in Bangui headed off to set up a new field office in the far east of the country,” she recalls, “a town called Zemio over 1,000 kilometers from the capital. The roads are in bad condition, and they are dangerous. Our drivers would take four days to get there overland, and required a military escort.”
Obstacles added up to a two-week delay, she says. “This is what we’re up against. There are tracts of Central African Republic where there is no humanitarian presence, because they are too dangerous or too remote. But these are exactly the places where Unicef needs to be if we are to live up to our mission to help the most disadvantaged children: those who are hardest to reach.”
“Take a look at the World section of nearly any mainstream news outlet and the main story will be Iraq, Syria, Ukraine or Gaza,” writes Nathalie Baptiste for a joint report by The Nation and Foreign Policy in Focus. “At a time of so many global calamities, it’s easy for smaller countries in which the United States lacks a vested interest to fall by the wayside. And that’s exactly what’s happened in the Central African Republic.”
Despite a refugee crisis to rival Syria’s, “the international community hasn’t done nearly enough to alleviate suffering in C.A.R.,” she says. “In 2013, C.A.R. was the fifth most underfunded U.N. appeal and appeared in Echo’s ‘Forgotten Crisis Assessment’ in both 2012 and 2013.
“Not only has the international community failed C.A.R., the media’s scant coverage of the crisis means that the average Westerner is wholly unaware of what’s happening in the country. Unlike for Gaza, there have been no marches or protests in support of humanitarian aid for the civilians in the Central African Republic,” she explains.
This needs to change, she says. Echoes of Darfur and Rwanda are loud, clear and present, and as “President Obama’s foray into Iraq has been billed as a humanitarian intervention,” there is no logical reason to ignore the strife caused by fighting between the Seleka and anti-balaka. There should be “millions of dollars in aid money and assistance for the country in the heart of Africa that is on the brink of collapse,” Ms. Baptiste insists. But if recent history is any indication of how events will play out, the human rights advocacy community isn’t holding its breath.