The Central African Republic has been in crisis since March, when a group of rebels fighting under the name Seleka stormed the capital of Bangui and ousted the notoriously corrupt and weak government. The new government has been accused of mass atrocities and much of the country remains in chaos.
Mia Farrow, an activist and former actor who has traveled to the region a number of times, visited the Central African Republic last week as a goodwill ambassador with the United Nations Children's Fund. We spoke over the phone on Saturday about what she saw in the increasingly violent capital city, at internally displaced persons centers, in special schools designed to rehabilitate former child soldiers and at one isolated church where she said thousands of Central Africans were seeking shelter from armed groups. Drawings by former child soldiers, who were asked to sketch their experiences as part of their therapy, are interspersed in this article. A lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
This was your third trip to the Central African Republic. When were the other two, and what felt different about this trip?
The first was in 2007, and the second in 2008. In those first journeys, I traveled more extensively, and I had more access to other areas. What struck me then was the state of fear that people were living in. At that time the perpetrators of all kinds of, every conceivable atrocity were disparate groups. They were bandits, they were insurgents from neighboring countries, depending on whether we were in the northeast or the northwest, but all along those borders and all along the road, people had simply fled.
The people had abandoned their villages but for an extended period, so that the brush had taken over the rubble, and there was no one to be seen. There was no sign of life whatsoever, and I was told that if you stop the car and wait, there will be people hiding in the brush. If they see that you have no weapons, they may come out.
And indeed they did. After 20 to 40 minutes of absolute silence then came two, came 10, came 50, came 100, came maybe perhaps 500 people emerging from the brush. Like specters they came. Caked in mud, in remnants of clothing or no clothes at all. Emaciated. Skeletal children dangling from their arms, they smiled and their teeth – many people's teeth had fallen from their heads.
They explained that they had been hiding for over a year. They weren’t clear about the time but a long, long time. And they had been eating leaves and roots and sucking swamp water. Many, many had died, and their children were dying.
This was not hugely unchanged the year and a half later when I returned, except that there were different places that I could go and other places that I could not go. Places where I wanted to check with that population I referred to, that road was considered too dangerous to travel on, and I didn’t have access to it. But there were other roads that I did.
The cause of all this suffering, death and atrocities and rape and burnings and everything you can imagine, were multiple rebel groups. That were really warlords-slash-thugs. And the insurgents from other countries could just come and take whatever they want. They kidnapped people, goods, cattle, whatever they wanted because it was a lawless place.
How did those earlier trips compare to visiting this past week?
There was something similar that I saw on this trip, but the causes were different. On this trip, I had that same feeling as I was driving toward Bossangoa, which is one of the most inflamed areas right now. Again there was the long drive of six or seven hours, village after village, not a soul did I see. Not a soul. Maybe a dog. It was eerie, it was numbing. Some villages were burned, and there was rubble because their roof was made up of straw. So there would be just the clay part of it left or knocked down and others where people just had clearly run, vanished.
The cause of the suffering this time is just two groups. One group was formed around the coup [this March] against the current – what do you want to call it, government? And they are Muslim. The Muslim population of Central African Republic is small, not more than 18, at most 20 percent, the rest being Christian and also various indigenous religions. Nevertheless, this has been a very powerful, heavily armed and able group.
This group is called Seleka, now referred to as ex-Seleka, but they have a word for themselves now, the Nouvelle Force, something like that. They're really referred to, widely referred, as ex-Seleka or still Seleka. They're attacking communities, letting the Muslim population that might have been otherwise living together, side-by-side with their Christian neighbors, they would tell them to go away and spare them and spare all the Muslim villages and the Muslim people. But they would attack Christian communities.
Did you see signs that the violence was becoming less political, less about controlling territory as it's been in the past, and more religious?.
People were careful to explain that it wasn't the communities themselves that had any grudge against each other. It is the Seleka, and then another group subsequently formed as a protection force for the Christian people but which has subsequently become also guilty of the same sorts of crimes but against the Muslim communities. It is a smaller and less able armed group, but an armed group nonetheless, and accused of brutal atrocities.
So you have these two [militant] groups, and you have the civilian population not fighting each other at all, not Christians against Muslims, but these two groups targeting the opposite ethnic group. This is the reason you have heard from others [such as John Ging, the director of the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs ], including myself, that there are the seeds of possible genocide.
Things are spiraling out of control. Or, rather, I would say that they are out of control. I don't know whose definition of control we are going to go by here, but I don't see any control and the level of violence against the civilians is absolutely unacceptable. I don't think anyone has exact numbers of the civilians that have been killed and raped and displaced.
The current president has said, publicly, that he cannot control the Seleka, the ex-Seleka, this armed group. That he has no control over it.
Was there anything in particular that you saw on this trip that's stuck with you?
Massive numbers have been displaced. There's a terrified group of some 35,000 to 40,000 Christian people gathered, clustered around a Catholic church. Just living everywhere, in every square inch of that church's grounds.
If you can imagine 35,000 to 40,000 people and the priest, the monsignor of that parish has said, "If protection doesn't happen, we will all die." He didn't elaborate how; whether everybody would starve to death, whether everybody would eventually be killed.
The Seleka around the group has said that they want the men to come out, the men who are Christians, and are accused of being anti-Balika – or the anti-Seleka force. "Anti" doesn't mean exactly what it normally does; it means against machetes. Seleka means machete. Anti-Seleka is the Christian group.
The Seleka accused some of the men in there as being part of that group, and they would tell them that when they came out, they would be killed. So the people are there, they're just there, and I went to mass on a Sunday morning, and it was full of course, and people outside as well. It was very, very moving to think of these people living in that level of fear, and the songs and the prayers took on another meaning.
The bishop had all that written on his face, celebrating the mass. And then I could leave, and they couldn't. Then coming back, we did stop. I've not traveled with UNICEF before where we had to wear flak jackets. Yet this journey, from Bangui to Bossangoa and back again, we did wear flak jackets and helmets.
Not only had the people fled into the bush, but the perpetrators of the crimes are also living in the bush and heavily armed. And while I'm told by UNICEF that the aid workers have not been targeted outside of Bangui, they are targeted inside the capital.
Human Rights Watch has accused the Seleka government of conducting a "reign of terror" in the capital of Bangui. What did you see there?
That's a whole other scenario, inside the capital. Two UNICEF cars were carjacked at gunpoint. There's a curfew, and there's shootings every night, and more than one. The hotel we were staying at had been taken over by these Seleka people who were in and out. The owner of the hotel said that he put his wife and daughter in the bathtub. All of this was when the takeover was happening in the city.
I wasn't there when they took Bangui over [in March], but apparently they just came in and took it over. There isn't, in my view, I'm not an expert, but there isn't a lot to take over. I used to say, without having backed it up, that [now-deposed President Francois] Bozizé had jurisdiction over maybe five city blocks in Bangui. There was not evidence of any government outside that. I would say that the current government is so weak that I don't know that it has jurisdiction over those five city blocks.
But maybe the government can do some things, and UNICEF has worked with the government to get some child soldiers released. But there is no money for anything, and no evidence of any kind of law or government, frankly anywhere. I did not see it, but then I guess I wouldn't.
I wanted to ask you about that. There's been recent reports of child soldiers. You spent some time with children affected by the conflict, in internally-displaced persons camps and elsewhere. Did you see any signs of child soldiers?
Most definitely there were a number of child soldiers released to UNICEF. It's great UNICEF has continued to talk to all parties to release more children.
I did meet with some children who had been released. I went to a center, a center UNICEF has specifically for children that were released from the armed groups. They were actually released from both armed groups, and the children were getting along and just being young people together. UNICEF is trying to locate family members, and so forth, and so it's an interim place, it's not a permanent place but they have to find their relatives. They were great.
I don’t know how long they had been there, not a great length of time, not beyond this year. They were talking about how children should be children, and that they shouldn't be fighting. While they were in armed groups, they thought that that’s what they were supposed to be doing. There was tremendous pressure on them to feel that that was a good thing.
There really isn't a lot of opportunity for young people, and I worried about their future. Not just the people there, the children at the center, but honestly all the children there. What is going to happen to them?
You said in Geneva, where you spoke at the United Nations about your trip, that the world had abandoned the Central African Republic. Did you get the sense that Central Africans wanted the outside world to be more active in their country, that they were asking for outside help?
There was a plea. Everywhere I went, people were pleading for protection. They saw that we were not from there, that we were white, and they came just pleading, "Will you tell the world? Will you tell the U.N., we need protection?"
They want security. They want to be safe, they want to go home. That group around the church alone, I mean the tension is so palpable, of people's terror. And the people living in the bush too. People deserve that, a U.N. resolution on responsibility to protect. To see every humanitarian and moral reason to protect people who are pleading for protection.
You have to look at that area as calling in every extreme group to just come on in. There's nothing to stop them and every benefit for them. You can hide, you can train troops. You can plunder resources.
I see it as a danger of descent into total mayhem. Large-scale killings, if they should begin, it wouldn't take much to set them off right now. It seems like just one match, if maybe one small group or one young person in that church were to come out and get hold of a weapon, that could set off a chain of mass killings that maybe no one could stop.