BANGUI, Central African Republic — Fear consumes them: Fear of the machete. Fear of the sudden, senseless attack. Fear for their lives.
And so they come each day by the thousands, seeking safety in massive numbers. They cram into a squalid camp just outside the gates of the airport here in the capital of the Central African Republic, a nation shattered by months of violent religious and political conflict. A fetid open trench serves as a latrine for more than 20,000 people clustered in an expanding sea of makeshift tents fashioned from broken tree limbs and flimsy plastic sheets.
Such was the grim scene that greeted Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on Thursday as she landed here for a high-profile diplomatic mission aimed at untangling what has become an increasingly complex humanitarian crisis.
Power, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for a book critical of the U.S. response to humanitarian crises, announced that U.S. military liaisons will soon be dispatched to help train the African Union soldiers who have joined French troops in a peacekeeping effort. She also said the United States will contribute $15 million in humanitarian aid, in addition to up to $100 million already pledged, to stem the crisis. The assistance is being offered even though the United States does not have significant financial or national security interests in the Central African Republic.
Power’s trip served to raise international awareness of tit-for-tat atrocities committed against civilians by warring Muslim and Christian militias. In a series of high-level meetings and phone calls, she also sought to pressure the nation’s wobbly transitional government to take steps toward reconciliation, disarmament and scheduling elections no later than February 2015.
Human-rights groups have estimated that at least 500 people have been killed in a spasm of retribution killings carried out by rival Muslim and Christian militias. During her visit Thursday, Power heard from a Muslim woman who said militiamen hacked her husband with machetes, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire in front of her. Power also heard from Christians victimized by Muslim militias. U.S. officials estimate that more than 400,000 people — nearly one-tenth of the country’s population — have been displaced.
While Power met privately with transitional government officials at the airport, hundreds lined up to receive medical treatment nearby.
Donaldo Bandasa, 42, a porter, showed doctors the machete wounds carved into his scalp and shin. For all his injuries, he was one of the lucky ones. Bandasa says he saw thugs from the predominantly Muslim militia known as Seleka slash the throats of his mother, father and son after wrongly accusing them of sympathizing with the previous non-Muslim government. “I can’t go home because my house has been burned and looted,” he said.
Two U.S. military C-17 aircraft are transporting troops from Burundi into the Central African Republic to bolster an African Union force that is planned to grow to 6,000. Cheers went up from the encampment just beyond the runway as one of the giant planes disgorged a load of crisply dressed Burundian soldiers.
“Somalia taught us what can happen in a failed state, and Rwanda showed us what could occur in a deeply divided one,” Power said. “The people of the Central African Republic are in profound danger and we all have a responsibility to help them move away from the abyss.” Power said that “urgent action is required to save lives.”
The conflict stems from the March coup d’etat that ousted longtime Central African Republic leader Gen. François Bozizé, whose regime was plagued by allegations of corruption. The patchwork of mostly Muslim militias known as Seleka, or “alliance,” toppled the government of this predominantly Christian nation, spurred in part by claims that Bozizé’s government had not done enough for the northern Muslims. Seleka, which includes mercenaries from nearby nations such as Chad, installed Michel Djotodia as transitional president. In response to the attacks, Christian militias known as Anti-Balaka, meaning “anti-machete,” have formed and are targeting Muslim communities in retribution. Their name is a reference to Seleka’s weapon of choice: the machete.
Power on Thursday met with humanitarian and religious leaders who said the conflict has been especially disconcerting because the Central African Republic had previously been known as a place of religious harmony.
Djotodia’s actions have drawn disapproval from the United Nations and from U.S. officials. He has tried to oust three high-ranking ministers, a move that U.S. officials say is a violation of the transitional government charter. He has also stunned international observers by awarding military and police jobs to 5,000 Seleka militia members, some of whom may have been involved in atrocities. Djotodia claims to have control of the nation, but U.S. officials are dubious that his authority reaches beyond Bangui.
Late Thursday, Power said that Djotodia, the nation’s prime minister and other top transitional government officials privately reaffirmed their commitments to step down after the 2015 elections. “We, the international community, are going to hold them to it,” Power said. She also urged officials here to employ national and international commissions of inquiry to hold accountable those responsible for atrocities.
Outside the capital, tens of thousands of Christians and Muslims have fled to crowded shelters in the interior city of Bossangoa, Doctors Without Borders’ Ellen van der Velden said in a telephone interview from that city this week. A half-mile stretch of the city has been all but abandoned as nearly 40,000 Christians have sought shelter at a Roman Catholic church on one side of the city while thousands of Muslims have retreated to a neighborhood on the opposite side. Thousands more are believed to be hiding in the malaria-infested bush.
Doctors Without Borders has issued a scathing open letter criticizing the U.N. response to the crisis, saying it has done little more than collect data and hold coordination meetings. “It’s clear that the international response falls short of the needs,” van der Velden said. “We had expected more than we have seen so far.”
U.S. officials have rejected that criticism, saying a collaborative response is underway. In background briefings, U.S. officials have said the United States and the international community have a “moral interest” in intervening to stop the violence.
The Central African Republic is a former French colony. The French government has taken the lead on the ground, dispatching more than 1,000 of its soldiers to the nation for peacekeeping operations. Two have been killed.
“The potential for further mass violence is shockingly high,” said Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, which is calling on the United Nations to dispatch its own peacekeeping operation to the country. U.S. officials have defended the current approach using African Union and French troops, saying it is quicker and less expensive than mounting a full-scale U.N. peacekeeping operation.
At the Doctors Without Borders field hospital near the airport in Bangui, the sounds of crying infants filled the air Thursday. The day before, two infants died at the camp. But eight were born, entering a world where the futures of their families and their country are far from certain.