On May 1, John Ging, director of the United Nations Humanitarian Operations, said after a visit to the Central African Republic (CAR) that the international community “has so far failed” to protect civilians there. It was an understatement, considering that the United Nations has in fact, unwittingly, contributed to the scale of unspeakable atrocities committed against Muslim civilians in the republic.
Ging told reporters at the UN in New York that, “The reality is, thousands have been killed in the most brutal manner. Hundreds of thousands have fled. There has, in effect, been an ethnic cleansing.”
Stating the obvious, Ging added: “People are losing their humanity.” He probably meant the people of the Central African Republic, but the statement is probably true for the rest of us, when we turn a blind eye to the atrocities being perpetrated there over the past several months.
In fact, according to a report by Amnesty International the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims has been carried out in the Central African Republic since January 2014. Entire Muslim communities have been forced to flee and thousands of Muslim civilians, who could not escape, have been killed by the cruel anti-Muslim militias known as anti-balakas. Amnesty’s detailed report (“Ethnic Cleansing and Sectarian Killings in the Central African Republic”) catalogued unspeakable crimes against humanity perpetrated by those gangs, targeting Muslim neighborhoods and towns, businesses and homes, as well as those fleeing those areas.
Not only has the international community done little to stop the anti-Muslim rampage, it has unwittingly contributed to it.
The UN Security Council in December 2013 authorized the deployment of peacekeeping forces in the country. Consequently, about 5,500 African Union forces and 1,600 French troops were deployed within the capital Bangui as well as several towns north and southwest of the capital, but they were slow to fill the power vacuum created in mid-January when interim President Michel Djotodia’s Seleka supporters began withdrawing from those areas.
In the beginning, the mostly Christian anti-balaka militias targeted the Seleka militias, but as Selekas withdrew from Muslim areas, the anti-balakas took their revenge on Muslim civilians, carrying out large-scale killings of Muslims as well as widespread burning and looting of Muslim towns.
The deployment of international troops changed the balance of power in favor of the anti-balakas, as they disarmed the Seleka fighters, leaving Muslim communities vulnerable to attacks by vengeful militias. While the Seleka militias were notoriously vicious, carrying out massacres of their own against defenseless civilians, they nevertheless deterred anti-Muslim militias from attacking Muslim areas.
As international forces were deployed, they began to put pressure on transitional President Michel Djotodia, the leader of the Seleka, and Seleka fighters were killed at the hands of French troops. As the president and his supporters realized that they were outgunned, he left office in January and went into exile in Benin, leaving his Seleka supporters in disarray.
Under French and African Union military pressure, they withdrew from the towns and villages under their control. However, instead of international troops replacing them in those posts, it was the anti-balaka militias, which took advantage of their retreat. According to Amnesty International, French and African Union forces “did little to stem the anti-balaka’s advance.” According to its account, “Outside of Bangui, there were few international peacekeeping troops; indeed, in many towns, there were none at all. And even within Bangui the anti-balaka gained control of neighborhoods, secondary roads, and certain military installations.”
According to another Amnesty International report, “in town after town, when the Seleka left, the anti-balaka militia moved in and launched violent attacks against the Muslim minority. Because international peacekeeping forces were extremely slow to deploy across the country, the field was open to the anti-balaka to assert their power and authority. They killed many hundreds of Muslim civilians, sometimes in large-scale massacres, looted Muslim homes and shops, and burned and destroyed mosques. Among their victims were women and young children; in some cases entire families were killed. Their stated goal was to rid the country of Muslims forever.”
The anti-Muslim militias’ reign of terror has continued. Despite their clearly stated goal of ethnic and sectarian cleansing, and despite well-documented cases of crimes against humanity, the international community has done little to stop the genocide.
What makes it incumbent on the international community (that is all of us) to stop the annihilation of Muslim communities in the Central African Republic is that the crimes have been committed using the cover of international peacekeeping forces. Without meaning to, the international peacekeepers (African Union and French forces) have contributed to the deterioration of the security situation in Muslim areas, by disarming the Selekas without quickly deploying their own forces to fill the vacuum, and by sitting helplessly by while anti-Muslim militias rampage throughout the country, with the declared goal of driving all Muslims out of the country, killing them in the process.
It is clear now what should have happened and what should happen now, but is also clear from Ging’s comments last Thursday in New York, that nothing has been done to undo that error.
It is also clear that the current international peacekeeping force is not sufficient to restore order and protect the Muslim community. The European Union plans to deploy 12,000 additional troops in mid-September 2014, or nearly double the current force, but much needs to be done until then.
As an urgent matter, the UN needs to quickly provide the current peacekeeping forces with sufficient resources to enable them to deploy in all regions of the country, especially in areas where Muslims reside.
Also urgently, the UN and other humanitarian organizations should expedite the delivery of assistance to Muslim communities under siege throughout the country, as well as to Muslim refugees in neighboring countries.
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