A massacre on hold in the Central African Republic

Violence across the country is increasing, but the level of brutality is rising too

Share
Related Topics

It was late afternoon when a pick-up truck carrying Colonel Ismael Hadjarou and a dozen of his heavily-armed Seleka soldiers pulled up outside a church in the town of Bouca, in northern Central Africa Republic. I watched as they jumped from their vehicle and quickly fanned out to surround the church, blocking off the only exit.

Inside the building, 3,000 civilians were hiding in silent terror. Colonel Hadjarou stepped into the church and began to address the cowering, wide-eyed crowd. The Colonel spoke briefly, and delivered his simple but chilling message: “If there are still people here at 8am tomorrow, we will shoot them down and we will burn the mission.”

I happened to be in Bouca that day to investigate the destruction of hundreds of homes and dozens of civilian killings, and stumbled upon this scene by chance. As I stepped forward to ask what was happening, a Seleka fighter lifted his gun at me. I stopped in my tracks, but instantly knew there was no way I could leave. I spent the next two days at the church, working frantically with colleagues from humanitarian groups to try to prevent an atrocity from unfolding.

Massacres like the one threatened in Bouca are happening all over the Central African Republic (CAR). But only recently has the world started to take note. Journalists, who just a few weeks ago would have struggled to place CAR on a map, have poured into the country to cover the recent flurry of violence that’s gripped both the capital Bangui and other provinces.

Since seizing power in March, the Seleka, a mostly Muslim alliance of rebel groups, have indiscriminately killed scores of civilians, engaged in rampant looting, and burned countless villages to the ground. Michel Djotodia, the rebel leader who formally became president in August, officially disbanded the Seleka in September; they are now widely referred to as ex-Seleka and are nominally integrated into the national army.

But local armed groups known as the anti-balaka then began to rise up against the Seleka. The anti-balaka (literally ‘anti-machete’) have indiscriminately attacked and killed Muslim civilians, equating all Muslims with the Seleka. Despite a history of Muslims and Christians living together peacefully in CAR, the anti-balaka told me first-hand that all Muslims must die. 

To those of us who have been closely following CAR's conflict month by bloody month, it's clear the crisis has reached tipping point. Violence across the country is increasing, but the level of brutality is rising too. Civilians are burned alive in their homes; children's throats are slit. Both sides share responsibility for these abuses.

Last weekend alone, up to 500 people were killed in Bangui; extra French troops were flown in to help restore law and order. But despite the grave loss of life, there is one ray of hope: the international community is finally paying attention to CAR and is acting rapidly.

The United States, a country with hitherto no interest in CAR outside helping to track down the notorious Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony in the south-east, has quickly stepped up to the plate. It announced this week that it would help airlift African Union (AU) peacekeepers into the country from elsewhere on the continent, and will also release funds to support the AU mission. France was quick to fly in extra troops when it became clear the scale of the slaughter was about to spiral, and has provided enormous support to the AU, whose troops are trying to prevent mass killings. The world’s diplomats are actively considering a UN peacekeeping force, and human rights monitors are about to be deployed.

The UK has commendably recognised that a humanitarian disaster is unfolding in CAR. But it can and should do more to urgently help protect civilians. It should support the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force. CAR is a country larger than France; the African Union peacekeepers are stretched thin and cannot be everywhere at once.   

Britain should also offer logistical support to AU and French forces, securing access for aid workers to assist the hundreds of thousands of people forced from their homes. It should provide medical facilities to support the AU and French missions. It should make all parties in CAR aware that they will be held accountable for their crimes. And it should call for targeted individual sanctions on those orchestrating the abuses.

Happily for the 3,000 Christians I saw crammed into the church back in Bouca, after two days of intense negotiations, AU soldiers finally arrived in the town, before Colonel Hadjarou could make good on his threat.

Seeing the relieved civilians at Bouca’s church compound, I couldn't help but think about the many communities suffering in silence in the Central African Republic – those out of reach of peacekeepers. Who is going to protect these people? And who will bear witness to the next massacre?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'