A year of violence threatening the stability of the Central African Republic has escalated in recent weeks, leaving more than one million people in need amidst calls for foreign aid and warnings of the potential for genocide.
“In the capital Bangui, where I am, there has been shooting on the streets and people hacked to death with machetes,” said Renee Lambert, Catholic Relief Service's country manager in the Central African Republic.
“Tens of thousands of people are camped out at makeshift (internally displaced person) camps throughout the city or sheltering with host families, hoping that the arriving French troops can quell the violence.”
Lambert told CNA Dec. 8 that the “people of CAR have been living in a state of perpetual fear and uncertainty for almost a year now,” and the situation has become “desperate.”
The Central African Republic was engulfed in a war from 2004 to 2007, but violence broke out again in December, 2012. On March 24, Seleka rebels ousted the president and installed their own leader in a coup.
The Seleka have since been officially disbanded, but its members have not disarmed, and reports indicate that they are continuing to plunder the country through looting, torture and rape.
Of the country's population of some 4.5 million, more than 460,000 have been displaced from their homes by this year's violence, the U.N. estimates. Last week, 394 people were killed in the capital Bangui alone, according to the Red Cross.
Nearly three weeks ago, on Nov. 21, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told television station France 2 that “the country is on the verge of genocide,” as the violence seems to have become increasingly sectarian, pitting Christians and Muslims against each other.
“The people of CAR need our help,” stressed Lambert. “We cannot turn away from what is happening here – it cannot be ignored … if we stand aside and watch we will never forgive ourselves.”
“History teaches us lessons and I only hope that this time we listen to our past. The situation is already horrific.”
Both France and the African Union have increased the presence of their forces in the nation, in an effort to contain the violence. Last week, France deployed 1,600 soldiers to the Central African Republic, and the African Union is increasing the size of its force in the country from 2,500 to 6,000.
Abbot Dieu-Béni Mbanga, who is chancellor of the Bangui archdiocese, explained in letters that violence erupted in earnest in the capital beginning Dec. 5.
“Some residents caught between warring parties stayed holed up at home; others found refuge in churches and with religious communities. By mid-morning, the parishes of St. John of Galabadja and Bangui’s Cathedral of Our Lady the Immaculate had taken in some 1,000 people.”
Four more parishes in the Bangui archdiocese received more than 10,000 additional displaced persons throughout the day, he reported. “Church facilities also took in the wounded who have been without medical care until now.”
Some parishes were threatened by ex-Seleka, and others came under fire. In a Dec. 7 letter, Abbot Mbanga wrote that “Church structures continue to take in people who fear for their lives, including some Muslims who are afraid they will be the targets of revenge attacks by Christians who themselves have been the victims of reprisals at the hand of other Muslims, Seleka militants or others.”
“It will take time, much time, for the Central African Republic to heal from these wounds.”
The latest spate of violence has not been restricted to Bangui; Lambert related that it “has also picked up in the northwest.” In Bossangoa, 200 miles north of the capital, “tensions have again escalated. Food is scarce, water also. People are living in really cramped conditions, sleeping where they can on mats on the ground.”
Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Bossangoa are providing support to more than 40,000 people who have been displaced and have sought refuge in at the Catholic mission in the city, as well as those who have taken refuge at “Catholic missions and schools” in Bouar.
“We've also been giving out food vouchers in the Lobaye Prefecture that people can exchange for local produce, so that needy families are fed and local markets are supported,” Lambert explained. “Seeds and tools were distributed earlier in the year so that people could once again grow their own produce – as most had lost out on a growing season due to the violence.”
Lambert also reflected that the fighting “has taken on unfortunate religious dimensions, dividing Christians and Muslims who have always lived together peacefully in the past.”
“We stand with those in need, whether they're Christian or Muslim,” she said.
In recent months, Central Africans have responded to the ex-Seleka by forming militias of their own, called anti-balaka, and violence has flared. The anti-balaka – meaning anti-machete in the Sango language – have been characterized by the BBC as “Christian self-defence militias” and as “local Christian militias” by The Independent.
In a Dec. 7 statement, the bishops of the Central African Republic stated, “we condemn the transgressions committed by both armed factions, the anti-balaka and the ex-Seleka.”
The bishops added that the fighting is not solely divided by religion, explaining that “not all anti-balaka are Christians and that not all Christians are anti-balaka,” and that “the same is true for ex-Seleka and Muslims.”
The Central African Republic is among the world's poorest countries, with extremely low human development and major human rights abuses; the U.N. has indicated it is in danger of becoming a failed state. More than one million are in urgent need of food aid.
It borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, and South Sudan, many of which have experienced dramatic upheavals of their own in recent years.
The violence has forced many nonprofits to withdraw to Bangui, leaving the remainder of the country helpless. Doctors Without Borders reported in July that the country's health care system has collapsed. In parts of the Central African Republic, malaria cases have doubled in the past year.
“The French and African Union forces are arriving and we just hope that order can be restored, and that people can live in peace once again,” Lambert reflected.
“This beautiful country and its people need – and deserve – our help.”