Can Peacekeepers Save the Central African Republic?

A human rights researcher tells TIME of horrors in the hinterlands of the Central African Republic as the international community scrambles to send in peacekeepers

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Siegfried Modola / Reuters

A mother holds her child while attempting to take cover as repeated gun shots are heard close to Miskine district during continuing sectarian violence in the capital Bangui, Jan. 28, 2014.

Not 48 hours after the United Nations Security Council voted to authorized the dispatch of more peacekeeping troops to the Central African Republic, the urgency of the need emerged on the road in front of Joanne Mariner, senior crisis adviser for Amnesty International traveling the hinterlands where massacres have been taking place. About 400 men were moving down Route 3 near a village called Bawi. They had painted their faces black and donned supposed magical charms known as gris-gris—”clearly dressed for battle,” Mariner says. The men identified themselves as members of the Christian “anti-balaka” militias who have been rampaging in the area. Bawi was home to several hundred Muslims—their target.

“They said, ‘Oh, we ran out of ammunition, and so we’re going back to get supplies,’” Mariner says, of the militiamen. Once inside the village, the Westerners were told of killings and injuries, she says by telephone Thursday, en route to the capital, Bangui. “We almost stumbled on a massacre.”

Massacres are too easy to find in the C.A.R just now. According to the UN, at least 1,000 people have lost their lives in the former French colony in the last two months. The situation has grown more volatile in the security vacuum left by the abrupt Jan. 10 departure of the last president, and the brutal militias that had brought him to power. No one is in charge, as became clear as the Amnesty delegation continued down the road toward the capital, trying to find someone who could hurry to protect the people of Bawi.

They called the French military, which has 1,600 troops in the country. They called the African Union peacekeeping force, which has a base in Bozoum, about 80 miles away. Neither could promise action.

“They’re calling their superiors and hopefully someone will get moving,” Mariner says. “It’s actually very hard to get anyone to do anything here. We’ve been in a situation where we’re begging at every possible organization. I think the problem is they don’t have enough staff.”

When it comes to Africa and peacekeeping, even the appearance of inaction plays into a notorious history. U.N. peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo faced a huge loss of credibility for failing to halt massacres and mass rapes carried out, in one case, within earshot of the blue helmets’ base. But observers on the ground in the Central African Republic emphasize crucial differences in the current situation. Any independent, well-armed force could save many lives there now, human rights advocates say. Amnesty’s Mariner pointed out that troops dispatched by the African Union, a force known by the acronym MISCA, are deterring attacks simply by their presence.

“Any place you see MISCA, the level of violence is much lower,” Mariner says. “There’s an awful lot of hatred and bitterness here, and there’s going to be tit-for-tat killings and that will be hard to prevent. But it’s not hard to prevent these massacres, 50 or 80 people killed at a time.”

Nor does the C.A.R present the almost impossible logistics challenge the UN faced in Congo, which was snarled in civil and regional wars for two decades. The Central African Republic is more manageable that way, too, Mariner says: “There’s not really all that many villages, and these groups are terribly poorly equipped. People talk about this country being awash in arms, but you don’t see them in the anti-balaka.” The name implies as much, translating as “anti-machete.”

The conflict erupted out of longtime rivalries between the country’s Christian majority and a much smaller Muslim population, estimated at about 10 percent, that many have never fully accepted as fellow citizens. Last March,  armed groups calling themselves Seleka (“alliance”), which included many Muslim fighters from neighboring countries, deposed the sitting president, Francois Bozize, and installed one of their own, Michel Djotodia as the country’s first Muslim president. Their own amply-documented rampages were answered by the rise of “anti-balaka” militias now running wild.

Muslims are fleeing the country in columns of cars, motorcycles and trucks, which also have come under attack. Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, recounted the case of a Muslim woman who, after being stopped at an anti-balaka roadblock and anticipating her death, handed her baby to a Christian woman who saved the child by pretending it was her own. The mother was soon killed.

It’s unclear how quickly additional peacekeepers – European troops, though from exactly where is yet to be determined — can arrive. UN deployments typically take months. Meanwhile, the African Union troops – including forces from Rwanda, where at least half a million were killed in the 1994 genocide – currently number fewer than the 6,000 authorized. And while the seating of a respected politician as interim president has given Bangui has at least a glimmer of political hope, the security crisis trumps all. More than a million people have been displaced by the fighting – almost quarter of the 4.6 million population. The UN’s World Food Program, meanwhile, warns that more than half (2.6 million) need food aid, but the agency’s trucks have been unable to reach them because of the insecurity.