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April 27, 2014

The Central African Republic cries for help

Scott Stockdale

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As events are unfolding quickly on the ground, the international community's response to the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR) is hopelessly inadequate: too little too late. Where has the world heard this before?

Despite French and African Union troops on the ground in the Central African Republic, and the US contribution of financial and logistical support to the African Union mission and, more than $45 million in humanitarian assistance, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims continues. By the first week of 2014, the UN political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman told the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that about 2.2 million people throughout the CAR need assistance.

Muslims came to the CAR to trade in the early 19th century and made up 15% of the CAR's population a year ago, but since then untold thousands have been killed or have fled to neighbouring countries. The UN said recently that while 130,000 to 145,000 Muslims normally lived in the capital, Bangui, the population had been reduced to around 10,000 in December and now stood at just 900 in early March 2014.

On Jan 29 the UN Security Council unanimously voted to approve sending European Union troops and to give them a mandate to use force, as well as threatening sanctions against those responsible for the violence. The E.U. had pledged 500 troops to aid African and French troops already in the country. Specifically the resolution allowed for the use of "all necessary measures" to protect civilians.

However, because too few peacekeepers were deployed too late their only option is to help evacuate the Muslim population before the anti-balaka Christian militias can kill them. Christian militias freely admit that they're seeking vengeance and, they will not stop until they have "cleaned" the country of Muslims. In early March, UN human rights investigators in CAR announced they would investigate reports of genocide.

Amnesty International has called it "ethnic cleansing" and warned of a “Muslim exodus of historic proportions."

Predominantly Christian forces known as the anti-balaka (balaka means machete in Sango, the local language) are perpetrating reprisals against Muslims, after Seleka - a largely Muslim rebel group, seized Bangui in a coup, installed the country's first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia, and terrorized the majority Christian population, killing men, women and children.

After international pressure forced Mr. Djotodia to step down, the Seleka fled the capital and the anti-balaka began reprisal attacks. Village after village lost its Muslim population, their homes looted and mosques burned to the ground.

Although France and the African Union have deployed thousands of peacekeepers and the United States and other governments have provided support to the peacekeeping mission, it's the Catholic priest and nuns who seem to be the main force on the ground protecting Muslims. They are virtually alone in trying to protect the vulnerable, offering aid and shelter where possible.

In the southwest, anti-Balata militants attacked Guen in early February, killing 60 people, according to Father Rigobert Dolongo, who also said that he had helped bury the bodies of the dead, at least 27 of whom died on the first day of the attack and 43 others the next day. As a result, hundreds of Muslim refugees sought shelter at a church in Carnot.

At the end of the February, French President Francois Hollande made another trip to the country, after a security conference in Nigeria. He met the French MISCA (Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique) contingent, interim CAR President Catherine Samba-Panza and some religious leaders. At the meeting, UN humanitarian coordinator Abdou Dieng said that only about US$100 million, or one-fifth of that which was pledged, had arrived in the country to fight a food shortage. He also warned that a food crisis was looming.

On a visit to Angola at the behest of President Joes Eduardo Santos, who was praised for his "special involvement" in the country, President Samba-Panza insisted CAR did not have a genocide and her government was fighting to take security to all of the population, no matter their religions. She also suggested that while the situation was "worrying" it was "under control.”

By mid-March, the UNSC has authorised a probe into possible genocide, which in turn followed International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda initiating a preliminary investigation into the "extreme brutality" and whether it falls into the court's jurisdiction.

Also in mid-March, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with three religious leaders from the Central African Republic (CAR) - Mgr. Dieudonne Nzapalainga, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, President of the Islamic Council in the Central African Republic, and Reverend Nicolas Guérékoyame-Gbangou, President of the CAR’s Evangelical Alliance.

Secretary-General Ki-moon insisted that religious and ethnic affiliations were being manipulated for political purposes and that CAR needs “more aid to save lives” and “more troops and police to protect civilians.” He urged the Security Council to act quickly on those recommendations for a United Nations peacekeeping operation.

“The United Nations must stand with the people of the Central African Republic for peace, reconciliation, justice and accountability,” he said.

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