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UN Peacekeepers Heading to the Central African Republic by the Fall


Thousands of Muslims in the Central African Republic who have fled their homes for fear of death by militias have escaped to nations nearby, but many who still remain in the country have found refuge in a mosque, above, or at the airport in Bangui, the capital. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

The United Nations Security Council has authorized yet another peacekeeping force for an African country, the Central African Republic, approving up to 12,000 military and police personnel who are not likely to arrive until mid-September. The goal of the force is broad, given the nation’s crippled affairs: restore law and order, protect civilians, provide humanitarian relief to hundreds of thousands of displaced people and document human-rights abuses.

The approval couldn’t have come soon enough, as extensive devastation to ordinary life in the country since December has left it on the verge of genocide, some human-rights experts contend. The resolution, passed on April 10 by all 15 Security Council members, had been held up by lack of finances from the UN to pay for another large peacekeeping force (it deployed one in Mali last year) as well as power struggles between the UN and the African Union, which already has about 5,000 troops in the country, on responsibilities.

France, which has about 2,000 troops in the Central African Republic as well, sponsored the resolution, a process that has inched along since the fall. Gérard Araud, the UN ambassador of France, said that the reason it took so long for the resolution to get to a vote was the obscurity of the crisis.

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“The Central African Republic has been an ignored crisis,” Araud said to reporters at the UN. “It is an isolated and enclaved country. It was difficult to bring to the attention of the media. There are not a lot of foreign journalists in Bangui, countries do not have embassies there. So we had to inform and mobilize the people. After that, there was the mobilization of the African Union, of the French and then we went to the UN.” (Bangui is the country’s capital.)

Yet the Central African Republic hit worldwide media news in March 2013 after a coup occurred and Bangui was ransacked by Muslim rebels called the Seleka, but soon the media and the so-called international community became distracted by other crises. The coup was one of many that the country has endured since its independence from France in 1960, keeping up a tradition with some of its West African neighbors.

The CAR, as it is nicknamed, fell into worst straits after full-blown anarchy struck in early December as two warring groups, the anti-balaka (or anti-machete), a blend of Christian defense militias, rogue military officers and outright thugs, and the Seleka began reprisals against each other in Bangui. This somewhat placid capital, located on the banks of the Ubangi River, fell literally overnight into a murderous free-for-all. Civilians were killed randomly or slaughtered based on their religious affiliation — with beheadings, lynching and other gruesome crimes documented by the UN, human-rights groups and the media brave enough to stick around.

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The fighting between the two factions started brewing after the president, François Bozizé, a former armed forces chief, was ousted in the March 2013 coup by Seleka forces and absconded to Cameroon. For most of the year, civilians suffered under the transitional Seleka regime, headed by Michel Djotodia; these circumstances led to anti-balaka resistance in Bangui and in the countryside. Now, the anti-balaka have grabbed the upper hand, threatening civilians in the capital and in rural areas.

Djotodia, deemed useless, was pushed out by regional powers in January, notably by Chad. A new president, Catherine Samba-Panza, the former mayor of Bangui, is barely holding the country together, though she has quickly surround herself with crony-style advisers.

For months, the UN has been keeping a wary eye on the deteriorating situation in CAR, with its own officials and outside human-rights voices signaling the possibility that genocide — against Christians or Muslims — could occur at any moment. Most Muslims have fled the country, and those who remain — more than 19,000 people — are trapped in the capital but sheltered by international forces.

A March 2014 report by UN experts who visited the country in February laid out the realities. In addition, major UN officials, like the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, and Navi Pillay, the human-rights commissioner, visited CAR recently, reassuring civilians that care will be provided on a larger scale to stem further security declines. France’s president, Francois Hollande, visited Bangui in February, and the International Criminal Court said that an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity had begun.

The United States ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, just returned from a visit to CAR. She said that the US has committed an additional $22 million in humanitarian aid for the country, raising the total US contributions this year to nearly $67 million. The money will be used by UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations to assist people who are displaced with such basic needs as health care, food, water and sanitation.

“Now the Central African Republic needs all countries that pledged $500 million in aid in January, of which $200 million was for humanitarian action, to fulfill their promise,” Power said at the UN. At least 2.5 million people, more than half the country’s population, need help.

The UN report noted that violations “that may amount to crimes against humanity” have become widespread in Bangui and in the countryside, including serious violations of the “right to life, physical integrity, property, arbitrary detention, summary executions of civilians, indiscriminate firing on civilians, sexual violence and rape.”

Use of child soldiers is also noted in the long list of violations. Women, children and the elderly continue to be dealt grave violations disproportionately. Women are being raped individually or by gangs from both armed groups, girls are being forced into marriage and sexual slavery has been reported.

Up to 6,000 children may have been recruited by ex-Seleka into their militias, the UN says, though anti-balaka groups have also apparently been using children as soldiers.

As UN peacekeepers did in Mali last year, the new force in CAR will essentially “rehat” the African Union troops, who are being supported by the French troops. The European Union is also deploying 800 to 1,000 troops to CAR, Araud said.

The new UN force will be nicknamed Minusca (for UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic), which is one letter different from the Mali peacekeeping force, Minusma.

Recently, 850 Chadian troops, part of the African Union mission, have quit, after being accused of shooting a crowd in a Christian area of Bangui (Chad is a Muslim-majority country) on March 30. At least 24 people were killed and 100 injured; the mission said the peacekeepers acted in self-defense.

Power was asked about the Chadians by the UN press corps. She said, in part, that “I think the Chadians offered significant solace to Muslims in the Central African Republic and, so — notwithstanding some of the incidents that occurred that of course caused great concern — there is a loss in seeing these troops depart.”

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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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UN Peacekeepers Heading to the Central African Republic by the Fall
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