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Serving the UN Where Violence Never Ends: One Person’s Story


Simon Handy, who specializes in African politics and conflict, worked for the UN in the Central African Republic, during its most violent upheaval. The experience still haunts him. SOUTHERN AFRICAN LIAISON OFFICE

Simon Handy, a specialist in African politics and conflict, is a veteran of a hazardous and tormented mission in the Central African Republic that left him with an enduring cause that still haunts him. He argues that when a United Nations mission changes or is abandoned, as was the case for him, staff members can fall into limbo with no future, even when their service has been fraught with extreme violence and considerable danger.

Handy was born in Cameroon, where as a boy he was taught by a great-grand uncle, a teacher, about the UN’s help in securing the country’s independence. He is now a French citizen, carrying on his lonely campaign based on his experience with two missions. He was first part of the Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic, known as Binuca. That special political mission was folded in 2014 into a larger operation there, Minusca — short for the ponderously named UN Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic.

The transition, he said in an interview and in a subsequent series of questions by email, didn’t go well, apparently, at least, because of poor management at Minusca, which left the staff of the earlier mission essentially orphaned.

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The Central African Republic, with fewer than five million people, is a former French colony that became independent in 1960. It is a landlocked country anchored in a sea of turbulence, surrounded by Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo. Violent rebellions in the neighborhood spill across its borders from time to time.

Inside the country, fighting between the Séléka, a Muslim rebel militia, and a loose coalition called anti-balaka, or anti-machete, reportedly led by Christians, has brought about a near collapse of a county long plagued by perennial instability fed by coups.

By mid-2013, as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council, the country had reached a nadir, with “a total breakdown of law and order.” He said that some 1.6 million people urgently needed assistance that included protection, food, water, health care and shelter. Doctors Without Borders added that the country’s health system was in ruins.

People in the Central African Republic flocked in droves to UN shelters during the nation’s most extreme collapse, starting in mid-2013. The country is still searching for stability, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.

Handy, who was assigned to Binuca, describes it as a horrific experience. He still believes that the mission never received the thanks it deserved or an acknowledgment of the extreme hardship and danger it endured before and after it was subsumed by Minusca in 2014.

In 2016, Handy laid out his case in an open letter to Secretary-General Ban, a copy of which he gave to PassBlue. It was a plea to recognize the good work that the UN can do in the worst circumstances — and to be a lesson for high-ranking officials of UN missions anywhere.

“While we acknowledge that no one joins the UN for personal recognition, we feel duty bound to tell the positive story of the Special Political Mission under DPA BINUCA and the unfortunate fate of its staff,” he wrote, with DPA referring to the Department of Political Affairs. “This is especially important and relevant at a time when the UN’s record in CAR is viewed almost entirely through the narrow and sullied lens of the sexual abuses perpetrated by its peacekeepers and other international forces.”

In his two-page letter, Handy detailed what he said he regarded as mismanagement by Minusca mission leaders and the failure to reassign Binuca staff under the UN’s mobility strategy, writing that some of the staff had “endured hardships of this duty station for as long as ten years.” In the interview with PassBlue, he said that nothing substantial has changed since he wrote the letter to Ban.

“We saved hundreds of lives by sheltering the entire UN [contingent] at the BINUCA compound,” he wrote, “as well as 30 international NGOs and countless civilian refugees. For six months these people slept on the floor of our offices while sharing our daily bread, under constant fire from the Seleka rebels who assumed power on 24 March 2013.

“Among the civilian refugees we protected was none other than former Prime Minister and current President Faustin-Archange Touadera, whose resilience we witnessed firsthand,” Handy wrote. “It is fair to say that without BINUCA’s protection during the crisis, President Touadera would not be leading the country today.” [Faustin-Archange Touadéra is still president in 2019.]

“Nothing could deter BINUCA staff from our responsibility to protect — not the sporadic barrage of gunfire aimed at individual residences and offices, nor the pilferage of our personal belongings, nor the chaos of death and fear surrounding us,” Handy wrote. “Armed only with the moral authority provided by the UN Charter, we conducted assessment missions across the country amid paralyzing security constraints.”

Now out of the Central African Republic and suffering from infections and a tumor in one eye, Handy, who is 50, lectures widely about Africa in leading policy organizations and universities in North America and Europe. He is also an unpaid researcher in the political science department at York University in Toronto.

Back in the Central African Republic, violence continues, killing and displacing thousands of people, Human Right Watch said in its World Report 2019.

“Armed groups continued to commit serious human rights abuses, expanding their control to an estimated 70 percent of the country, while the central government, led by President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, controlled the capital, Bangui, and surrounding areas to the west,” Human Rights Watch reported, surveying recent developments in the country.

“Fighting between predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels, anti-balaka militias, and other armed groups in the central, northwestern, and eastern parts of the Central African Republic forced thousands to flee their homes,” the report said. “Armed groups killed civilians, raped and sexually assaulted women and girls, attacked displacement camps, recruited and used children as soldiers, burned down villages, and took civilians hostage. Access to justice for serious crimes remained difficult or impossible for many people.

“A political dialogue between the African Union (AU) and armed groups, aimed at reaching a political agreement to end the fighting, resumed in August [2018] but did not stop the violence and abuses against civilians. . . . United Nations peacekeepers generally struggled to protect civilians from attack by armed groups, some committed around UN bases.”

Minusca, the report also noted, deployed about 11,650 military peacekeepers and 2,080 police across many parts of the country. In November 2017, the Security Council approved an additional 900 troops for Minusca, but not all troops were in place by the end of 2018.

The UN mission goes on in the Central African Republic, with no end in sight.

Update: Because of a confusion of identities between two men both named Simon Handy involved in the Central African Republic for the UN, an early version of this article included an incorrect reference to one position held by the person who is the focus of the story, who served with the mission known as Binuca.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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