Central African Republic: one year on we still need to urgently protect civilians

It’s just over a year since the crisis in the Central African Republic erupted. I vividly remember the horrifying news reports – machete-wielding, gun-toting menand the thousands fleeing their homes as the war quickly escalated.

Little had been heard of the Central African Republic, quickly shortened to ‘CAR’ by the media, before last December. But the political and social unrest goes much further back.

In December 2012, mostly Muslim Seleka forces stormed the capital and eventually seized power in March, followed by revenge attacks by (mostly Christian) anti-Balaka militia. These attacks gradually mounted until they reached new heights this time last year.

Since then, nearly one million people have been forced to flee their homes. Half the country’s 4.6 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

As it always is, ordinary people are bearing the brunt of the war. Living in constant fear for revenge attacks – killings, massacres and lootings – some families have resorted to living and hiding in bushes. Others who have fled their homes are in camps that don’t have the food, water, sanitation or health care to cope.

Despite the initial concerns that the CAR conflict was turning into a possible genocide (with our researchers reporting ethnic cleansing as early as January) there was little international action taken to help put a stop to the revenge attacks and massacres Amnesty and others were documenting.

France quickly stepped in by sending  peacekeeping troops, but it wasn’t until September that the UN deployed its peacekeeping mission – albeit one stretched thinly, without all the resources it needs.

Despite that UN presence, the threat of violence hasn’t subsided. A new surge in violence in the capital, Bengui, began just days after the UN started to deploy peacekeepers. And over the past few weeks a new wave of violence has swept across the north east of the Central African Republic.

One of the victims of recent attacks is Jean-Firmin Balepako. His father told our researcher what happened when his son was killed:

‘The attacker demanded money… He told me to get out, pressing his gun into my back. The other attackers yelled at men and the women, telling us to leave. There were about 12 of them, not wearing uniforms but I recognised them as Seleka. Most were quite young, teenagers, not adults.

‘I stayed not too far from the house, worried for my son, and I heard him screaming. We found his body that night, when the UN peacekeepers brought us back to the house. His head had been sliced open, his arms cut by swords’

This is just one of the very disturbing testimonies I’ve read from our researchers from CAR.

One of the major reasons for the ongoing violence is the fact that many of the perpetrators suspected of war crimes in December 2013 are still roaming free. In July Amnesty produced a dossier naming 20 men suspected of committing war crimes, but despite that report many have not yet been investigated, and some of the men are reported to be behind the crimes we’ve seen in recent weeks.

Tragically, this fresh surge of violence and killings is a reminder of the urgent need for the UN’s peacekeeping force to get to full strength. Only 8,000 of the 12,000 peacekeepers promised have been deployed - the protection available is not enough, and people are still vulnerable to attack.

The first step in stopping this vicious circle of violence is to deploy the peacekeepers desperately needed, and giving them the resources and equipment needed to protect ordinary people caught up in this conflict.

But that is only the first step. Without bringing those responsible for war crimes to justice, the Central African Republic can’t start its journey towards sustainable peace and reconciliation.

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