NAIROBI, Kenya — Mass murder, rape, a deepening humanitarian crisis and near-total lack of state authority have taken hold in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Sectarian militias are recruiting child soldiers and fears of jihadism and genocide are growing as the country’s bloody implosion accelerates.
France said it will send more than 1,000 soldiers to its former colony as the United Nations mulls stronger support for a regional peacekeeping mission to keep a lid on the violence, and to prevent it from spreading beyond the CAR’s borders.
The UN is expected to approve a resolution next week paving the way for the restoration of law and order by African and French troops.
It will be France’s second military intervention in a former African colony this year, after troops were sent to Mali in January to reverse a takeover by Al Qaeda militants.
France already has some 400 troops stationed in the small capital of Bangui, and a 2,500-strong African Union peacekeeping mission, known as MISCA, will grow to 3,600 by early next year.
Described as a “phantom state,” the land-locked CAR’s history is one of violence, upheaval, bizarre dictatorship and wanton misrule.
The current strife began in December 2012, when a predominately Muslim rebel coalition from the north of the country began its march on Bangui.
Séléka rebels ousted Christian president Francois Bozizé in March. In September rebel leader Michel Djotodia was installed as interim president during an 18-month transitional period, due to end with elections in 2015.
Seeking to disband the rebellion and legitimize his rule, Djotodia quickly lost the support of many of the fighters who had put him in power. He has been forced to admit he now has little control over the gunmen marauding through the capital and countryside.
As international diplomatic efforts gather pace, the people of the CAR suffer.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson warned this week of “mass atrocities” in a country “descending into complete chaos before our eyes.
“The population is enduring suffering beyond imagination,” Eliasson said after a UN assessment team returned from the CAR. He said women and children were “bearing the brunt" of the violence.
“Human rights violations are mounting. The use of child soldiers is rising. Sexual violence is growing. There are widespread reports of looting, illegal checkpoints, extortion, illegal arrests and detentions, torture and summary executions,” Eliasson added.
Human rights researchers have documented appalling brutality perpetrated by both ex-Séléka rebels and, to a lesser extent, the Christian militias known as “anti-balaka," or anti-machetes, which have formed to oppose them.
Former Séléka fighters have targeted Christian villagers, raping women and killing men and children with guns and knives. Others have been beaten, tied up and thrown into rivers. Private property has been looted and homes burned, government buildings stripped and records burned in an ongoing orgy of vandalism and violence.
An estimated 400,000 people, roughly 10 percent of the population, have been forced to flee their homes, according to the UN.
Much of the recent violence has occurred in the northwest of the country. More than 30,000 Christians have gathered for safety around the Catholic mission in Bossangoa, 185 miles north of the capital, while across town hundreds of Muslims are sheltering outside an Islamic school.
Some have voiced fears that the country could be on the brink of genocide. “Harmony among communities has been replaced by horror,” warned Eliasson.
In the nearby town of Bouca, medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, said it had observed a wave of displacement following fresh clashes this week between ex-Séléka and anti-balaka fighters.
“The fighting in Bouca is indicative of how horrific violence is engulfing the Central African Republic,” said Sylvain Groulx, MSF head of mission in the CAR.
“We are extremely concerned about the living conditions of the displaced, whether overcrowded in churches, mosques or schools or (those) invisible, living in the bush with no access to healthcare, food or water and threatened by epidemics,” Groulx said.
Adding to the toxic mix in the CAR is the threat that terrorist groups might find space to operate within the governance and security vacuums.
Already the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is known to have found a haven in the CAR, with its fugitive leader Joseph Kony reportedly in talks with Djotodia’s administration.
But French, Central African and UN officials have raised separate concerns that “elements” of Islamist groups from Nigeria, Sudan and Mali are seeking inroads to the country.