Muslim-Christian Conflict Threatens Central African Republic

Since a coup last spring, the Central African Republic has spiraled towards chaos. Thousands of people have been displaced from their homes, and civilians are getting caught in the crossfire. Host Michel Martin talks with Lewis Mudge of Human Rights Watch about the growing calls for international intervention.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're turning now to an African nation where a regional crisis could become an international concern. The Central African Republic, which is bordered by South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is in turmoil following a coupe last spring. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes. Villages have been destroyed. There are widespread reports that civilian killings are increasing. Aid groups and some European officials are now warning that the situation now, as awful as it is, could turn into a tragedy on a much larger scale. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Lewis Mudge. He's an Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch. He's been investigating human rights abuses in the Central African Republic. And he's on the line with us from Kigali, which is in neighboring Rwanda. Lewis Mudge, thanks so much for joining us.

LEWIS MUDGE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Could you tell us briefly who are the main combatants here? What started this all?

MUDGE: Sure, the main groups right now fighting comprise of two groups. It's the group known as the Seleka. Seleka means alliance in Sango, the national language of the Central African Republic. And the Seleka is a group that came out of the Northeast. It is a predominantly Muslim group, and they started their offensive in December of 2012. They took control of the capital, Bangui, on March 24 of this year. Since the Seleka have taken over, we've seen the rise of local armed militias. They are commonly referred to as anti-balaka. And these groups take on a predominately Christian line. And they are both local sort of defense groups, and also, they're made up of former soldiers of the national army and troops still loyal to former President Francois Bozize.

MARTIN: What's the goal here? What's the end goal here?

MUDGE: Sure, the end goal of the Seleka has already been accomplished. Their goal was to take over power in the Central African Republic. This is a rebel group that is very largely made up of elements from both Sudan and Chad. And the end goal of the anti-balaka is clear as well. I mean, we've spoken to these groups. I spoke to them just as recently as last week. They want to make sure the Seleka are not in power anymore. Unfortunately, the people that are suffering on both sides of the equation are the civilians. Both Muslim and Christian civilians are being targeted by both of these groups.

MARTIN: We also hear, though, that the Lord's Resistance Army, which is a group that many people in the West have heard about for various reasons, that this group led by Joseph Kony - we hear that one of Joseph Kony's senior commanders was killed there. Is the Lord's Resistance Army playing a role in this conflict?

MUDGE: Yeah, that's a good point. The LRA have long used the Southeast of the Central African Republic, in particular, as a rear base and as a place that's easy for them to operate. The LRA is still very active in the Central African Republic. But they're not a main player in the dynamics of Bangui right now. They certainly continue to commit their own abuses against the civilian population, predominantly in the Southeast and moving a bit north towards Baoro in the north.

MARTIN: There are those who have used the word genocide to describe what is happening there. You've traveled to the area. What can you tell us?

MUDGE: It's not a genocide. I mean, I'm talking to you from Rwanda where genocide is something we talk about almost on a daily basis. The situation is not yet a genocide in the Central African Republic. But the conflict is certainly starting to break down on sectarian lines. And that is very, very worrying. When you start to hear rhetoric by these self-defense groups, by these anti-balakas saying, our objective is to kill all Muslims, when you speak to Muslim civilians and when you speak to Seleka and they tell you, this is a war that's been started by the Christians, that's certainly very, very worrying rhetoric. We're not in genocide yet, but the international community needs to start paying attention to what's happening before it gets to that point.

MARTIN: And tell us why the human rights watchers like yourself are so concerned that this conflict could broaden. Is it the level of violence that civilians are experiencing now? Or is there a sense that kind of the regional actors are getting involved in this?

MUDGE: It's both. But primarily, it's the fact that civilians are bearing the brunt of all this fighting. We're talking about hundreds if not thousands of villages that have been burned to the ground, primarily by the Seleka, but also by these anti-balaka forces. We're talking about the elderly and children who are dying in the highest numbers because they either can't run away fast enough, or we have hundreds of thousands of people living out in the bush. And they're the ones who are most susceptible to preventable diseases like malaria. They're also dying of exposure and hunger. So, I mean, in terms of concrete numbers in the humanitarian crisis, it's civilians who are suffering the most. It's not soldiers killing soldiers. It's soldiers targeting civilians. But as you pointed out, this is also a very, very bad neighborhood. You've got Chad and South Sudan to the North. You've got the Congo to the South. This is an area that could certainly bring in other countries into a much wider conflict. So again, we think it's time we start paying attention.

MARTIN: And why aren't we paying more attention? I mean, it's often, you know, hard to prove a negative. But why aren't we paying more attention? You know, after the genocide in Rwanda, and after - a lot of people in the international community said to themselves, never again, that, you know...

MUDGE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...We have tools to monitor things - technological tools to monitor movements on the ground that didn't exist a decade ago. Why is it that we're not paying more attention to this tragedy which you tell us is of massive scale?

MUDGE: It's a really good question. The Central African Republic, sadly, has never been very high up on the ladder in terms of geostrategic importance. This is a country that most people outside of France have a hard time even finding on a map. The Central African Republic, since its independence, has never been stable. And there's been numerous atrocities committed there throughout its existence, going back to the French times. The International Criminal Court has a trial open against crimes committed in the Central African Republic. So this is certainly a country that has figured highly on the scale of atrocities. And to date, the world has not paid enough attention. To try to prove the negative, it's very difficult. I can't tell you why, but, you know, we certainly hope people are going to start paying attention now.

MARTIN: And there are African Union peacekeeping forces there, are there not? And you also mentioned France, which is the former colonial power in the country. Is there either a African Union presence or a French presence there, and if so, of what scale and is more anticipated?

MUDGE: Sure, sure. There's now about 2,500 of the African Union peacekeepers that are on the ground. It's anticipated that that number will be around 3,500 to 3,600. And several hundred of new French peacekeepers of a projected 1,000 have landed. And these peacekeeping forces, I've seen firsthand. I've been to CAR numerous times this year, and I've seen firsthand, these peacekeeping forces have a stabilizing effect. I was in a town called Bouca in the North just about 10 days ago, and the Seleka were threatening to kill 3,000 refugees that were hiding in a Catholic parish. The African Union peacekeeping force arrived about 36 hours later, and I saw firsthand how it calmed the situation. But we're dealing with a country the size of France. You know, 3,000 or 4,000 peacekeepers is not going to be enough. We need more like 6,000 to 9,000. And unless the African Union gets serious logistical, financial and human resources support, this is going to have to be a peacekeeping force that comes from the U.N.

MARTIN: Lewis Mudge is a researcher in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. He joined us this morning from his base in Kigali, Rwanda. Lewis Mudge, thanks so much for speaking with us. Please do keep us posted.

MUDGE: Thanks a lot for having me.

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