Religious tensions have crept further into the increasingly brutal incidents of violence in the Central African Republic, where villager testimonials in this sub-Saharan country relate horrific murders, rapes, and the pillaging of their communities by young men, said Philippe Bolopion, United Nations Director for Human Rights Watch, who returned from the country just a few weeks ago.
“This is the time for the UN to send peacekeepers to the Central African Republic,” he said in this interview with the Global Observatory.
“We believe that a few of them [peacekeepers] in a few places like Bossangoa, along the main roads in some of these ‘ghost’ villages would go a long way in terms of providing security for people to come back [to their villages],” he said. Thousands of people have fled the violence, leaving entire villages empty.
While in the Central African Republic (CAR), Mr. Bolopion heard first-hand accounts of grisly violence from villagers, and concluded the perpetrators would be no match for a peacekeeping force. “The Seleka fighters in Bossangoa are a bunch of nineteen-year-olds with old Kalashnikovs and flip flops. The anti-balaka are poor villagers with machetes and spears. So, this is not a situation like eastern DRC where you have a UN intervention brigade facing a well-organized rebellion supported by a powerful neighbor. The military threat is not great.”
The country has slid towards chaos after President François Bozizé was ousted in March 2013 by a loose coalition of armed groups comprised mostly of Muslims known as Seleka; its leader, Michel Djotodia, has since declared himself president of the country. In response, groups known as the “anti-balaka” comprised mostly of Christians are now targeting Muslim communities.
“What we discovered is that in many cases, these [anti-balaka] groups have resorted to the same brutal tactics as the Seleka, attacking entire Muslim communities for the simple reason that there were Muslims, killing women and children, looting, killing the cattle, destroying entire communities. And so that showed us that the country has already entered in a cycle of atrocities and counter-atrocities that are conducted by two armed groups which do not very often face each other, but attack civilian communities they perceive being from the other side. And this, of course, is extremely dangerous.”
He said, “There is no question that the people are using religious tensions to justify the horrendous abuses they commit against civilians, but within the country, the tension between communities is palpable as well.”
“When we were on the ground, there is no question that feelings are very raw in both communities: Christians, who are the overwhelming majority of the population, as well as the Muslim minority.”
He said when he arrived in CAR, he knew he would find the situation to be bad. “But we were not quite prepared for the kind of testimonies we got when we hit the ground.”
He said that UN peacekeepers would have “a huge impact in a country that’s on the verge of catastrophe.”
Mr. Bolopion said the soldiers in the African Union mission there (known by its acronym MISCA), “are not equipped enough or professional enough, frankly, to provide security for civilians.”
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Jérémie Labbé: I am here with Philippe Bolopion, United Nations Director for Human Rights Watch, who recently came back from a mission in the Central African Republic, a country that is steadily sliding into chaos following the overthrow in March 2013 of François Bozizé by a coalition of armed groups known as Seleka. Philippe, thanks for being with us in the Global Observatory today.
Following your trip in the country, what are your main observations in relation to the humanitarian situation and reported human rights violations?
Philippe Bolopion: We came back very alarmed from the mission we conducted in the country only a couple of weeks ago. We knew arriving that the situation would be bad. We produced a report we released at the UN in early September describing massive crimes committed mostly by Seleka fighters who have been killing civilians in large numbers, including women and children, who have been looting, raping, setting entire villages on fire.
So, we knew it would be bad. But we were not quite prepared for the kind of testimonies we got when we hit the ground. I was particularly shocked by the violence of some of the abuse by the recently reactivated anti-balaka groups. We knew the Seleka was extremely abusive. Reading from news accounts, we thought that the anti-balaka, which are mostly Christian groups that were created in reaction to months of Seleka abuses, or, rather, reactivated, because they already somehow existed.
We thought that they were a bunch of villagers taking up a few weapons to protect their villages against Seleka attacks. What we discovered is that in many cases, these groups have resorted to the same brutal tactics as the Seleka, attacking entire Muslim communities for the simple reason that there were Muslims, killing women and children, looting, killing the cattle, destroying entire communities, and so that showed us that the country has already entered in a cycle of atrocities and counter-atrocities that are conducted by two armed groups which do not very often face each other, but attack civilian communities they perceive being from the other side. And this, of course, is extremely dangerous.
JL: You mentioned the role played by the coalition of armed group known as Seleka, which was led by Michel Djotodia and allowed him to seize power last March. What is the relationship today between the presidency of Central African Republic, the Seleka, and armed forces?
PB: Honestly, It’s a bit of a mess. When you are on the ground, it’s very hard to determine who is Seleka, who is ex-Seleka, who is national army. The interim president, Michel Djotodia, on paper at least, disbanded the Seleka. So, the Seleka is not supposed to exist anymore. Now, when we arrived in Bossangoa, which is 300 kilometers north of Bangui, we saw who was in control of the town. It was a bunch of very young fighters in random uniforms wearing flip-flops, carrying rusty old weapons. These guys are Seleka. That’s how everybody knows them, that’s how everybody describes them, and you could not argue that they are national army, you can tell that they have been disbanded because they are firmly in control of the town. So, whatever name you put on them, the Seleka coalition is still the dominant force in the country.
Now, what degree of control does the interim president Djotodia have over these armed groups? Frankly, it’s very hard to say. When I met with him, he considered that during the last weeks of the fighting before the Seleka coalition reached Bangui, It was joined by a lot of armed groups he didn’t really know. And so there are certainly some groups there that are not under the full control of the authorities.
At the same time, when I met with him, he was also arguing that he was trying to put an end to the cycle of impunity, and he mentioned the case of two officers from the Seleka or ex-Seleka that he had arrested over the last few weeks because of abuses they had committed. In fact, he told me they were being detained in the very same military camp where he met with me.
So, there is a degree of control in Bossangoa in Bangui, and in other places. What I saw on the ground is that often you see Seleka, ex-Seleka fighters in the main population centers. When you venture out on a little traveled road or isolated areas, you don’t see the Seleka anymore. You don’t see people in their villages, either, because even though the Seleka is not right there, people are simply too scared to go back home because they know that the Seleka pickup truck could come by in the middle of the night and start shooting randomly. So, it’s hard to have an accurate picture of what’s happening, but the Seleka or ex-Seleka is the one in power.
JL: You alluded earlier to the sectarian overtones of the conflict in Central African Republic. Actually, in recent days, media and some UN or government officials have alluded to Central African Republic as a country on the verge of genocide. What is your take on this? Do think it is really that bad?
PB: There is no question the situation is bad, worsening, and extremely dangerous. When we were in the country between March and July researching the report we produced in September, we rarely heard people characterize the conflict in sectarian or religious terms. This has changed. When we were on the ground, there is no question that feelings are very raw in both communities: Christians, who are the overwhelming majority of the population, as well as the Muslim minority.
I met with religious leaders in Bangui, the Archbishop of Bangui, as well as the top imam in the country. Both men were extremely worried. Actually, they work together to try to calm down some of these tensions and seemed to be really responsible leaders—in fact, probably one of the last functioning institutions in the country. In places like Bossangoa, the church still functions and nothing else does. So, they were extremely worried.
When you go to Bossangoa, It’s visually striking. You have displaced people from Muslim communities who are in one part of the town. They are in the school and what used to be the court building. And you have the Christian population in much larger numbers which is trying to find protection around the church. I received an e-mail yesterday from a priest in Bossangoa who was saying that the Seleka decided that they would separate the town in two parts, one for the Muslims and one for the Christians, and that people are not to cross that line. So, when you enter this kind of dynamics, it becomes very dangerous.
We heard from victims, Muslim victims, that some of the attackers, anti-balaka, when they descended on the villages at five a.m. in the morning, were saying things like we will exterminate all the Muslims, the Muslims are Seleka, we will kill all of you. And they proceeded to kill a number of them.
We also witnessed only a few days ago a Seleka commander was alleged to attack anti-balaka Christian militias who went to neighboring village and talked to the Muslim community there saying, “If you are good Muslims, you need to support us; you need to provide us with motor bikes to go there, fuel and money.” So, on both sides, there is no question that the people are using religious tensions to justify the horrendous abuses they commit against civilians, but within the country, the tension between communities is palpable as well. So, it’s becoming real.
JL: But if I understand you well, those sectarian tensions are not necessarily at the root causes of the conflict. They have evolved and become more acute. Is that correct?
PB: I think that’s a correct assessment. I’m not a Central African Republic expert, but I don’t think this conflict started as a religious one. Certainly, the Seleka seemed more interested looting, pillaging, and making profit along the way than it was in spreading any religious agenda. Now, this is an overwhelmingly Christian country that is now ruled by its first Muslim president, so that’s definitely a factor. And what was not a religious conflict to begin with could become one if the international community doesn’t take the right steps.
JL: Looking forward now at the solutions to improve the situation in the country: discussions have started yesterday at the UN Security Council on the Central African Republic, and a resolution is currently being negotiated. What do you expect out of these discussions, and what would be the best option for you going forward?
PB: For us, the urgency number one is to bring back a measure of security for civilians there so the 35,000 people around the Christian church in Bossangoa, for example, can go back home, or the Muslim displaced people that we talked to can go back to their houses, or the many ghost villages that we found along the way see the residents come back and start rebuilding their lives.
There is right now an African Union mission on the ground called MISCA which is supposed to become fully active starting December 19, but it is not enough. These soldiers are not equipped enough or professional enough, frankly, to provide security for civilians. It seems to us that this is a perfect mission for UN blue helmets, peacekeepers. We believe that a few of them in a few places like Bossangoa, along the main roads in some of these ghost villages would go a long way in terms of providing security for people to come back.
The military threats they would be facing is not very significant. The Seleka fighters in Bossangoa are a bunch of nineteen-year-olds with old Kalashnikovs and flip flops. The anti-balaka are poor villagers with machetes and spears. So, this is not a situation like eastern DRC where you have a UN intervention brigade facing a well-organized rebellion supported by a powerful neighbor. The military threat is not great. So, we think that with a few peacekeepers, you would get a lot of bang for the buck in a sense, and be able to have a huge impact in a country that’s on the verge of catastrophe.
JL: But do think that there is currently some appetite for such a UN peacekeeping force in Central African Republic?
PB: I think there is. I think the UN did a good job at alerting the Security Council about the urgency of the situation. I think the UN has learned from past mistakes in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in Sri Lanka, and has raised the alarm in a proper fashion, made good recommendations in terms of how a UN peacekeeping mission could address the situation. I think most countries of the Security Council agree with the plan. And the French draft resolution is asking the SG to go ahead and provide a new technical report, which is the next logical step towards a UN peacekeeping mission. So I think it will happen. The question is one of timing. Will it happen before it’s too late, and that’s why we are trying to push countries, including like the US, and to some extent the UK, who have financial concerns about a new peacekeeping operation. We are trying to convince them that there is absolutely no time to lose.
JL: Beyond re-establishing security, any other recommendations that human rights watch will do in order to address particularly human rights violations there? I am thinking about accountability, for instance. Is the room for accountability in this country by a national justice system or international justice mechanisms?
PB: That’s a really important question. Right now, the violence is being fueled by the complete impunity that people on both sides have enjoyed for too many months now. So, the justice system is destroyed and the Seleka is in effect in power in Bangui. So you have to look at other options than a national justice for accountability. We believe the Security Council right now should authorize or ask the UN Secretary-General to create an international commission of inquiry the same way it did, for example, in Darfur a few years ago, to look into the current abuses, look at the question of genocide, whether it’s occurring or could happen; make recommendations in terms of accountability avenues as well as identify perpetrators of the current violence–name names, and maybe suggest that these people be sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Sanctions are part of the plan right now in the French draft. So, that would be a very simple measure that the Security Council could take and that could provide really valuable results in a very short time frame.
JL: Philippe, thank you right much for being with us today.
PB: Thank you very much for having me.