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03 March 2014

Canadian aid worker describes ‘horrific’ violence in central Africa as Christians, Muslims fight to the death

The Central African Republic’s descent into chaos has been gruesome: villages burned to the ground, massacres with rusty machetes and a million displaced by Christian and Muslim militias that deliberately target civilians.

Courtesy Julian Donald
The escalating sectarian violence in the former French colony has uprooted a quarter of the population, threatened to destabilize the geographic centre of Africa and shocked even veteran Canadian aid workers like Julian Donald.

“I experienced things there which, even as an international aid worker, I never expected to,” Mr. Donald said in an interview last week after returning from a three-month assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières.
Nine years of humanitarian work had brought him to Sierra Leone and Haiti, among other hot spots, but he had never experienced anything like the CAR, he said. “It was probably the most stressful environment I’ve ever worked in.”

The disorder is fast becoming a regional emergency. The United Nations said last week that thousands had been killed, 15,000 were surrounded by hostile armed groups, a quarter of a million had fled to neighboring countries and 2.2-million required humanitarian assistance.
“We are appealing again to all armed elements to stop indiscriminate attacks against civilians. We are also calling for the deployment of more international troops as their numbers are far too low considering the size and the scope of the crisis,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman, Adrian Edwards.

 Julian Donald
The crisis began when Muslim Séléka rebels brutally attacked Christian villages and, in March 2013, seized control of the government. (Only about 15% of the population are Muslims while 25% are Catholics and another 25% are Protestants.)
Last September, Christian militias known as anti-Balaka formed and began retaliating against Muslims. “I saw what I would characterize as atrocities by both sides. In the region there was a series of reprisals, escalating, so neither side were angels,” Mr. Donald said.

The 38-year-old arrived in Bossangoa last October to co-ordinate an MSF mobile outreach team that provided medical care to the most vulnerable, notably children under five suffering from rampant malaria and malnutrition.
The small team focused its efforts on the outlying areas. “We were providing medical services to people in the countryside, most of whom had been displaced by the conflict.” The team often found them hiding in the bush to avoid the militias.

“I remember in particular the first time we visited the second largest town in the region. It had been attacked approximately four weeks earlier and almost completely burned to the ground,” he said. “Every house in the town had been burned and so the population had fled into the countryside and the condition of the people was just horrific.”

The Séléka carried out the attack, but later Mr. Donald witnessed the increasing assaults on Muslims by Christian militias that did not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Survivors have reported hearing anti-Balaka fighters saying they intended to kill all the Muslims, according to Human Rights Watch.
“There was a big movement in the town around that time of mostly just angry young men from the Christian camp, which had about 30,000 to 35,000 people in it, to attacking the Muslim population, which until that time had still been living in their houses,” he said.

“So over a period of two or three days the entire Muslim population had to move into a different camp for their own protection and all their shops were burned and looted and many people were killed.”
Some have stood up to the vigilantes. Muslims have tried to stop the razing of Christian homes, and Christians have sheltered Muslims by helping them hide in the forests or giving them sanctuary in churches.

“In my mind, to some extent this religious aspect of the conflict must have been manufactured. Some people were pushing for it to become that and we saw the results first hand, because these  people had all been living in mixed neighbourhoods. They were neighbours, they had been living beside each other, they had gone to school together and then all of a sudden they were burning each others houses and attacking each others families.”

The rising inter-communal violence has led many civilians to make their way to makeshift camps that are segregated along religious lines. The largest, near the Bangui airport, where French troops are based, holds about 100,000.

“People were living on top of one another,” said Martha Gartley, an MSF water and sanitation expert who described the camp as a “really, really horrible setup for a population that’s terrified.” She returned to Canada in February, having helped set up water treatment facilities and hundreds of latrines at camps in Bossangoa and Bangui.
France voted last week to indefinitely extend its military mission in the country and increase its troop presence to 2,000, and the European Union agreed to send 500 troops to supplement the contingent of African Union peacekeepers.

“I think the international humanitarian community and donors need to work much harder to provide help to those people, because it’s not your fault if you’re born in the middle of a war,” Mr. Donald said. “And I think in terms of stabilizing the security situation, I believe that the international community continues to prevaricate and that more needs to be done sooner rather than later. It’s been many months now since this started and the commitment by the international community has been lacking.”


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