When Christian militias known as anti-balaka came to the village of Guen in the Central African Republic in February, the father of 10-year-old Oumarou Bouba knew it was time to run.
“I took my son when the anti-balaka attacked,” the father told Human Rights Watch, which documented the deaths of at least 72 Muslim men and boys in two recent attacks near Guen. “As we were running away, he was shot by the anti-balaka. He was shot in the right leg and he fell down, but they finished him off with a machete. I had no choice but to run on. I had been shot too. I later went to see his body and he had been struck in his head and in the neck.”
The current conflict in the Central African Republic began in March 2013.Since then, thousands of Christians and Muslims have been killed by armed groups including mostly Christian anti-balaka militias and mainly Muslim groups known as the Seleka forces. About 640,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, according to the New York Times.
From the beginning, the international response to the conflict has failed to halt the violence. African Union peacekeepers and a small French military force have been unable or unwilling to confront the militias in one of the world’s poorest countries.
In November 2013, when the mostly Muslim Seleka forces were attacking Christians, the Guardian reported that African regional peacekeepers had “neutralized” the threat, but that “their 2,500-strong force is still too small and ill-equipped to carry out its mandate of protecting civilians.” A 400-troop French force was too small to do much more than protect the airport, the newspaper reported.
By December of that year, the conflict was shifting, with Seleka losing power and Christians starting what would eventually be called an “ethnic cleansing” of the country’s Muslims, leaving thousands dead or displaced. The international force struggled to adapt to the evolving crisis.
Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior investigator in crisis response, discussed the response in CAR with an editor at African Arguments, part of the Guardian African network.
She said there was a “spike of madness” at the beginning of December when predominantly Muslim Seleka forces killed about 1,000 people — mostly Christians — in the capital Bangui over the course of two days.
“It was very clear at that point, or very shortly after that — within a few days — that the Seleka regime was crumbling and the Muslims were going to be made to pay the price and that it was going to be a very different ballgame because they are a small minority,” she said.
If the international forces had understood the situation clearly at that point, she said, there would have been a better chance for them to respond adequately for what would happen next.
Instead, the military and international peacekeepers, who had come to deal with the Seleka threat, “did not understand what was going on and adjust what they were doing to deal with new challenges and the new threat,” she said.
Neither the French force, which now numbers about 2,000, nor the about 6,000 AU troops responding to the conflict have been very effective, Rovera said, “…mainly because they weren’t present where things were happening, when they could have made a difference, when they could have stopped some of the massacres. … In the places where they were present they did manage to stop some of the large-scale killing, but the problem was that they were just not present and they did not seem to be very willing to confront the new actor.”
The Chadian army was most active in protecting civilians, providing trucks and armed escorts for Muslims fleeing the country, she said. However Chad’s contingent of 850, was also sometimes “shooting their way out of places and committing abuses.”
That included an incident in late March, when Chadian soldiers opened fire on civilians in Bangui, killing more than 30, the Washington Post reported. After two of their vehicles were attacked by grenades, the Chadians forced their way past a French roadblock and began shooting in the PK12 neighborhood.
Under criticism for siding with Muslim militias against Christian groups, Chad announced April 3 that it would withdraw its force.
Yet even before much of the shooting began, the international community missed a number of opportunities to intervene.
According to The Guardian, the U.N. security council was first briefed about Seleka in December 2012. It was briefed seven times over the next six months on the evolving threat, but “no effective action was agreed,” the Guardian reported.
In addition, the London-based newspaper reported that officials at the U.N. field office in the capital, Bangui, had been concerned about programs to pay fighters to disarm. Efforts to raise enough money for the program were unsuccessful, and parts of the country remained untouched, including the area where the Seleka drew fighters.
The Seleka coalition formed in December 2012, but even then there was little response from the international community. The Guardian painted a picture of a general lack of interest in CAR: In July 2013 the U.N. office in Bangui had only 14 Twitter followers, The Guardian said.
Even today, after months of conflict, calls for intervention are garnering little response.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has appealed for 10,000 additional soldiers and 2,000 police officers, the New York Times reported March 20. Even if governments met his plea, the troops would not deploy for six months.
International aid agencies have only received 20 percent of the more than $550 million requested, “leaving them ‘deplorably underfunded’ and lacking in essentials,” according to Navi Pillay, the U.N. human rights chief, the Times said.
There is hope from at least one development: After delays, the EU formally launched its mission to help peacekeeping efforts on Tuesday, according to the Wall Street Journal. Major Gen. Philippe Pontiès said he plans to send 800 people, the newspaper reported.
The EU initially approved an intervention plan in January and had hoped to send troops in late Feburary, the Wall Street Journal reported. The deployment was delayed after governments in Europe failed to muster enough soldiers and equipment.
Whether the response will finally be effective remains to be seen. But the longer intervention is delayed, the more difficult the job of halting the conflict.
Amnesty International’s Ravona sees the greatest mistake to date in the failure of the international forces to confront the anti-balaka militias as they were being formed. The inaction “allowed the anti-balaka militia to crystalize their rule,” she said.
“And with every passing day it is also being realized that it will be much more difficult to shift them.”