With the world’s attention focused on Syria, another human rights catastrophe unfolds unnoticed, in a forgotten corner of the world called Central African Republic (CAR). A ruthless rebel coalition called the Seleka has engaged in the arbitrary and rampant murder of civilians, including women, children and the elderly. Countless people there, particularly in rural areas, have fled their homes and are camped out in the bush, living in constant fear of attack by Seleka fighters.
Little known outside France, its former coloniser, CAR has been bedeviled by the twin curses of poverty and misrule. Its former strongman president, François Bozizé, who took power in a coup in 2003, was overthrown by the Seleka in March this year. Emerging from the remote and impoverished northeast, the Seleka, or “alliance” in the national language, has engaged in widespread abuses.
When I travelled to CAR earlier this year, I expected chaos, but not the sheer human suffering endured by the people I met. Villagers, hidden in bushes, would speak to me only after I gently convinced them that I was not part of the Seleka. When I finally earned their trust, they told me about the looting of their homes, the terrifying attacks they endured, their hunger and sickness.
One victim told me how he had to flee the village with his sick father. He tried to care for his ailing father in the bush, but hopelessly watched him die, because the local clinic had been looted by Seleka fighters and the roads were too dangerous for travel.
Another man described how the Seleka rounded up five men from his village, tied them up, and then gunned them down. A local official, he said, “went door to door in the village to ask people to leave their homes and come to a meeting to talk with the Seleka. The first few left their homes, five of them, and were grouped under a tree…their arms were attached to each other. They were then shot down one by one.”
During the Seleka’s assault on the Boy-Rabe neighbourhood of Bangui, the capital, in April, I spoke with fleeing victims who told more tragic tales: a man who frantically called his son to warn him not to go outside, only to hear a few hours later that he’d been killed; another man who watched as his wife and infant were murdered in front of him on his doorstep; a resident who watched his neighbour shot down after he tried to hide women fleeing the shooting; and parents who were forced to the floor at gunpoint while their daughter was raped by a Seleka fighter.
Human Rights Watch’s new report, 'I Can Still Smell the Dead: The Forgotten Human Rights Crisis in the Central African Republic' details these killings between March and June, both in Bangui and in the provinces, and confirms the deliberate destruction of more than 1,000 homes.
Since Human Rights Watch left CAR in June, the situation has worsened. From July to September we have received credible reports of Seleka attacks on civilians throughout the country. The humanitarian situation teeters on the verge of disaster, with growing numbers of internally displaced people and refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries. Transitional president and Seleka leader Michel Djotodia announced the dissolution of the rebel coalition earlier this month, but it remains unclear what will happen with its armed fighters.
When I was in CAR, many of the people I spoke to showed signs of deep trauma, and begged both for assistance and the world’s attention. Aid workers are trying to address basic needs, but are themselves targeted. On 7 September, two employees of the French charity ACTED were killed. Media reports implicate Seleka fighters in the deaths.
This July, Lynne Featherstone, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development, announced that the UK would give £5 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Humanitarian Air Service, to enable them to continue to deliver critical support to CAR. This is a good first step and deserves recognition.
But more needs to be done to stop the violence. The UK should help the African Union peacekeeping mission in CAR ensure civilian protection by providing much-needed and requested logistical and financial support. Through its seat on the UN Security Council, the UK should push for targeted sanctions on those responsible for human rights abuses, including Seleka leaders. Finally, the UK should support efforts to bring to account, including by the International Criminal Court, perpetrators of human rights crimes in the country, both past and present.
The phrase I heard most often in CAR was “don’t forget us.” I doubt I’ll be able to, given the terrible things I saw. Central Africans urgently need humanitarian assistance, security, and justice. If only more people could find them on a map.
Lewis Mudge is a researcher in the Africa division at Human Rights Watch.