3 Apr 2014

Central African Republic: EU to send some peacekeepers – at last

There I was, sitting on Kabul writing an irate blog, lambasting the EU for talking the talk, but not walking the walk, when suddenly… So this is a re-write.

True, it has taken a very long time. True, let’s wait and see how many and how quickly there are troops up along on the tarmac of Bangui Airport – but the EU is at last promising 1,000 peacekeepers for the terrible situation in the Central African Republic.

Angry young men complain to French soldiers on patrol in the pro-Christian area of Bangui

Nobody can claim that we were not warned.

For weeks now major charities in the UK like Amnesty and Save the Children – as well as Medecins Sans Frontieres have put out press release after press release about the worsening situation in the country.

This week two alarming statistics from an organisation not known for being alarmist – the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR.

They report that in the past 10 days in the capital Bangui, 16,000 Muslims have fled their homes from rampaging Christian mobs. They are now attempting to move 19,000 Muslims from the capital altogether.

You are bound to ask to where? And with what?

The situation outside the capital remains almost as forlorn as in the capital, and almost impossible to get reliable information about.

In Bangui most Muslims who flee districts like PK 5 will head to the northern suburb of PK 12 where the relatively puny French force of about 2,000 tries to do what it can to keep them safe.

But not all are deployed in Bangui, and those that are have the whole city to deal with.

So PK 12 is a hideously overcrowded and tense place where the men roam about armed with anything from ancient blunderbuss rifles through a range of knives and machetes to spears and bows and arrows.

Anything for some psychological comfort and perhaps a little protection.

The world has promised and issued words of understanding and great sympathy but in terms of peacekeeping has done little about it.

The EU in particular, is guilty of prattling on about the need for more peacekeeping troops, largely at the behest of Paris who has done her bit and more so.

The excuse given for not getting the force organised for months is the not enough member countries could be bothered. The EU uses words like the availability of assets etc. The truth is nobody cares enough about a few million black Africans.

Let us hope this is now changing. With EU boots in Bangui will come media interest from all countries involved.

The French currently continue to go it alone from Europe from their base at Bangui airport – itself overrun with Christian refugees who fled from the Muslim militias.

How much can a few hundred French soldiers on the streets – and mostly just the main streets and not the “quartiers” where the machete gangs hang out – really be expected to do?

True, the African Union has sent around 6,000 peacekeepers nationwide, but some seem pretty trigger happy and more close to the sectarian nature of the conflict than they should be.

Muslim Chadian soldiers recently shot up a Christian northern suburb of the capital killing 24 people. As peacekeeping goes, that bloody episode was less than impressive. Today they announced their troops would be withdrawn from the AU mission.

A major force in numbers, to the shame of the entire world, actually comes from a charity – MSF.

They now have 2,300 – yes two thousand three hundred people – in Bangui and up country doing astonishing hospital work for the shot, chopped, beaten and sick in a conflict which has just descended into the rainy season to make matters just that little bit worse.

The UNHCR said this week that the cities of Bossangoa, Berberati, Carnot and Noda are all more or less surrounded by the Christian Anti-Balaka militias, as they are known.

As a UNHCR spokeswoman said:

“We do not want to stand by and watch people being slaughtered.”

I have personally witnessed the African Union soldiers and French paratroopers saving the lives of individuals about to be hacked up by Christian gangs.

So they are making a vast difference compared to what would happen were they not here at all, but that merely underlines now serious this situation is.

Of course the Christians are responding in kind to the violence meted out by the largely Muslim seleka militia, after it seized power a year ago this month.

But that explanation doesn’t pose anybody a way out – just an invitation to justify tit-for- tat cycles of violence and revenge.

There is a by-word for that situation in central Africa and it is this: Rwanda.

And that means a genocide. We are not there yet. But at times you begin to feel people in the CAR are fast acquiring the roadmap to get there, and the tools to make the journey. The will, the violent, visceral hatred, is already burning in the hot, wet streets.

Somehow, the cycle must be broken. The EU move is a start but the numbers are not enough, not nearly enough.

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