Originally at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/20/mission-3
by JON LEE ANDERSON
When the killing reached Bossemptele, a small town deep in the isolated interior of the Central African Republic, Father Bernard Kinvi, who helps run the Catholic mission there, tried to save everyone he could. A handsome man of thirty-two, Father Bernard wears a black cassock with a large red cross imprinted on the chest. He was born in West Africa, in Togo, and when he left the seminary and came to the Central African Republic, four years ago, he knew little of his adopted country except that “it was a place of military crises.” Bossemptele, with its mission compound—a pretty little church, a modest school, and a rudimentary hospital—seemed like a peaceful place. Old shade trees lined the road, and wildflowers grew in the fields.
Until 1960, the Central African Republic was a French colony, known as Oubangui-Chari. It is rich in resources, with endless forests, gold, uranium, and oil, but it is among the world’s poorest countries. It is landlocked, largely undeveloped, and surrounded by other troubled nations: Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the two Congos, and Cameroon. Air France flies in once a week; few other airlines go there at all.
One of the country’s meagre blessings in the past several decades has been a relative lack of religious conflict. Of four and a half million citizens, fifteen per cent are Muslims; nearly all the rest profess some form of Christianity, often infused with animist beliefs. When Father Bernard arrived in Bossemptele, he detected no tensions between the Christians and the Muslims. “There were perfect community relations,” he told me, when I visited a few months ago. “Most of our hospital patients were Muslims, in fact.” Then, in 2012, he and the mission’s two other priests and four nuns began hearing reports about the Seleka, or “Alliance,” a Muslim rebel group in the east of the country. They were marching toward Bangui, the capital, a hundred and ninety miles away. “We weren’t affected,” Bernard said, speaking as someone in Tennessee might speak of a tornado in Oklahoma—a concern, but not a threat. “Then they started coming this way.”
The Seleka, young men armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers, swept down from the north, and in March, 2013, they overran Bangui, where they established a despotic rule. Their ranks, which included hundreds of veterans of past rebellions, as well as mercenaries from Sudan and Chad, swelled with conscripts, and with inmates freed from Bangui’s main prison. The fighters collected taxes and tributes by force and brutally beat and killed people who disobeyed them. As the Seleka abuses grew, a second militia—the antibalaka, organized by former members of the security forces and consisting largely of Christians—rose up to retaliate, and, as it advanced, the country slid into a murderous sectarian war. In Bossemptele, there was little that Father Bernard could do. When fighters, both Christian and Muslim, arrived at the mission hospital, he treated their wounds without prejudice, even as leaders on both sides threatened him for aiding the enemy.
There were two thousand African Union peacekeeping troops in the country, and as the killing intensified four thousand more were sent. The French President, François Hollande, sent twelve hundred soldiers, in addition to the four hundred already stationed there, and set up a base of operations at Bangui’s airport. But the Central African Republic is the size of France and Austria combined, and in so much territory the peacekeepers could have little more than a symbolic effect. By Christmas, more than a hundred thousand refugees were living in a tent city near the runway of the Bangui airport. Soon, nearly a million people were homeless, and more than a quarter of the population required food aid.
The antibalaka’s goal grew from simple reprisal to ridding the country of Muslims entirely. Human-rights observers and U.N. officials spoke fearfully of the “seeds of genocide” being planted. As the antibalaka attacked Muslim neighborhoods—looting and burning homes, slaughtering people—the intervention settled into a strategy of separating the partisans. By April, at least a quarter of a million Muslims had fled the country, most of them in convoys of trucks loosely guarded by the French or African Union troops. When a truck broke down or when someone fell off, antibalaka on the roadside sometimes tore the refugees to pieces. Before the war, there were nearly seven hundred thousand Muslims in the country. Fewer than ninety thousand remain.
Bangui sits across the Ubangi River from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a former Belgian colony. A century ago, on both sides of the river, colonial traders used the weapons of slavery and murder to force local people to extract rubber from the surrounding jungle. After independence, in 1960, the city was given a sentimental nickname, Bangui La Coquette. These days it is hard to imagine why. There is one wide boulevard, running past a row of ministries that were built at independence. All the buildings are in disrepair, missing bits of roof or façade, and smudged with red earth. At traffic circles, there are statues of bygone heroes, including Barthélémy Boganda, an anti-colonial priest who negotiated independence with Charles de Gaulle and then died in a mysterious plane crash the year before the agreement was sealed. Otherwise, the most imposing sights are a few billboards, advertising Orange, Total, and Air France—reminders that, in spite of half a century of formal political autonomy, France remains the country’s economic touchstone. Bangui’s original Gallic grid has come to resemble a sprawling African village, with roadside shacks offering everything from beer and haircuts to phone cards and fried manioc balls. In the central market, women sell smoked bat and monkey, alongside pirated films from Nigeria and plastic jugs of locally distilled gin.
In 2011, the Central African Republic received some press after President Obama dispatched a special-forces team to help hunt down the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army. Otherwise, the country has not been in the news much since the seventies, when the dictator Jean Bédel Bokassa crowned himself emperor.
One morning, Jean Serge Bokassa, a son of the late Emperor, showed me around his father’s former palace, a two-hour drive into the jungle from Bangui. Inside a set of grand gates, the grounds, once magnificent, had fallen into moldering ruins. The palace was missing most of its walls and flooring. On the second floor, Bokassa pointed to a gaping hole and said, “That is where my father’s bedroom was.” Unemployed soldiers had squatted there, and torn up the wood floors for cooking fires. On one wall, near where the Empress Catherine had once slept, a soldier had drawn a scorpion in charcoal.
The Emperor’s coronation, in 1977, was as grand an occasion as anyone in Africa could remember. There was a marching band in Republican Guard uniforms, white horses pulling a gold carriage, a fleet of Mercedes limousines imported for guests. Bokassa wore a diamond-studded crown, and a jewel-speckled uniform designed by the couturier to Napoleon. The ceremony cost ninety million dollars in today’s money–a third of the country’s annual budget—and the French underwrote much of the expense. Bokassa, a decorated veteran of the Free French Forces during the Second World War and of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, in Indochina, was regarded as a staunch ally whose whims were worth indulging.
But Bokassa, who had awarded himself power for life, launched a series of grandiose projects that emptied the country’s treasury, and reigned as a despot. In 1978, he decreed that all school uniforms were to be purchased from a company owned by his wife. When schoolchildren protested, several dozen were arrested and killed. Bokassa was alleged to have personally beaten some of them to death with his sceptre. Within months, the French had shoved him out.
In the coming decades, the country languished under a series of dictators, and several times the French sent in soldiers to intervene, overturning some governments and propping up others. In the nineties, the country enjoyed a rare period of civilian rule. Then, in 2003, an Army officer named François Bozizé carried out yet another coup. Bozizé, a Christian, played on the resentments of Muslims, who felt that they had been shortchanged in the country’s power-sharing arrangements. Mahamed Bahar, a Muslim former Army general who joined in the coup, told me that Bozizé made sweeping promises to secure support. “He said he would be the last Christian President, and that the next President would be Muslim,” Bahar said. He promised his Muslim supporters elevated positions in the Army. Instead, once he was in power, he jailed some Muslim soldiers and disenfranchised the rest.
Bahar and his comrades retreated to the northern wilderness, the traditional homeland of the country’s Muslims, where they built a militia, bargaining with elephant poachers to acquire weapons. That was the beginning of the Bush War, which began in 2004 and ended three years later, after the French sent in Mirage jets against the rebels. For Bahar, the conflict was deepened by personal animus: he told me that while he was away in the bush Bozizé had slept with his wife.
In 2012, Bahar and several other rebel leaders joined up in the north to form the Seleka: a force of six thousand men, with Bahar serving as the intelligence chief. In their first major successful attack, they overran an Army base, seized a huge trove of weapons, and began to make their way south. The following March, when the Seleka reached Bangui, they rode in a fleet of pickup trucks with shooters in the back. If anyone dared attack them, they often responded with “exactions”: reprisal raids in which fighters raced into non-Muslim villages, shooting anyone they saw and then torching their homes. Bozizé, to save himself and his family, fled across the river to the Congo. The Seleka promptly installed one of their leaders, Michel Djotodia, as the new President. After years on the political sidelines, the country’s Muslim minority had suddenly come to power.
Father Bernard is of the Camillien order, named for St. Camille, who attends the sick, and so he directs Bossemptele’s hospital, which is named for Pope John Paul II. He has few interests outside his religious work. “I mostly read books about people who have devoted their lives to saving humanity,” he said. After he came to Bossemptele, little tied him to Togo, the country of his birth. His father and four of his sisters had died, from illness, accident, and violence—a series of tragedies that Bernard described only as a “hardship.”
After the Seleka took Bangui, they fanned out to secure the other towns across the south and west, and soon a detachment of fighters—rough-hewn, turbaned men—arrived in Bossemptele and assumed control. Bernard tried to establish a working rapport with their commander, whom he referred to as the Colonel. “Things were very tense at the beginning,” he said. But when the Colonel realized that his men were going to the hospital for medical care he relaxed. “We reached an understanding,” Father Bernard said. “He told his men not to come into the grounds of the mission with their weapons, and he gave me his number to call in case there was any trouble.” Even so, things were not easy. “He became everything in this town—judge, police chief, everything,” Bernard said. The Colonel’s men stole goats and chickens, and posted an ostentatious armed guard around the town’s mosque during Friday prayers. In church, Bernard spoke of the need for dialogue and forgiveness, but he could see that resentment was growing. As the community divided along sectarian lines, the Colonel gave the Muslims guns in exchange for cows.
Warlords from various regions had aligned their militias with the Seleka, and the unruly factions began competing for money, territory, and power. Djotodia, the self-proclaimed President, proved incapable of restraining them. In September, 2013, he announced that he was disbanding the militia, but the edict had little effect. The Seleka kept up their atrocities: burning people alive, killing hospital patients, throwing bound prisoners off bridges to drown. Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, who spent months investigating the conflict, said, “Just think the four horsemen of the apocalypse and you’ll have the picture. People really hated them. That’s what got the antibalaka going.”
For decades, the country’s Christians had lived peaceably alongside Muslims, but there were submerged resentments. The early Muslims who moved into the area from North Africa were involved in the slave trade, and more recently they had established themselves as prosperous traders, with control over much of the rudimentary financial system. In many places, their relative wealth was cause for bitterness. When the conflict began, even their fighters were better armed. In Bangui, a commander named Dejé told me that the word “antibalaka”—which derives from a combination of “anti-machete” and “anti-AK”—signifies “power over the machete and the gun.” Dejé saw his mission as a holy endeavor. “The earth belongs to us through our ancestors, and foreigners”—Muslims—“came to try and take it, but they cannot,” he said. “When we invoke the spirits of the ancestors in our dreams, they help us in the fight.”
One of the founders of the antibalaka, a police colonel named Dieudonné (“God-given”), explained to me how the militia had been organized. We met in a bar, in a slum near the airport, where he nursed a bottle of orange soda while several of his men drank beer through the afternoon. In June, 2013, he said, with the Seleka dominating the capital, he and a few other gendarmes had set out for the interior town of Bossangoa, the home of the exiled President Bozizé, who is widely thought to have fostered the antibalaka. Bossangoa was a two-hundred-mile march through the forest, and it took two weeks. “We went through the forest to avoid Seleka, who were on the roads, and we ate wild yams,” Dieudonné told me. A group of sixteen officers set up a secret base in the jungle and began assembling recruits. “We are soldiers, so we taught them how to fight,” he said. Soon, the militia had two thousand trained men.
The fighters were emboldened by the belief, inspired by animist traditions, that they were protected by magic. They festooned themselves with wigs, costumes, and amulets to ward off attacks, and assembled an arsenal of bows with poison-tipped arrows, machetes, and a few hunting rifles. Dieudonné proudly recounted their exploits in early battles, seizing weapons and killing Seleka. When I pointed out that his men had killed entire families, he put on an obstinate look. “Yes, but the Seleka killed entire families,” he said. “They killed our people and left our parents to be eaten by dogs. We balanced things out. That’s vengeance, isn’t it?” He said emphatically that the Seleka had killed members of his own family. “I lost many cousins, a grandfather, and my own father was killed in Bossangoa.” Dieudonné lapsed into an aggrieved silence. “I have no regrets,” he said, finally. “No one helped us when the Seleka came to power. If someone comes and puts a boot on your head and knife to your neck, what do you do? You defend yourself.”
The worsening crisis put François Hollande in a quandary. Since 1960, France had sent its military some fifty times to intervene in its former African colonies, but an engagement in Mali the previous year had ended in a messy stalemate. The French public was wary of another intervention. As the antibalaka began working to exterminate the country’s Muslims, Hollande’s Administration lobbied the U.N. for a mandate; his foreign minister called the country “a gray area, a stateless area, an area without a backbone,” while others warned of genocide and of creating a harbor for terrorists.
Finally, in December, 2013, as the antibalaka swarmed the capital, the mandate came through. Hollande sent in the twelve hundred troops, promising, “This operation will be short.” He called the soldiers Sangaris, after a butterfly, common in the Central African Republic, that has bright-red wings and a brief life span. But the small deployment of French fighters was unable to pacify Bangui, let alone the rest of the country, and soon afterward a U.N. report noted that the violence and displacement had grown worse. Embarrassments piled up. Earlier, French troops had mistakenly shot and killed two Indian nationals at the Bangui airport, and Hollande’s government was forced to apologize. After two Sangaris were killed in a skirmish, popular opinion in France began to turn decisively against the intervention.
The foreign presence had unpredictable effects. In mid-January, succumbing to pressure from regional leaders, Djotodia, the Seleka leader, stepped down and went into exile. Instead of stabilizing the situation, his departure seemed to invite even greater violence. As the French in Bangui disarmed Seleka fighters, mobs of antibalaka chased down and mercilessly killed Muslim civilians, often within sight of peacekeepers. One man posed for news cameras with the half-cooked leg of a Muslim man he had murdered, and took ravenous bites out of it.
Bangui’s popular mayor, an insurance broker named Catherine Samba-Panza, was hastily installed as the country’s interim President; new elections were to be held in a year. She promised to make the government more inclusive and to end the violence. Samba-Panza summoned the national Army back to work, and on February 5, 2014, she addressed a group of soldiers at a special ceremony. No sooner had she concluded her speech than some of the soldiers present accused a colleague of having been a Seleka. They beat and stabbed him to death, then dragged his body through the streets and burned it, recording everything they did on cell phones.
In Bossemptele, Father Bernard could sense that the Seleka fighters were beginning to panic. Antibalaka were massing in nearby villages, and there were reports that the newly arrived French troops were making their way toward the town. At first, the Seleka fighters flooded into the mission grounds for protection. Then a more aggressive contingent broke into the mission to steal the three or four vehicles it owned. Frightened for his safety after being threatened at gunpoint by a Seleka fighter, Father Bernard fled into the bush, and found that many others from the town were already hiding there. From the tall grass surrounding the mission, they watched the Seleka evacuate the town. “As they left, they shouted war cries—‘God is great!’––at their victory for having gotten the cars,” Bernard said. With the Seleka gone, the antibalaka were free to march into Bossemptele, where hundreds of Muslims were still stranded. “With that, the reign of the Seleka ended, and the reign of the antibalaka began.”
The antibalaka were far more vicious than the Seleka, and less organized. Father Bernard could do little more than beg them for leniency. But, he said, “There wasn’t a clear leadership, so it was difficult to convince them.” On the morning of January 18, 2014, the town’s imam suggested making a tribute of money and livestock in exchange for a promise not to attack. Father Bernard sent a message to an antibalaka commander he knew on the eastern front. A heartening reply came back: “We don’t want a fight.”
But a second, more aggressive antibalaka force was approaching from the north, warning Christians to leave their houses to avoid the conflict. “I tried to talk to them, but they were strangers and wouldn’t listen,” Bernard said. Youths from the town began shouting, “Kill the Muslims!” As frightened Muslims filled the mission compound, the antibalaka swept in, and the town erupted into violence.
After five hours, the shooting subsided, and Bernard went out to see the damage. “There were wounded people everywhere,” he said. “Because the Seleka had taken our vehicles, we had only a pushcart to use, and one stretcher.” The priests began collecting the injured. “The antibalaka wanted to kill the wounded, and we had to say, ‘No, you will have to kill us first.’ ”
That night, the priests and doctors treated the wounded and tried to rescue the survivors from the Muslim quarter, three hundred yards from the mission. “We sent word to all the Muslim women to come to our school, but the antibalaka were killing all the men and boys,” Bernard recalled. “We had one thirteen-year-old boy we were taking back with us, and the antibalaka said, ‘We need to kill him, because he will grow up to be a Seleka.’ We argued with them, and in the end they let us go. But then the next group we came across said to me, ‘We have to kill him, because he’s from the people that stole your cars.’ I said, ‘They were my cars, and if I want to take revenge it’s my decision.’ ”
More than a thousand Muslim refugees, mostly women and children, had come to the mission to live under Bernard’s protection. They were joined by a group of Peul, Muslim cattle herders who for centuries have moved with their livestock throughout the region. “It’s not that we made a specific decision to help the Muslims,” Bernard explained. “It’s that our mission is to protect the weakest and most vulnerable.” Bernard realized that his mission retained a special status, even for the antibalaka. As the killers went from house to house, a kind of unspoken game began to play out: if Father Bernard made it past their guards, they would allow him to take wounded victims back to his mission. Bernard recalled carrying a disabled teen-age girl on his back. “As the antibalaka saw me struggling to carry her, they laughed, because I was sweating and struggling so much,” he said.
The bodies that had been left around Bossemptele began decomposing in the heat. “Nobody wanted to touch them, because in this country there is a superstition that if you touch a dead body you will die in the same way,” Bernard said. Together with a local Red Cross worker, he took the mission’s pushcart and went out to pick up the bodies. Some had been partly eaten by pigs. “The first day, we got twenty-one,” he recalled. “We took the bodies to the cemetery, but the people who came to help us began to vanish. There was nobody willing to help dig graves.” Then Father Bernard remembered a place where there was a big hole in the ground, and he and his priests took the bodies there for burial. “It was not very dignified, but it was the only solution,” he explained.
Father Bernard spent fifteen days retrieving bodies and burying them. “The antibalaka were very proud of what they were doing. They would call me on their cell phones and say, ‘Father, come, we’ve killed one. Come and bury him.’ Another told me, ‘Yes, Father, you are doing your work and we’re doing ours.’ ”
The siege in Bossemptele continued for a month. About a hundred Muslims were murdered, and hundreds of houses were burned. Finally, the antibalaka leaders summoned Father Bernard to inform him of a change of policy. “They said they had instructions, in a letter from a leader in Bangui, not to kill anymore,” he told me. Instead, they began taking hostages. Many of the Muslims who had been left behind were elderly or crippled by polio. They were easy targets. “The antibalaka made a little business out it,” Father Bernard said, disgustedly. “They would call me and say, ‘Father, we have four Peul,’ and then ask for money for them. And so then we would go and get them. The prices depended on who they had. Throughout all of this, no government presence ever showed up here. Helicopters came overhead, but they didn’t land.”
By the time the peacekeeping troops established a presence around the country, most of the Muslims had fled, but a few pockets of survivors remained, in a tense standoff with the antibalaka. For many, the peacekeepers’ presence gave little comfort. On the outskirts of Yaloke, an hour down the road from Bossemptele, peacekeepers from Congo-Brazzaville stood guard over a small hilltop where five hundred stranded Peul were living in colonial-era administrative buildings. Outside, women with long braids cooked over fires and tended to children. The Peul men and boys, who wore robes and skullcaps, sat on mats, talking and praying.
I was travelling with Peter Bouckaert, the Human Rights Watch official, and, apart from the miserable handful in Father Bernard’s custody, these Peul were the only Muslims we encountered during a week in the area. Six weeks earlier, one of the men explained, they had been fleeing toward Cameroon with their cattle, a herd of seven thousand head. They had paid the local antibalaka leaders, Colonel Richard and Colonel Le Bleu, to insure their safe passage, but on the way they were attacked by another group of antibalaka. Their cattle were stolen, and a dozen of their people disappeared. Afterward, Richard and Le Bleu had brought them to this hilltop. A Catholic priest had been giving them food, and the peacekeepers were guarding them, but they were not allowed to leave. The Peul felt unsafe and wished desperately to be evacuated on the next convoy to Cameroon.
As we talked, a jeep pulled up and a corpulent man in a tracksuit got out, accompanied by a couple of armed soldiers. It was the commander of the peacekeepers, a Congolese Army captain. He said that it was his duty to keep the Peul where they were. If any of them tried to leave, he said, waving at the soldiers he had posted along the road, he would have them shot.
While Bouckaert used a satellite phone to report the situation to senior U.N. officials, I asked the officer if he had meant the threat seriously. “Of course not,” he said. “I just want to scare them.” Soon afterward, the town’s mayor and its chief gendarme arrived and loudly agreed that the Peul could not leave. The gendarme eyed the Peul with distaste and stood, swaying a little. He stank of alcohol.
Without an advocate, the Peul were effectively trapped. The Congolese officer repeated that he had orders to keep everyone in the compound. “Because if they go”—he made a chopping motion and a shooting noise—“Pap-pap-pap.” Pointing at the Peul elder, he repeated it: “Pap-pap-pap.”
The peacekeepers’ influence didn’t extend far. In Gaga, a gold-mining outpost an hour from Yaloke, the antibalaka commanders Richard and Le Bleu had established a violent and lucrative fiefdom without interference. Throughout the country, both sides had seized farmland, timber-rich forests, and gold and diamond mines. The antibalaka especially had been living off their plunder. Some made off with cash or cattle, and many took the Muslims’ abandoned clothing—robes, skullcaps, fezzes—to wear as trophies.
At the edge of Gaga, a riverbed had been turned into a blasted landscape of dirt mounds and muddy pools, where young women sloshed water in tin pans, looking for gold. The women said that they panned twelve hours a day and were allowed to keep up to a gram of what they found; anything more they gave to the mine’s owner. The owner’s brother, who served as their overseer, greeted us and said, “In the beginning, this mine belonged to our people. But then the Muslims came, with their small shops and their moneylending, and they became the owners of this place.” Now, he said, Gaga had reverted to its rightful owners. Smiling, he said that two to three kilos of gold came from the mines every day.
We found Colonel Le Bleu in charge of the town. He was a muscular young man with short dreadlocks and a gris-gris band adorned with bullets around his biceps. At his side was a female bodyguard who wore a curly blond wig and carried a whip fashioned out of a car’s fan belt. Another young man carried an anti-tank rocket, and several others had Kalashnikovs. Le Bleu led us into an empty beer hall, where crates of local Mocaf beer were stacked. His entourage stood watchfully around us.
He told me that he had become an antibalaka after the Seleka destroyed his business, a shop that sold motorcycle parts. “I was not a soldier before, but I took up a gun,” he said. When I asked about Richard, he smiled. “Richard and I made war together, and now we’re making peace,” he said. They were in Gaga to stop human-rights abuses, he added. “The proof of that is the Peul who are in Yaloke. It was I who took them there.” I asked why the Peul had lost their cows while they were under his protection. “They were being attacked, and so it’s only natural that they lost their cows,” he said. “But you can be assured that many more would have been lost if I had not been there.” He had arranged for people from Bangui to pay them fair prices for their cattle and to send trucks to transport them. He added, “Once it is secure here, I will move on to other areas with the message of peace.”
In the camp at Yaloke, a Peul man had told me that Richard took his wife prisoner. When I asked Le Bleu about it, he demurred, and said that Richard was out of town, tending to business. Later, the Peul told me that Richard had taken many captives from their community. Some hundred and twenty Peul were working for him in the forest near Gaga, where they were forced to herd cattle that the antibalaka had stolen from them.
Le Bleu broke off our conversation, saying that a pair of gendarmes from Yaloke were waiting for him outside. One of his men had murdered somebody, and the body had been discovered on the outskirts of town. Le Bleu led the way, with the gendarmes trailing behind, and after a few minutes we arrived at the bloated yellow corpse of a man whose legs had been gnawed away by dogs. Le Bleu held his nose against the stench and stared. Finally, he said, “It’s amazing what happens to a human body after a few days in the sun, isn’t it?”
The victim had arrived in Gaga with a motorbike that he wanted to sell. One of Le Bleu’s guards coveted the bike, shot the man to death, and dumped his body on the roadside. Le Bleu had caught the culprit and, according to locals, subjected him to arbatasher, a punishment in which a victim’s elbows and ankles are tied together behind his back, forcing his body into an agonized arch and eventually causing permanent nerve damage and paralysis. He was still bound as Le Bleu spoke with us.
At Father Bernard’s mission, weeks went by with no official help, even as hundreds of Muslims clustered inside the compound for protection. “The antibalaka leaders were constantly coming to say the Muslims needed to leave,” he said. Whenever he was away, fighters appeared and threatened the refugees. Once, the antibalaka abducted three refugees. One of the nuns, Sister Josephine, told their leader that the camp was under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and that if anything happened to his prisoners he could end up in The Hague. “It was a lie,” Father Bernard said, and smiled. “But when the antibalaka leader heard that, he agreed to let them go.” The situation was similar in many places across the Central African Republic: a handful of priests and nuns in Catholic missions were all that stood between tens of thousands of trapped Muslim civilians and their would-be killers.
For a time, Father Bernard had no food to give his Muslim wards except rice from his own stores, but eventually Médecins Sans Frontières and the World Food Programme sent him supplies. The evacuation of the Muslims went slowly. In February, 2014, Bernard managed to get a couple of hundred refugees on a convoy headed to the border, but it was a chaotic and frightening experience. “There were horrific scenes, with antibalaka crowding in and trying to hit people with machetes as they got on the trucks,” he said. “Sometimes the trucks took off so fast that people’s possessions were left behind, or families were separated.” Father Bernard was left holding a woman’s baby, which he handed up to a girl in another truck in the hope that she would find the mother at the border. Several more convoys followed, and by the end of March he was able to safely evacuate almost all of Bossemptele’s remaining Muslims.
In April, the French began coming to Bossemptele more frequently, and the antibalaka dismantled their roadblocks and returned to their villages. Some of the local leaders told Father Bernard that Muslims could come home. None did, of course, and Father Bernard told the few who remained not to leave the mission grounds. At the end of May, he still had ten Muslims in his care. They included two Peul girls with polio, an adolescent boy who was too deeply in shock to communicate, and an elderly blind woman who had been left in a river after being attacked with machetes. The town’s imam, who was married to a Christian woman, was living in the compound. His wife and daughter visited him every day.
At the mission, Mamounia, a forty-year-old Muslim woman from Yaloke, told me that, after the antibalaka killed her elderly father, she and her three-year-old daughter had fled through the forest with a group of Peul. As they crossed the road into Bossemptele, the antibalaka attacked. “I saw bodies dropping to the ground, and at that moment I was hit myself,” Mamounia recalled. “I was covered in blood among the bodies and begging the antibalaka not to kill me.” She had been hit in her temple and in her back. “My daughter was on my back, and the bullet went through her and hit me,” she said.
The antibalaka took out machetes to kill her, but, she recalled, “Someone said, ‘No, it’s a woman, those who gave us life.’ ” The fighters took her to Father Bernard’s hospital, leaving her daughter behind. The next day, a woman brought in the child, badly wounded but still alive. “She hung on for two weeks, and then she died,” Mamounia said. Her eyes were bright but she did not weep.
Mamounia intended to stay with Father Bernard until her wounds healed and then make her way to Cameroon. Three of her children had made it to safety there in the care of a brother, and she hoped to be reunited with them. She couldn’t comprehend the hatred of the antibalaka who had killed her daughter. But if things grew calm again, she said with a hopeful smile, she would come back home.
The road that most of the Central African Republic’s Muslims used to flee their country leads northwest for three hundred and eighty miles from Bangui to the Cameroon border—a days-long drive through a green landscape with little discernible human development. Every town along the way has a district dotted with the scorched ruins of the Muslims’ homes, shops, and mosques.
But not all of the Muslims left the country. When Bangui fell to the antibalaka, a large contingent escaped to the town of Bambari, at the edge of the traditional Muslim homeland in the north and east. There they established a new headquarters, where they were joined by several thousand Muslim civilians. During my visit, the French Sangaris drove around Bambari in a small convoy of armored personnel carriers, but the real power in the streets belonged to the Seleka commander, General Joseph Ousmane Zoundeko. I met him in his compound, where he was guarded by men with Islamic amulets under their uniforms. A brawny former Army officer, Zoundeko wore a red beret; a battle injury had melted away most of his right ear. He had recently been named the Seleka chief of staff, after a prominent general broke away and declared a separate Muslim state in the east. Zoundeko spoke briefly of the need for reconciliation, and then started ranting about the peacekeepers. “The French want to exterminate the Muslim population of the Central African Republic,” he said. “Without them, the antibalaka would be nothing.”
Despite the peacekeepers’ presence, neither side was giving up the fight. In the forest outside town, we came upon a village where antibalaka had burned down the mosque, leaving a roofless husk. The place looked deserted, but gradually civilians appeared and told us about the violence. Within a few days, the antibalaka had burned two houses, killed three Peul, and lain in ambush to attack farmers as they returned from their fields.
In reprisal, the Seleka were conducting raids. One evening, I watched as a convoy of trucks headed out of town, packed with fighters, weapons at the ready. Bouckaert recognized their leader; a few months earlier, peacekeeping troops had arrived in another town where he was in charge. To elude the peacekeepers’ attention, he had told his men to stop shooting and instead use “cold weapons”: tying people up, smashing them against the pavement to stun them, and throwing them into the river.
A few days after my visit, the French Ambassador, Charles Malinas, arrived in Bambari and demanded that the Seleka disarm—even though the antibalaka were within ten kilometres of the town. The Muslims were furious. Zoundeko, the Seleka commander, insisted that his men would “fight and die as martyrs.” A few hours later, a protest erupted, and the Sangaris opened fire, killing one civilian and wounding several more. Afterward, a Muslim mob drove the French out of town and barricaded the bridges that led in and out.
Thousands of refugees had crowded the Cathedral of St. Joseph, which sat on a hill above town. A few weeks later, a group of Seleka pushed their way in and started shooting, massacring at least twenty people, mostly women and children. As in similar incidents around the country, French troops arrived after most of the killing had taken place and then limited their actions to setting up a defensive perimeter around the mission. Kasper Agger, a field researcher for the Enough Project, an N.G.O. that monitors human rights in the region, said, “We’ve heard the same thing again and again. Even though they are deployed close to incidents that take place, the French rarely intervene. It seems that they are scared of taking casualties.”
One afternoon in Bangui, I met Ambassador Malinas next to the pool at the Hotel Ledger Plaza, the city’s only luxury hotel. He rejected the idea that the French supported the antibalaka. “People here, they very often blame everything on outsiders,” he said. But he took a historical view of France’s culpability. “Forty years ago, this was a rich country,” he said. “They actually exported tobacco to Cuba, and they harvested palm oil and had a wood industry, as well as gold, diamonds, and all of it was very organized. It was Bokassa’s time, and it is horrible to say, maybe, but before he went a little mad he did some decent things here. And since him, all the governments have done is to take money.” Malinas added ruefully, “We didn’t manage the independence here very well. We left them French managers to run things, when what they needed was to build up a generation of their own leaders.”
Indeed, little has happened in recent months to suggest that the country’s leaders were able to manage a political settlement, even with international help. In May, the government held talks with the Seleka, under the auspices of the French and the African Union, but militants on both sides remained dug into their own neighborhoods, emerging periodically to fight. At a reconciliation soccer game between young Muslims and Christians, antibalaka gruesomely murdered three Muslim players. In retribution, armed Muslims attacked a church in a Christian neighborhood. Rumors spread that they decapitated the priest, jihadi style.
Before dawn the next day, a protest raised a great commotion: gunfire, clanging, people shouting. Smoke billowed from fires set on the pavement, and a French military helicopter circled over the city. Most of the protesters were armed with only pots and pans, to make noise, but some had guns. In the Muslim stronghold of PK5, a few people were shot to death outside the peacekeepers’ headquarters. The crowds, mostly Christian, were angry at the African Union, at the French, and at white foreigners generally, for not having disarmed the Seleka. They were demanding that the Muslims be stripped of their arms and that the peacekeepers who had failed to stop the fighting be removed from the country.
During the protests, Jean Serge Bokassa, the Emperor’s son, emerged as a leader of the anti-Seleka contingent, and on the third day I found him at his apartment downtown. He came to the door in flip-flops and pointed to his feet, which were swollen and blistered. “From the marching,” he explained, with a smile. “I thought it was important to show solidarity with the people, especially since we’ve seen that, after these incidents, there is never any reaction by the government. What’s happening is that people are now questioning the measures that have been taken to end the conflict. There have been so many funds allocated, and international forces have been given a mandate, but we seem still to be in the same predicament.”
As the demonstrations continued, Samba-Panza called for a period of national mourning for the victims of the church massacre and promised to punish those responsible. Although she asked all of the city’s militias to give up their arms, Muslims felt that she was favoring the Christians. A trader named Haroun told me, “For there to be reconciliation, they need to recognize what they did to us, and we need equal treatment with the rest of the population.” He began to shout. “They have killed my wife, my brothers. We are not going to stay here with these cannibal people.”
Samba-Panza accused “enemies of peace” of “shamelessly exploiting inter-communal hatred,” but her government seemed no less afflicted by sectarian anger. One morning, I went to see the minister of national reconciliation, Antoinette Montaigne. A tall, stylish woman in a Prussian-blue jacket and a black skirt, she had recently returned from France, where she worked as a lawyer. In her office, she spoke bitterly about the Seleka’s talks with the government. (She has since left her position, but still advises the President.) “They come here and say they want to reconcile, but the minute they leave they show just the opposite,” she said. She was vexed by the weakness of the government, in which some posts were occupied by former Seleka officials. “They have tapped my telephone, because they control the telecommunications,” she said. “They also control the media in this government. The higher-ups in the government don’t see the problem, but I do.” The protesters in Bangui were taking justice into their own hands, she said, because they knew that the government would not provide it.
Looking around, she apologized for the bareness of the surroundings. Her staff had arrived that morning and found that the office had been burglarized. She had met the Seleka’s liaison officer there the day before, and, she confided, “I suspect him of doing it.” She gestured angrily at empty desks where computers had been. As soon as she had a new computer, she told me, she would send out her plan for reconciliation, so that the “parallel state of the Seleka and the little bandits of the antibalaka can be put to an end.”
On July 23rd, the government’s efforts produced a tentative result, as commanders for the Seleka and the antibalaka signed a peace agreement. Almost immediately, leaders of rival factions rejected the deal, and new violence broke out around the country. Soon afterward, Samba-Panza tried another approach: she forced her cabinet to resign, and appointed a Muslim prime minister, the country’s first, who was allowed to name a few Seleka officials as ministers. The leaders of the main Seleka army in the north responded by expelling the officials from its movement.
In a speech to French Ambassadors on August 28th, François Hollande congratulated his peacekeeping troops. “Last December, we intervened in the Central African Republic,” he said. “We prevented the worst, and I mean the worst.” Most people I talked to agreed that the international forces had averted a genocide. Kasper Agger, of the Enough Project, said, “Their presence helped keep the killing from spiralling out of control. It probably was a game changer.” But no one thought that tamping down the violence was enough to turn the Central African Republic into a cohesive state. Many pointed out that the fighting had subsided largely because the country was effectively partitioned, with the peacekeepers’ help, into Christian and Muslim regions.
During the worst of the conflict, the United States did little more than help to airlift in African troops. Samantha Power, the American Ambassador to the U.N., was among those who argued for greater action. When I spoke to her recently, she said that the intervention was inadequate but suggested that it was unrealistic to hope for more. The peacekeepers had neutralized the fighters’ ”eliminationist tendencies,” she said. “What we haven’t done yet is stop the suffering of the people of the Central African Republic, or succeed in being everywhere—which means that, on any given day, people are still being targeted for nothing more than their religious identity. Given the amount of killing and displacement and suffering that has gone on, it’s difficult to call the international effort a great success. But all one has to do is talk to an antibalaka or a Seleka to know what it would have looked like if there had not been an international presence.”
In September, the U.N. deployed a peacekeeping mission, called MINUSCA, for the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic. When Samba-Panza visited New York a few weeks ago, I asked how, after so many failed interventions, the international community could make a difference. She implied that it was largely a matter of scale: the U.N. planned to increase the number of peacekeepers to twelve thousand. “There will be more troops on the ground to deal with the violence that arises,” she said. The political work, though, would be much harder. With each militia splintered into factions, the reconciliation effort would entail many separate peace treaties. She suggested that the impetus would have to come from outside the country. “It’s very important that the U.N. help us in our reconciliation,” she said. “Without each citizen having a feeling of belonging, we will never find peace.” Privately, most of the relief officials, political analysts, and diplomats who work there express doubt that the U.N. can provide a lasting solution. David Smith, a South Africa-based analyst who has studied the country closely since the nineteen-eighties, told me, “There’s always been an international construct with an acronym here. Right now it’s MINUSCA. It’s unlikely to work. When it leaves, the country will just fall apart like it always does.” The newly deployed peacekeepers were greeted by the most intense fighting the country had seen for months. In Bangui last week, an attack on a U.N. vehicle killed one peacekeeper and injured eight others. Across the city, roadblocks went up, and the streets stood empty.
For Father Bernard, the new U.N. mission has made little difference; Bossemptele is still watched over by the same contingent of peacekeepers. He described a precarious calm, interrupted occasionally by violence. While he was away in Bangui recently, the antibalaka, who remain a belligerent presence in the town, accused a man of being a sorcerer. “They beat him and dug a grave in front of his house,” Bernard said. “They threw him alive in the grave and shot at him. Then they buried him.” The same week, the antibalaka attacked the home of the town’s chief gendarme, because he was sheltering a half-Muslim boy whom they suspected of being a spy. In both cases, the peacekeepers did nothing. “I am not sure they add much, because whenever something happens in town, they don’t really help,” Bernard said.
Even so, Father Bernard’s persistent efforts have created a small area of safety. “At the hospital, we don’t get bothered by the antibalaka anymore, because they realize we also treat them,” Bernard said. A few Muslims remain in his care: the traumatized teen-age boy, the Peul girls with polio. The imam, too, is still there. When I met him, he was certain that he would one day resume his old life, and that the Muslims and Christians would learn to live together again. When I asked him how so much violence could be forgotten, he looked at me quizzically; it was a matter of faith, pure and simple. In the meantime, he was contributing what he could to Father Bernard’s work. An experienced tailor, he was earning his keep at the mission by sewing school uniforms. With God’s will, he said, he was living day by day. ♦