The Central African Republic (CAR), has been marred by bloody conflict since March 2013, when a largely Muslim alliance of rebels known as Seleka stormed the capital of Bangui and ousted the notoriously corrupt President Francois Bozize. But CAR’s new government has been accused of mass atrocities and much of the impoverished country has plummeted into chaos. Nearly a quarter of the population has been displaced. A report by the International Federation of Human Rights says conditions are in place for a genocide reminiscent of Bosnia in the 1990s, and that swift efforts must be taken by the government and the international community to stop the violence.
FPI board member, human rights activist, and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Mia Farrow, made her fourth trip to CAR last month to see the conditions for herself. We caught up with her on why the crisis needs the world’s attention.
FPI: You’ve been to CAR four times now. How was this time different?
My first visit to Central African Republic was in 2007. It came about because I had been to the Darfur region twice and to Chad a few times, so I was, to put it mildly, interested in the neighborhood. I began asking questions about CAR, what was happening there and nobody had answers. So with the help of UNICEF I made my first trip there, and essentially drove around the country for two weeks. I came away thinking that the women and children of CAR are surely the most abandoned people on earth. There were just a few aid agencies there at that time, people were in dire circumstances, being preyed upon by rebel groups, bandits and marauders of every kind – from within CAR and from neighboring countries too. In the east, from Sudan, in the northwest, from Chad and beyond. Any thug could come into CAR and take whatever they wanted; goods, cattle, people. It was – and is – a sphere of complete impunity. So, thousands of terrified families had fled deep into the brush. At one point after passing countless burned and destroyed houses where weeds and trees had taken over the ruins, we stopped the car, turned off the engine and waited. After a time, 20 minutes or so, people haltingly emerged from the bush – one, then two then ten, then hundreds. They came like ghosts; emaciated, caked in gray dust, wearing remnants of clothing or no clothes at all. They told me they had been living in the brush for more than a year. They were eating leaves and roots, drinking swamp water. I could see that their teeth, even the children’s had rotted out of their mouths – and far worse, many of the children had died or were dying. It was understandable that the people said they were without hope.
When I returned in 2008, not much had changed except that 10 more humanitarian aid organizations had arrived. I saw that as progress. Today, the violence has taken a still more sinister shape, with two main armed groups – the non-Muslim anti-Balaka and the mostly Muslim ex-Selekas brutally attacking civilians and turning communities against each other. People are still hiding in the brush, and in different areas. They are freshly traumatized. You don’t hear much talk about the trauma because no one believes that, at this point, there is anything that can be done about it
During my visit in November, 2013, I went to the town of Bossangoa. Now I remember this as a bustling market-town. But it was eerily empty, surrounded by destroyed and burned homes. Some 30,000 Christian people had crowded into the grounds of a church. They were surrounded by their attackers. In the same town, Muslim families, in fewer numbers, were seeking safety at a school. Neither group had sufficient food, safe water or the most meager guarantee of safety. At that time, they did not dare to leave their compounds. And since that November visit, CAR continued its spiral into deeper chaos and brutality where children have been directly targeted, raped, tortured, mutilated and killed. By the time of my most recent visit in July, the violence has reached levels that make it nearly impossible to get to most of the areas I had visited on my first trip. In Bangui, Muslim families have been driven out of their neighborhoods, their homes and shops pulverized. Christians seek safety in churches. The tension is palpable. In the town of Boda some five hours drive from the capital, French troops are suppressing the explosion of violence that had torn the town apart, Muslim and non-Muslim residents are chillingly and literately separated by a red line.
FPI: There is so much misery all over the world. What has made you focus on CAR? And why should people care?
There is no greater human suffering anywhere on this planet. Yet we hear little about it. People there don’t have cell phone cameras and anyway, there is little to no internet access – so we don’t see the images of dead and tortured children. We don’t hear the cries of mothers. All this anguish is ongoing, unobserved, unnoted. Moral obligations aside, there are pragmatic reasons for us to care. Anarchy, the complete absence of law and order, coupled with remoteness and lack of infrastructure has given even Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army a haven. CAR is an open invitation for other extremist groups, including the likes of Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
FPI: Can you tell us about a person you met on the trip? And what you learned from him or her?
On this most recent trip, two mothers especially stood out for me — two young women living in Boda in parallel predicaments. One woman, Miriam, was in the tiny clinic for Christians only, while Fatima was at the other tiny clinic – for Muslims only. Both young women were holding malnourished babies. Both told me how their homes had been attacked and destroyed, both had seen family members and neighbors killed – by ‘men with guns, machetes and knives.’ Both had fled for their lives. For two months, Miriam had been hiding deep in the brush. It was fear that her child was dying of starvation that drove her to walk for a day and a night, crossing a river to seek help. Fatima is now living in an enclave with other Muslims in the thousands. If they leave, they will probably be killed. She doesn’t know what will happen, or how long the boundaries will hold. She, like most of the Muslim people I spoke with, wants to leave CAR and go to neighboring Cameroon. But that is not possible. So two courageous young mothers, so alike in so many ways, are living in fear of each other and the world as they know it. They live to keep their babies alive, and they both dream of better days ahead. Both French and African Union troops are now in CAR. In September a UN Peacekeeping force is expected. These forces will provide some desperately needed protection for people but although the humanitarian needs are enormous, there is an alarming shortfall in funding.
FPI: What drives your work? What are you sources of inspiration and optimism?
It really is the children and their families. You cannot look into the eyes of a child and allow yourself the luxury of feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. When I came to one of the schools that were still functioning in Boda, thanks to parents and volunteers, I asked the children what they wanted to be. They initially gave me this blank stare of like, ‘what do you mean, we are here today?’ But then slowly came one hand up and a child saying I want to be a nun, a second raising her hand to say ‘I want to be a teacher,’ followed by more and more little hands calling out their best dreams: doctors, lawyers, teachers, the president.
And then you have the unsung heroes, the aid workers, and health workers who are risking their lives to save the lives of others. Religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian, are sheltering displaced families regardless of ethnicity or religious preference. And organization such as Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF are on the ground providing life saving support to hundreds of thousands of children. In the face of the enormity of this tragedy, and the many other conflicts around the world, it is understandable that we would feel helpless. However, we can be inspired by the heroism and determination of those frontline humanitarian workers and the mothers who are doing everything they can to keep their children alive.