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The International Writers Magazine: CAR - Africa

When to Use the ‘G’ Word
• Fergus Simpson
In the Central African Republic (CAR), a society long depressed in poverty, but one nevertheless characterised by ethnic and religious tolerance, is convulsing: belching out chunks of unprocessed sectarian hate.

CAR street attack

Fighting has displaced over one million people and an additional 2.2 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Lynch mobs – lascivious, juvenile, ultra-violent – terrorise the population. They wield machetes, hatchets, daggers, homemade rifles and other crude instruments of death. Villages have been deserted – their inhabitants either dead or taking refuge in the surrounding bush. In the cities, people eke out an existence in camps, churches and mosques, having fled their homes. A handful of French and African Union (AU) troops is now the only thing preventing the 100,000 emaciated bodies huddled around M’Poko airport in Bangui, the capital, descending into an orgy of death. It is important to note that all of this has taken place in one of the least economically developed countries in the world. According to the United Nations’ (UN) Human Development Index, there are currently only seven countries further from the threshold of modernity than CAR.

In March 2013, Michel Djotodia and the Seleka (meaning ‘alliance’) rebel group predominantly made up of Muslims from the North of the country violently seized power from the incumbent regime of Francois Bozize. The Seleka are believed to have recruited militiamen from neighbouring Chad and Sudan, including members of the notorious Janjaweed Arab militia responsible for the perpetration of genocide in Darfur. Although soon after taking power Mr Djotodia officially disbanded the Seleka rebel group, the ex-Seleka militiamen have continued to terrorise the people of CAR. Villages have been looted; houses have been burned; unimaginable numbers of women and children have been raped; food, seed stocks and farming tools have either been stolen or destroyed. In a country where the administrative state has collapsed to the point of non-existence, it comes as no surprise that all of this has occurred with almost complete impunity.

Terrorism and mass slaughter have a radicalising effect upon people of all classes.  CAR is anything but an exception to this rule. A vigilante group known as anti-balaka have carried out revenge attacks against ex-Seleka and their suspected supporters. The anti-balaka forces are composed of villagers who have taken up arms to defend themselves from Seleka and soldiers loyal to Mr Bozize, the former president. According to the Human Rights Watch report ‘They Came to Kill’, in Bossangoa, the capital of Ouham province, the anti-balaka have ‘killed several hundred Muslim residents, burned their homes and stolen their cattle’. There is even video footage on the BBC website of an anti-balaka fighter explaining rather candidly, ‘Why I ate a man’s leg’. These are just two examples of a number of retaliatory atrocities committed by anti-balaka guerrillas. The CAR has effectively become trapped in a perpetual cycle of aggression motivated by revenge – ex-Seleka against anti-balaka and their followers, and anti-balaka against the ex-Seleka and their followers. Perhaps the most frightening thing about all this viciousness is that it has only taken a few dedicated practitioners to paralyse an entire society with fear.

The situation has now reached a low of such proportions as to provoke John Ging, director of operations for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, to announce to a news conference in Geneva that, ‘it [CAR] has all the elements that we have seen elsewhere, in places like Rwanda and Bosnia. The elements are there, the seeds are there, for a genocide.’ Almost all of Britain’s major news outlets (the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, the Telegraph, the BBC) have published a version of this quotation. And, as one would expect, Mr Ging’s dark message has managed to permeate a broad stratum of British society. As you digest the argument that I am about to present to you, do not for a moment think that I am trying to euphemise or diminish the extent of the carnivals of cruelty that have consumed CAR. However, I must raise the following question: is it accurate to draw parallels, as Mr Ging does, between this nightmare of contemporary Africa and the toxic mixture present in pre-genocidal Rwanda and Bosnia?

Although the anti-Tutsi pogroms and the Bosnian massacre differ in a number of ways, they share one distinct commonality: both were meticulously planned and systematically executed. In Rwanda, a racist Hutu government successfully brainwashed and coerced a large proportion of the population to become serial killers overnight. Radio stations, including the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, broadcast hate propaganda around the clock. In the run up to the genocide, 500,000 machetes were purchased from China, and distributed to the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi death squads. Lists of undesirables – Tutsis and moderate Hutus – were carefully drawn up and disseminated amongst future killers. What happened in Rwanda was not just a product of civil unrest, it was a scrupulously planned operation, organised by members of the Hutu elite, with the sole intention of completely annihilating the entire Tutsi population.

In July 1995, in the small Bosnian town of Srebrenica, units of the Army of Republica Srpska (VRS), under the command of General Ratko Mladic, murdered up to eight thousand male Bosniaks. The method of execution followed a distinct pattern. Firstly, Serb forces round-up Bosniak men of military age (in fact many of the men captured were well below or above what is deemed ‘military age’). Secondly, these men were taken to disused warehouses or schools. Thirdly, they were loaded onto buses and trucks, and transported to isolated locations outside of town. Finally, the men were taken off in small groups, lined up and executed by firing squad. The sheer scale and efficiency of the massacre at Srebrenica is indicative of the level of planning and coordination it involved. In a similar fashion to Rwanda 1994, what happened at Srebrenica was not just another war-related massacre; it formed part of a scheme far more grandiose, to ethnically cleanse Bosnia of its male Bosniak population.

Are the acts of barbarism in CAR nothing but an unfortunate by-product of the hydra-like mechanics of ochlocracy, or are they part of a much larger, more sinister plot to cleanse the country of ‘undesirable’ elements? On the 29th February, I attended a parliamentary session on the CAR crisis chaired by Jack McConnell, chairman of the Great Lakes All Party Parliamentary group. All three speakers at the event stressed that the conflict currently ravaging CAR is not one motivated by religion or ethnicity. Caesar Poblicks – Conciliation Resources projects manager for East and Central Africa – a man who has spent many years working in CAR, argued that the media’s portrayal of the conflict as a confrontation between Christians and Muslims is a facile misrepresentation of reality. He was at pains to establish that, although the violence has taken a religious turn over recent months, economic and political grievances represent the root causes of unrest. If the conflict in CAR is not one between two distinct ethnic or religious groups, it is rather difficult to understand quite how Mr Ging came to conclude that ‘[In CAR] the seeds are there, for a genocide’.

As I have discussed, the genocides in both Rwanda and Bosnia were carried out by highly organised institutions (the government in the case of Rwanda and the VRS in the case of Bosnia) with specific objectives. In fact, it is highly unlikely that the pogroms would have been as efficient as they were if this had not been the case. The conditions in CAR, at present, could not be much more different. At both the local and the national level, the decision-making state has collapsed. National services – healthcare, the military, the police forces, schools – have slipped into oblivion. There is no way that the government of CAR or any of the militia groups within the country’s borders have the capacity to carry out something on the scale of Rwanda or Bosnia. Are ex-Seleka and anti-balaka capable of mass murder? Absolutely. Are they capable of perpetrating a systematic and selective massacre intended to wipe out an ethnic or religious community? It is highly unlikely.

A coda. CAR has descended into a state of near total lawlessness and anarchy, which both deserves and requires our immediate and full attention. However, the ‘G’ word refers to a very specific set of crimes within International Law: ‘acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’ Contrary to what Mr Ging and the UN may proclaim, genocide is not what is happening in CAR. Since its failures in Rwanda and Bosnia, the international community seem to have imbibed a certain guilt complex, which can be triggered by mention of the ‘G’ word alone. Indeed, since the word has been used in the context of CAR, the country has received a force of over 6,000 peacekeeping troops from a mixture of France, the AU and the European Union. The UN has now requested that this be extended to 10,000. Would these stringent measures have been taken to protect civilians if Mr Ging had not used the ‘G’ word? It is impossible to know. Either way, on a positive note, it seems that the international community has learnt something from its failures in Bosnia and Rwanda, and, perhaps, the words ‘never again’ are finally starting to stick in the minds of those capable of changing the course of history.

© Fergus Simpson Kigali, 10th June 2014-06-10   
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