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A brief guide to one of the world's least-understood crises: the Central African Republic

The remains of a mosque in Bangui that was destroyed by the Anti-Balaka
The remains of a mosque in Bangui that was destroyed by the Anti-Balaka

The conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) has cropped up in the headlines regularly since war broke out in that country in 2012. For instance, you may have heard that genocide was imminent in March of this year, or that the UN sent peacekeepers to try to stabilize CAR in September. But although the news stories are often shocking, the conflict can be difficult to understand. Here's the most basic information you need to know to make sense of CAR's current human rights crisis.

The basics

CAR map


Two armed rebel groups are struggling for dominance over the country — and using attacks on civilians as their primary tactic. The largely-Muslim Seleka rebels attack civilians from CAR's Christian majority. The largely-Christian anti-balaka militias attack civilians from the Muslim minority. On both sides, atrocities are frequent: large-scale killing, often grisly, as well as rape, lynching, and destruction of homes and neighborhoods. And the state's own forces are unable (or in some cases, unwilling) to stop them.

The resulting violence has killed thousands of people and forced approximately a million more from their homes — about 25 percent of the country's population — into sprawling tent cities or out of the country entirely. More than 85 percent of the country's once-substantial Muslim population has fled.

Although the fighting has calmed somewhat since earlier this year, when the country seemed to be on the brink of genocide, the war shows no sign of stopping despite a peace treaty, a new president, and a deployment of UN peacekeepers. In the last two and a half weeks alone, fighting in Bangui, CAR's capital city, has forced 6,500 people from their homes.

Why the killing is so dire

The conflict began as a political one. The Seleka rebel group, whose name means alliance, was formed in 2012 by disaffected Muslim military and political leaders who felt they'd been sidelined for their religion. They easily conquered the capital, installing Seleka leader Michel Djotodia in power. But the campaign quickly bled into sectarian killings, with rebels slaughtering civilians from communities that did not bend to them, often by rule-by-terror methods such as burning them alive. In response, members of the old regime security forces formed the anti-balaka militias (balaka is a portmanteau of machete and AK-47) to fight back. The anti-balaka mission almost immediately expanded to include launching reprisal killings against Muslim civilians, and eventually expelling Muslims entirely.

Now, the conflict has taken on a momentum and logic all its own. According to Human Rights Watch, the Seleka have burned more than 1000 homes across more than 34 villages, as part of their campaign of rape and murder. Human Rights Watch has also documented numerous cases of anti-balaka fighters targeting entire Muslim communities, including by killing women and children, and telling civilians that they wanted to "kill all Muslims."

This violence has, sadly, been extremely effective. Seleka leaders have repeatedly demanded that the country be partitioned into a Muslim region in the North and a Christian region in the south. The sad fact is that the partition is already essentially in place, as nearly all Muslim civilians have fled the southern part of the country.

Why the fighting won't stop

Anti-balaka fighter

An anti-balaka fighter in Bouca, CAR (ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)

In a country where government is weak or entirely powerless, military power has become a way for fighters to gain everything from material goods to political power. And because the state and peacekeepers lack the strength to protect civilians, violence against Muslim and Christian communities begets reprisals, which beget more violence.

In other words, until peace has more to offer, the fighting won't stop.

And peace is very hard to implement even if everyone agrees to it. Both the Seleka and anti-balaka are loose coalitions that lack centralized top-down command structures. No one person has the authority to agree to a peace treaty or the power to enforce one.

In September 2013, when Djotodia took power and tried to disband the Seleka, they ignored him and carried on with their attacks. In July of this year, representatives of the Seleka and anti-balaka signed a cease-fire agreement, only to have other leaders of other factions within those groups repudiate the agreement almost immediately.

However, there is at least some good news: although the violence isn't over, it has not spiraled out of control to the degree that many expected it to earlier this year, when the fighting was at its worst.

Can the world end the bloodshed?

Peacekeepers Bangui

UN peacekeepers patrol in Bangui (AFP/Getty Images)

The international community has tried to mediate, but although foreign peacekeepers may have prevented the conflict from getting worse, there aren't enough peacekeepers to police the whole country, and some African Union peacekeepers have become involved in the conflict themselves.

The AU peacekeeping mission failed to bring peace. Its troops included Chadian officers who had actually fought alongside the Seleka, which have been supported by Chad since the war began in 2012. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Chadian peacekeepers opened fire on a market filled with civilians in March 2014, killing at least 30 people. That same month, some Congolese peacekeepers arrested 11 civilians in response to an anti-balaka attack that had killed a peacekeeper; none of the 11 were heard from again.

The UN officially took over peacekeeping duties in September of this year. It is not yet clear what effect their mission will have on the conflict.

However, a French peacekeeping mission that worked with the AU peacekeepers was somewhat more successful. Their presence is generally credited with preventing the conflict from escalating into a full-blown genocide earlier this year, but it still has not been enough to protect civilians or impose order across this large country. It's not clear that anything, or anyone, can.

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