Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), has never been known for the reliability of its public utilities. Most trash is picked through by scavengers, and the remaining mango pits, scraps of plastic, and rusty bottlecaps pile up on dirt roads or get blown into fetid open sewers. But since December, along a desolate stretch of the Avenue de France, the Red Cross has operated an on-demand, white-gloved sanitation service that, within an hour of being called, will show up to collect human bodies, whether chopped up or left intact.
The Avenue de France marks a divide between two neighborhoods, and the human remains belong to those who have, for one reason or another, strayed too far in the wrong direction. The road itself is devoid of foot traffic—a no-man’s-land where both sides can deposit their victims, so they don’t have to bury them or let them rot within smelling distance in the African sun. North of the line is the Fifth Arrondissement, a neighborhood inhabited almost exclusively by Christians now that its Muslim residents have either been killed or forced into exile. The Muslims who haven’t fled the country live primarily in the Third Arrondissement, just south of the Avenue de France. There, being a Christian is a condition nearly as fatal as being a Muslim is to the north, south, east, or west.
About 15 percent of Central Africans are Muslims, and for much of the country’s 54-year history, they lived in relative harmony with the Christian majority. But in the last year, CAR has collapsed—first in a spasm of political violence and now in a grisly carnival of factional and religious slaughter that has left it one of the very worst places on Earth. It is a country the size of Texas, with as many people as Boston, and an economy less than a tenth the size of Chattanooga’s. Reliable data doesn’t exist for the number dead, but from December until March, street lynchings became so common that they ceased to be news. The danger is unequaled anywhere in present-day Africa except, perhaps, Nigeria on a bad day. Bangui competes with Damascus for the title of world’s grimmest capital city.
After a visit last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the BBC that “desperate is an understatement.” And Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made a special stop in Bangui in early April, as part of her effort to deploy blue-helmet peacekeepers as quickly as possible (which, given the lightning reflexes of the United Nations, means no earlier than September). Power’s interest in CAR dates to the beginning of the crisis, and one presumes it has to do with her wish to avoid adding a self-indicting chapter to a revised edition of her 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning A Problem from Hell, about U.S. inaction in the face of genocide.
Anyone who walks the streets of Bangui for a day knows why she might be alarmed. The last year of fighting has traumatized the population, and now nearly everyone is nursing a lethal grudge. It is a city of overlapping vendettas. Roadblocks are staffed by gun-toting, battle-hardened children, and even an interaction as simple as complaining about a broken cell phone can turn into a spray of indiscriminate machine-gun fire on a crowded city street. During my week there, I learned to stand silently, hands cupped behind my ears, to discern the direction of distant gunfire and figure out where to go, and where not to.
And if you go in search of trouble, Bangui will rapidly oblige. On March 24, my photographer and I took a car to Boy Rabe, a neighborhood known as a stronghold of the Anti-Balaka, the Christian militia that is currently the most feared group in Bangui. It takes its name from its young fighters’ ritual initiations, which supposedly confer resistance to AK-47 rounds (in French, balles-AK, or “ah-kah”) and machetes (balaka in Sango, the national language of CAR). The Anti-Balaka arose from self-defense forces in the countryside and from Christian populations in Bangui, and now that they have the advantage over the Muslims, they are demanding payment and spoils from frightened civilians of all races and creeds.
To meet the Anti-Balaka on their own turf is to throw oneself at the mercy of well-armed adolescents, often drunk, with delusions of invulnerability. Our taxi driver slowed to a walking pace as we came close to Boy Rabe, saying roadblocks might be concealed ahead. We searched for signs that the Anti-Balaka might emerge from behind buildings to rob us, or worse. As we drove on, the road grew quiet, and the commotion of shared taxis and wobbly motorbikes gave way to pedestrians, and finally to the ominous emptiness of no one at all.
Then we hit a roadblock. The half-dozen children who surrounded us when we exited the car all wore threadbare, dirty clothes, and around their necks they strapped anti-sorcery charms, mostly amulets and leather pouches of herbs. Their weapons were dirty and battered, as if used in harsh conditions. The youngest was about ten, the oldest no more than 16. In their hands, I counted three AK-47s, two pistols, two swords, and a crooked, blunt scythe, before I realized I should stop counting and start figuring out a way to leave as soon as possible.
They must have scared our driver, because by the time we took stock of the situation, his vehicle had disappeared back down the road. To each other the children spoke Sango, but when I whipped out my notebook and started asking questions in halting French, they snapped to attention and at least for the moment looked receptive. “We’re journalists,” I said. “We want to know the story of the people of Boy Rabe and talk to the boss here.” The boys just blinked at us, until one said, “There’s no boss.” Those words relieved me slightly: As long as they were talking, they probably hadn’t decided to kill us. But while I spoke, the one with the scythe was scampering up the street with a look of excitement. The photographer, Michael Christopher Brown, shrewdly refrained from taking pictures and said, in his dopiest American English, “I’m American! I live in New York City!”—in hopes of showing that we were harmless, and not spies.
About 20 yards uphill, a grown-up emerged from behind a fence. He looked like he was in his thirties, and he wore a clean navy t-shirt over a beefy torso. He was clearly in charge: the boss the boys claimed not to have. As soon as he appeared, he screamed, and the kids reacted like a string of lit firecrackers, yelling and raising their weapons. The first words I could make out from the man were “Get out of here,” and Michael and I both raised our hands to show we carried nothing more dangerous than the tools of journalism. I blurted out some words about wanting an interview, and he yelled, “No interview,” then, “Get out of here,” again. He stormed close enough to shove Michael and take away his camera while shooing us down the road at full scream.
We didn’t dare run or look back, in case he or his soldiers would interpret a glance over the shoulder or a panicked sprint as a sign of aggression or guilt. By then anything might have provoked them. With each slow step I wondered whether Kalashnikov rounds might shred my back or legs. In my imagination, I felt a phantom finger pressing firmly on the base of my skull, where one of the kids might take me out with one lucky shot.
The dirt path to the main boulevard stretched out for another 200 yards but felt much longer, and when I noticed the total absence of traffic there—and therefore the total absence of witnesses—it occurred to me that, if the man decided it was safest to kill us, no one would see what happened, and our corpses would appear that afternoon, the palest stack of limbs on Avenue de France.
The Central African Republic—a landlocked former French colony sandwiched forlornly between Chad to the north and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the south—last grabbed the world’s attention a quarter century ago. Back then, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the country’s self-appointed emperor, faced public trial for, among other crimes, keeping a freezer full of half-eaten human bodies, some of whose tenderest cuts he may or may not have served to French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing on a state visit. The country’s politics have, by the standards of the continent, been almost benign ever since. CAR never saw a tenth of its population hacked to death, like Rwanda’s; its rulers have plundered its natural and human resources rather modestly, at least compared with Robert Mugabe or Muammar Qaddafi; it never became a haven for Al Qaeda, like Mali or Somalia, or a petri dish for Ebola, like the Congo. In those years—we might now be tempted to call them glory days—CAR neither flourished nor collapsed.
Now, most Central Africans would happily trade their problems for a mere outbreak of plague, or some light cannibalism. The backstory of the current conflict begins in 2003, when François Bozizé, the army’s chief of staff, found a patron in Chad’s oil-rich president, Idriss Déby, and seized control of the country. For the next eight years, Déby kept Bozizé in power by sending elite Chadian troops in moments of crisis. But around 2011, Bozizé began flirting with South Africa as a new guarantor and inched away from Déby. Incensed, Déby encouraged a loose coalition of mostly Muslim rebels from north and east CAR to take over the country.
The coalition, called the Séléka, needed more men, so it enlisted Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries to join its fighters on a death march to Bangui. They rolled through villages like a crime wave and arrived in the capital last spring, promptly taking over the government. When the Séléka fighters started their march to Bangui, they were a loose political movement, united only in their origin in neighboring Muslim countries and disaffected regions of the north and east. But by the time the Séléka came to power, many Christians noticed that they were being targeted while Muslims were being spared. This didn’t sit well. Most of the 100,000 or so Muslims who lived in Bangui before the Séléka takeover had nothing to do with the new government, but the Christian majority came to hate them, too.
Those Christians slowly mobilized militias of their own in the countryside over the course of 2013. By the end of the year, they were in Bangui and had performed almost exactly the same trick as the Séléka. Unlike the Séléka, though, they never seized the government. They just destabilized the country, and by January, the Séléka’s nominal leader, Michel Djotodia, had to flee to Benin.
The current caretaker president, a Christian ex-lawyer named Catherine Samba-Panza, is ineffectual at best, and the countryside towns are fast polarizing, with Muslims being expelled by the thousands. In Bangui, the expulsion of Muslims is nearly complete. Most neighborhoods, such as Boy Rabe, belong entirely to the Anti-Balaka, and the small number of Muslims who remain are surrounded and hungry, preparing for the day when every one of them will be put to the sword.
The task of saving them falls, for now, to a 6,000-man contingent of African Union (A.U.) peacekeepers who zoom around town in armored personnel carriers or Toyota Land Cruisers with heavy machine guns mounted on the back. A single round is the size of a small carrot and can rip a boy in half. Until the end of March, the most hated group of peacekeepers were Chadian, since the Christians assumed, not entirely unfairly, that the trigger-happy Chadians wanted to protect only Séléka members. This made their presence too inflammatory to do any good, so they withdrew, leaving two closely cooperating contingents, Burundian and Rwandan, as the Muslims’ main protectors and the scourges of the Anti-Balaka.
The day after my near-fateful episode at the Anti-Balaka roadblock, I invited two Rwandan officers for lunch at Le Relais des Chasses, a French-owned restaurant that specializes in exotic wild game. Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Karangwa, the commander of the 750 Rwandans, and his operations officer, Major Augustin Migabo, both ordered that elusive African beast, the common cow, and got steaks with fries. For them, these steaks were a treat—the Rwandan mess is on a repeated playlist of rice and chicken, with a sardine now and then for variety—and today the two men were celebrating. They had just escorted a civilian convoy of Muslim truck drivers from Cameroon through neighborhoods thick with the Anti-Balaka, and they had killed at least four in the process.
Both men served in Darfur and agreed it was a model of simplicity compared with the mayhem they’ve encountered in CAR since their arrival in January. Karangwa is outgoing, the kind of guy who greets you with a smile and a handshake even while he’s being shot at. Migabo is more laconic, solemn, and contemplative. Their histories suggest that they are probably Tutsi while their men, along with the rest of the Rwandan military, are likely majority Hutu. But in any case, the Tutsi / Hutu issue never came up: As a matter of policy, the country’s government claims blindness when it comes to ethnicity, and it remains taboo to ask. In the five nights I spent sleeping at their base, which resembled a U.S. military camp, except without air-conditioning, the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” were never mentioned in my presence, and if the two men harbor any resentments toward their countrymen for wrongs done during the genocide or since, they hide them perfectly.
Rwanda’s 1994 apocalypse (800,000 slaughtered in 100 days) still dwarfs the problems in CAR today, and it is not a coincidence that the country with the most knowledge of genocide is also among the most aggressive in preventing another. As Karangwa told me, “We are talking to the local population and sensitizing them to [the idea of] not avenging.” He spoke proudly about how the post-genocide tribunals in Rwanda could help Central Africans deal with the killers in their midst.
But the Rwandans acknowledge that some parts of the conflict feel so familiar, so raw, that they are compelled to kill. “The weapons used in Rwanda were mainly traditional ones”—machetes—“as is the case here,” Karangwa said, as a sort-of explanation for his soldiers’ zero-tolerance policy toward public dismemberment in CAR. Karangwa is not naturally given to violence, but he told me, without a trace of apology, about a time his forces gunned down someone they knew to be a killer. A Muslim man in danger of being lynched in the street ran to a Rwandan position for protection. When the Rwandans refused to surrender him to the Anti-Balaka, a member of the group returned with the body of another Muslim, to demonstrate to the Rwandans that their sanctuary meant nothing—there was always another Muslim who couldn’t be protected. “He began cutting [the dead Muslim] up in front of us,” Karangwa remembers, with a slight shrug. “And so we shot him. If someone is carrying a gun or a body part in front of us, we must shoot him.”
If the conflict in CAR were as simple as shooting dead all the people running around with freshly hewn human limbs, the Rwandans might actually be able to keep things under control. But CAR’s history has encouraged all manner of grudges to fester, and the war has a whole separate front—between the Rwandans and the 2,000 French peacekeepers also in Bangui. The French call their mission Operation Sangaris, after Cymothoe sangaris—a species of Central African butterfly that lives only briefly—to symbolize the intended light touch and short duration of the French intervention. Another less-noted characteristic of C. sangaris is that its males spend an inordinate amount of time in internecine combat, and sure enough, the peacekeeper-to-peacekeeper relations are acrimonious.
Even in official language, the Rwandans take pleasure in tweaking the French. “We are engaging in aggressive peacekeeping,” says Brigadier General Joseph Nzabamwita, the Rwandan army’s spokesman in Kigali, “as opposed to the conventional peacekeeping practiced by other troop-contributing countries.”
The French arrived in what’s now CAR in the late nineteenth century, and their history suggests they wish they had never come at all. They initially tried enslaving the population and turning the country into a cotton producer. But that didn’t work. CAR ended up being the place where the French sent their dumbest colonial officers, and when French colonies gained independence in the early ’60s, Paris wasn’t sorry to see this one go.
Still, perhaps out of colonial nostalgia, the French have continued to interfere in Central African politics. CAR provided a station for French troops during the 1980s and 1990s, and prominent French politicians acquired stakes in gold and diamond interests. (French President Giscard d’Estaing did not visit Emperor Bokassa merely to hunt bongo and sample the imperial charcuterie.)
All of which explains why Paris treats the presence of anti-French elements in Bangui as a stick in the eye. The French are uncomfortable with the rise of Rwanda—a locally grown power whose regional significance has waxed just as theirs has waned. They are keenly aware that Bangui’s Muslims, whom the Rwandans protect, killed two Sangaris and now tag their neighborhoods with “NO TO FRANCE, THE DOGS OF EUROPE” graffiti. And the French have loudly condemned Rwanda’s alleged sponsorship of rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and assassination of political opponents. (Those opponents turn up dead with actuarially improbable frequency: At least one was shot dead in Bangui earlier this year, and Rwandan soldiers are rumored to have been responsible.)
Nor is the loathing one-sided. Rwanda withdrew its ambassador to France in the 2000s over allegations—later retracted—that forces loyal to the current president, Paul Kagame, killed Rwanda’s Hutu leader in 1994, sparking the genocide. And this April, in an interview with Jeune Afrique, Kagame mentioned French help in the “political preparation” for 1994’s genocide. He then rescinded the current French ambassador’s invitation to a twentieth-anniversary memorial for the victims.
In Bangui, the Rwandans say the Sangaris have modeled themselves on their butterfly mascot all too well and stand by while the Anti-Balaka commit atrocities against Muslims. The Rwandans appear on the scene, only to find the French watching and effectively sanctioning the bloodshed. “The Anti-Balaka are next to [the French] with their machetes and guns, and we can’t do anything,” says Migabo. “This is a big problem. The different contingents have different rules [of engagement]. The people know that, and they use it to their advantage.” Once, after the Rwandans killed a handful of Anti-Balaka, civilians approached the Rwandans about recovering the bodies. A French soldier recorded the whole scene on a camcorder from afar, and the Rwandans suggested that the French wanted to catch them on video—in a war-crime Gotcha! moment—if they shot any civilians. The friction between the forces has reached such levels of dysfunction that the A.U. commander, a hard-charging Cameroonian general named Martin Tumenta Chomu, sometimes convenes senior A.U. officers in a hotel rather than their usual headquarters, with cell phones switched off, to avoid giving the French any chance to show up, interrupt them, meddle in their planning, or leak their plans to the Anti-Balaka, with whom the Rwandans say the French enjoy cordial relations. Tell the French what you’re going to do, the Rwandans say, and the Anti-Balaka will hear about it within an hour or two.
This gamesmanship between peacekeepers is galling when you see the outrageous levels of violence and hatred on the streets. The Fifth Arrondissement, where many of the Muslims lived before fleeing, is a wrecked museum of what life looked like before the Séléka and Anti-Balaka came into conflict. The Miskine mosque, once one of the city’s largest, is now flattened, and among the rubble are the weathered remains of religious texts in Arabic, at least one of which, on the day I visited, was smeared with a generous soft-serve of human turd.
Muslims who venture here or anywhere else outside the Third Arrondissement are foolhardy or desperate. One of the latter, a worker for an international organization, recently returned to the country for financial reasons following three months as a refugee in Cameroon. We met at his office after he sent a car to collect me at a restaurant just two blocks away. He normally would have walked to the restaurant—but now he never goes anywhere but his office and the hotel where he lives. If anyone were to spot him on the street and recognize him from his earlier life, he would be shot, bludgeoned, or dragged through the street like a wild animal that had gored schoolchildren. In these public spaces, any Christian could walk freely, and the Anti-Balaka could strut with weapons brandished openly, as long as the Rwandans weren’t around.
Only in one place in Bangui would the Anti-Balaka be sure to encounter resistance. At the central mosque in the Third Arrondissement, I found a large courtyard of men, women, and children lying on mats, looking idle and abandoned. One man in glasses introduced himself as president of the Federation of Parents of Muslim Students and said the people around me were all displaced, and all desperate to leave Bangui as soon as possible. “[The Anti-Balaka] are shooting, trying to get here all the time,” he said. “They will try to come tonight.”
He adjusted his glasses bookishly and grew even more serious. “But our hearts are brave,” he said, “and we have machetes.”
One thing both Christians and Muslims in this conflict share is a sense of grievance that has curdled into bloodlust. While Muslims are right to be terrified of the Anti-Balaka, particularly when they’re swinging their scythes around, Bangui’s Christians have their own tales of dispossession and murder.
In December, tens of thousands of Christians relocated to a muddy area of Bangui’s M’Poko International Airport after being driven out of their homes in the Third Arrondissement. M’Poko is still a functioning airport, with Air France flights coming in from Paris, but about half of it is now covered by tents. Displaced Christians have filled in the spaces amid parked planes, pitching lean-tos in the shade of the wings and hanging laundry from propellers. The tent city extends all the way to the edge of the runway, where children play between landings. When it rains, the camp becomes a miserable Venice of ditchwater.
At M’Poko, the Christians live better than the Muslims around the central mosque: They can at least leave without certainty of death, and they have a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from medicine to DVDs to withered, fly-blown bits of bushmeat. But many of the residents seethe when I ask about the Muslims. One man said his Muslim neighbors—Central Africans who spoke Sango and lived near him peacefully—became crazy when the Séléka arrived, killing and looting indiscriminately. Father Benjamin Soya, the priest of a Catholic parish in the Third Arrondissement, came into the camp from his new home in the Fifth Arrondissement, to say mass by the airstrip. His church, St. Matthias’s, had been attacked (though not leveled), and he said he escaped only because he posed as a Muslim, greeting people on the street with “Salaam ‘aleikum” and letting them mistake his white cassock for an Arab-style tunic.
Making my way through the ditches and tents, I met a bitter young man with his chest bared and a tendency to gaze in the distance when he spoke. His name was Jean-Jacques. He had an Anti-Balaka identification card around his neck, and he told me that after he had lost his mother, father, and sister to the Séléka, he walked hundreds of miles from his home in the north to get to Bangui to fight for his family’s safety. He had a Bowie knife strapped to his waist and, hanging around his neck next to the ID card, an obligatory charm. “I rely on nothing but my god and my gris-gris,” he said, unsmiling, tapping the amulet with his middle finger.
The Rwandans claim that the Anti-Balaka use this camp as a staging ground for attacks, and the presence of a few men like Jean-Jacques certainly suggested that killers live among the civilians. While I talked to the camp’s residents, I detected the occasional suspicious glances of young men, thuggish in their sunglasses and soccer jerseys, with weapons worn outside their clothes. Most wanted to talk, and to denigrate the Muslims. Some insisted on posing for pictures with their knives unsheathed, indicating where on each other’s necks they would saw to remove a human head fastest. The ones who just hung back and stared were the most unnerving.
But the civilians assured me that these Anti-Balaka guards were their saviors, a force for good. “The Anti-Balaka don’t like to fight. They have hunting rifles and artisanal weapons, and they are fighting against professionals,” said a man named Marc Youane, referring to the supposed Chadian mercenaries among the Muslim population. “Without the Anti-Balaka, the Muslims would come through here in a second.”
None of the Christians in M’Poko or other neighborhoods seemed to realize how precariously the Muslims themselves live, in conditions far more straitened than their own. “They come here, and they kill us, with the protection of the Burundians,” said Andre Keke, a young man in a tracksuit. “They are not Central Africans. The majority are Chadians and have come here to massacre us.” As a crowd gathered, he said his Muslim neighbors from Mali and Senegal were welcome to stay (and, I supposed, not take the ruined mosque and shit-stained Korans personally). But the Chadians must go. The crowd roared with anger when he said, “Chadians,” and repeated the word. Some called them “colonizers,” businessmen whose power over the Christian majority had simply gotten out of hand, and who now needed to be ejected.
Keke claimed that the Chadians had killed 30 people in the last three days—“THIRTY DEAD!” he kept saying, “THIRTY DEAD!”—and the crowd murmured with discontent each time. I tried to ask whether they drew a distinction between local neighborhood-watch militias and the Anti-Balaka fighters who went in search of victims. They didn’t. Instead, when I brought up the Anti-Balaka, the crowd roared with approval, like a bar full of Bears fans at the mention of Mike Ditka. Etienne Ngaka, the mayor of a part of Miskine, gushed that his area was secure, only through “the efforts of our [Anti-Balaka] sons.”
At that point, Keke had worked himself up to a yell. “The Anti-Balaka are the people,” he shouted. Everyone in Miskine was a member, “even the babies.”
When looking for solutions to the horrors here, one is tempted to say that any ideas that don’t start or end with genocide qualify as good ones. International peacekeepers could freeze the conflict into a stare-down, which would be precarious but bloodless. Another plan would be for the remaining Muslims to flee to other countries or to Muslim-majority areas of CAR. Among the partisans of this option are many of the Muslims themselves, whose principal demand when I visited was for safe passage to the Chadian and Cameroonian borders.
Augustin Migabo, the impassive, moon-faced Rwandan officer, said he didn’t like this solution, because in the long run, it wasn’t one. When I told him that the Muslims just wanted to leave, he sucked his tongue and shook his head. “If these people go, the war will be over,” he said. That sounded like a positive development, at least in the short term, and I told him so. But it ran counter to the model of reconciliation the Rwandans themselves had pursued, or claimed to, in the 20 years since their civil war. He suggested that A.U. peacekeepers attempt a strategy neither the Anti-Balaka nor the Muslims want: They should protect those last Muslims from all attacks and force the two warring groups to live together.
If the Muslims don’t stay put, Migabo said, there will be an even greater cataclysm down the line. “The Muslims in the north will come back,” he said, and they will start “a terror war.” Already there are elements of the Séléka near the Chadian border who are resisting disarmament and quite possibly preparing to return to Bangui. The worst-case scenario, he said, was a postponed doomsday, more like Rwanda in 1994 than the comparatively mild Bangui of today. Hundreds of thousands of dead versus tens of thousands.
Most experts seem to think the soundest, or at least the least-worst, option is the one that should have been pursued long ago: an international peacekeeping force that vigorously defends all vulnerable people, under a unified mandate. And on April 10, the U.N. Security Council approved a peacekeeping mission of 11,800 soldiers. Now CAR will just have to wait until September for delivery and try not to destroy itself in the interim.
But the new hatreds have already begun to harden and acquire permanence. No sane person would choose to be the first to move back into a neighborhood where recently everyone wanted to behead him. Nor would any sane person bet his neck on the endurance and effectiveness of the United Nations. The government of CAR has already begun taking steps to make its most powerful institutions Muslim-free. The armed forces, or FACA, dissolved when the Séléka arrived, and they are now being reconstituted without much care for the histories of its members—whether they are implicated in communal or political violence or whether they remain loyal to the Anti-Balaka. No one is sure if the FACA will represent the whole country or just the Christians.
I visited a FACA base where soldiers were reporting for duty, and it had the atmosphere of a college campus where school was back in session after summer break. Young men wore mismatched uniforms, some Castro-style combat green, some Desert Storm camo. One had an Orlando Magic jersey.
The commanders were optimistic and said all Central Africans without criminal pasts were welcome. But an officer, a 30-year veteran of the FACA, approached me and intimated that there might be problems. “It’s a delicate situation, but we have to identify the Anti-Balaka,” he said. He was a stringbean of a man, and when he leaned in to whisper, his clothes hung off him like a scarecrow’s, and I could see down his shirt. “I could tell you about these issues, but the Anti-Balaka would find me and beat me.”
Or worse. On February 4, minutes after the newly installed president, Catherine Samba-Panza, finished speaking at a military parade, members of the FACA broke ranks, found a young man, and accused him of being Séléka. Letting journalists photograph the scene, they kicked him in the head and stabbed him until he was dead, finally burning his corpse and dragging it through the city. French peacekeepers eventually ended the festivities by firing in the air.
Before leaving the country, I wanted to visit Samba-Panza in her home in eastern Bangui. Both sides dislike her—the Anti-Balaka call her the Séléka’s “whore,” and the Muslims consider her unwilling to help them—so it seemed possible that she was at least moderate enough to repel the worst elements from each camp. She certainly had a more promising past than her predecessors, who were natural-born authoritarians. Emperor Bokassa blew as much as 100 percent of the country’s GDP on a coronation ceremony so obscenely lavish that Werner Herzog featured it in a documentary. Bozizé never hesitated to call in Chadian soldiers to squash uprisings before they metastasized. Samba-Panza, by contrast, was a lawyer before she was a politician, and for part of her career, she represented vulnerable clients, including women and children accused of witchcraft.
One might be cheered by the presence of a head of state with this background. But few presidents have ever mattered less to their countries’ well-being. She lives in a bubble of comfort and security, which she enjoys only because the Rwandan military guards her rather than the untrustworthy FACA. Their armed convoys escort her to her office in the morning and to mass at Bangui’s Notre Dame Cathedral for French services every Sunday. Even when I saw her return from an overseas trip at the airport, she had flown on a private jet marked “REPUBLIC OF GABON.”
She received me in her well-appointed home, luxurious by Central African standards, but modest compared with the excesses of those predecessors. It was decorated with African wooden statuary, and she sat under a tasteful oil painting of a floral still life. After a few days pounding the dirt roads of Bangui with the Rwandans, my trousers needed laundering, and when I entered, I wondered whether I’d leave a red, journalist-shaped mark on her sofa, perhaps the first time her furniture had touched Central African soil.
In this lair, she lamented the fatal rhythms of Central African history, how the uprising of poor and neglected populations in the north and east transmogrified so quickly into a fight between religions. “Up to that point, it was all political, and had nothing to do with religion,” she said. “Now, the non-Muslim population has reacted. It’s not because the people don’t like Muslims. It’s because the politicians used religion to arrive at their goals.”
I asked, a little impudently, if she could do anything about it. She spoke gauzily about coordinating humanitarian aid, building dialogue and reconciliation, and reviving the government that had been obliterated by war. And she said she had to keep the international community’s attention. “South Sudan, Syria,” she said, laughing. “We’re not the only ones with problems.”
At the air-conditioned heart of her country’s nightmare, she tried to maintain the cool dignity of a lawyer. It was easy to see why she might have emerged as a compromise candidate to steer the country for the next year. But she reminded me of an unlucky public defender whose client was going berserk—attacking bailiffs, flinging pencils at the judge, vowing in open court to offend again at the earliest opportunity—and who could no longer be defended or saved.
The Rwandan officer responsible for her security sat with us during the interview, silently. His country, whose example of post-genocide reconciliation Samba-Panza said she hadn’t studied closely, ended its war when Kagame’s Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front scored a decisive victory, then aggressively integrated Hutus into the institutions of government and civil society. But Rwanda wouldn’t have gotten to that point without one side’s winning the war. For CAR, where peacekeepers will, god willing, stop the situation from getting as bad as Rwanda’s, the prospect of a decisive victory for the Anti-Balaka or a revived, vengeful Séléka is an outcome well worth avoiding. Security from the outside is coming, slowly, but security without a measure of mercy and forgiveness from Central Africans themselves is simply a recipe for disaster postponed.
So Samba-Panza talked to me more about her plans for economic revitalization. When the interview ended, we both heard a quiet crackle of gunfire from the direction of downtown. Neither of us mentioned it—it’s too common to remark upon—but I found myself stretching my goodbyes longer than strictly necessary, savoring another minute in this garden of peace, before heading back to a reality no country should have to face.
Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The New Republic. He traveled to CAR with support from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide.