Last Wednesday, 120 European Union peacekeepers arrived in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. They took up positions at the city's airport, where French soldiers had guaranteed security up until now. Lining the airstrip were hundreds of cardboard shacks and tarpaulins; the homes of thousands of civilians who had flocked to the foreign base in the hope of escaping the brutal violence that has rocked the CAR in recent months.
Events that occurred just ahead of the handover in Bangui made it painstakingly clear why the refugees were fleeing. Hours before the Europeans' arrival, four people had been murdered in the streets of the capital. One Muslim man was found decapitated, his body heavily mutilated and his heart ripped out.
Wednesday's killings were emblematic of the brutal fighting that has plagued the country since a rebel coup against President Francois Bozize triggered the worst ethnic violence in decades. Over a year into the chaos, the country is in shambles and the rift between its ethnic groups has widened to disastrous proportions.
Here's why the Central African Republic deserves your undivided attention:
1. More than 2,000 people have been killed since Christian fighters supporting ousted President Bozize tried to take back the capital from Muslim rebels in December 2013.
The rebel alliance that pushed out the president came from the north and was mostly comprised of members of the CAR's Muslim minority and foreign fighters. While the Seleka rebels tried to legitimize the coup by accusing the president of failing to live up to a peace deal, most fighters seemed far more motivated by the spoils a power grab would bring. The rebels have acted brutally, targeting both Christians and Muslims that crossed their path.
In March 2013, coup leader Michel Djotodia declared himself president and incorporated the Seleka fighters into the national army. But violence continued.
In response to the Seleka abuses, Christian self-defense groups known as anti-Balaka militias took up arms. They initially targeted Seleka fighters, but quickly expanded their reach to Muslim communities as well. Violence intensified in December 2013, when more than a hundred people died in anti-Balaka attack on the capital.
In January, Djotodia fled to Benin and the mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza, took over. Yet the change of leadership did little to restore security.
2. International aid organizations as well as the United Nations fear the death toll will only increase, and high-level officials have warned that tensions between the ethnic communities have deteriorated so sharply that the country is at risk of genocide.
Returning from a visit to the town of Boda at the end of April, John Ging, operation director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, warned that while the town’s residents told him during previous visits they blamed the armed groups for the chaos, many now instead accused entire communities. "This is now the ugly face of the conflict,” Ging told reporters. "Christians and Muslims blaming [each other]."
Since December, many of the country's neighborhoods have been segregated, with the center of hate-crimes in Bangui. As Graeme Wood reported for the New Republic, venturing outside of one’s community in the capital has came to resemble a suicide mission, marked by checkpoints, roadblocks and mobs of armed, drunk adolescents.
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.
The anti-Balaka forces have gained strength in recent months and are now superior to the Muslim militias. Thousands of Muslims have sought safety in neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Many of those that initially chose to stay -- either in segregated neighborhoods or camps like the one by Bangui airport -- have been escorted out of the country by foreign troops in recent days.
3. The United Nations estimates that nearly a million of the CAR's 4.6 million people are displaced, while half of the population depends on aid.
The fighting and worsening security situation has left the country's already fragile economy, trade and health care system in ruins.
With infrastructure destroyed and more than 600,000 people internally displaced and 350,000 externally displaced, the Central African Republic's economy is almost completely destroyed. Large parts of the harvest have been lost as farmers were forced to abandon their fields or tools, and emergency supplies were destroyed or looted.
IRIN news agency reports that much of the trade has imploded as traders fled the country. Many warehouses have been plundered and destroyed, with little help of replenishment as the rainy season approaches. The price of basic food supplies has soared.
Basic consumer products such as salt, soap, sugar, milk and cooking oil, as well as farm produce, including onions and tomatoes, have become scarce or are too expensive for ordinary people. In Bangui, for example, the cost of a bar of soap has risen since late 2013 to 250 CFA (53 US cents) from 150 CFA. Rice, beans and groundnuts have also gone up sharply.
Even before the current crisis, 3.2 million people had no access to health care, trust.org notes. Since the conflict intensified, however, that number has only grown. The few senior health administrators that were active in the country have fled and are reluctant to return. Many hospitals have been destroyed, with medical equipment and drug supplies looted.
In addition, the working conditions for the few remaining aid organizations that still provide critical care are turning increasingly dangerous. Last week, for example, the international group Doctors Without Borders was forced to retreat some of its staff out of the northern town of Boguila after three of its employees were killed when armed ex-Seleka members attacked the hospital grounds.
4. The conflict is taking a devastating toll on the country's children.
UNICEF warned in November 2013 that between 5,000 and 6,000 children had been recruited into pro-government militias as well as self-defense groups, up from 2,500 in 2012.
In addition, UNICEF adds, many of the country's schools have been destroyed in the fighting, children have been exposed to cruelty and sexual violence and malnutrition rates among the youngest have soared, especially for refugees.
5. There are peacekeepers present but they are unable to stop the violence.
A 6,000 strong African Union (MISCA) force arrived in August 2013 with a U.N. Security Council mandate to use force to protect civilians. In addition, some 2,000 French troops have been active under Operation Sangaris and secured the Bangui airport and the main road to Cameroon.
In response to the growing violence, both the European Union and the United Nations have also pledged troops. The first 120 European peacekeepers arrived last week -- late because of a lack of troops and funds -- and their strength is expected to grow up to a thousand. The U.N. has authorized about 12,000 troops. The force is expected to arrive in September and will incorporate some of the African Union troops already present.
So far, the international missions have failed to quell the unrest in the country. While the African Union troops boasted recently they had been able to safely escort hundreds of Muslims out of the country, Ging, the OCHA chief, noted that the fact that civilians had to be removed to guarantee their safety is actually an obvious example of the international force's lack of success. "It is a collective failure of the international community that we were not able to provide the security for people in their homes," Ging said.
Ging explained that the African and French troops lack the funds, equipment and manpower to provide the coverage the CAR needs. "Our problem continues to be not enough and not in time," he added.
That means the residents of the CAR will have to wait until September, when the majority of international troops are scheduled to arrive. As Reuters notes, however, the U.N. still needs to find thousands more soldiers for the force, as not all of the member states who pledged troops have stepped up to the capacity that's needed.