12/12/2013 10:17 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Tit-For-Tat Atrocities in the Central African Republic


One of the most depressing aspects of the ongoing violence in the Central African Republic is its symmetry.

Christian and Muslim militia alike are carrying out equally vicious attacks. And members of both communities, while denouncing each other's crimes, will tell you that their own people are acting in self defense.

With each new outrage, the pattern of tit-for-tat atrocities becomes harder to break.

Earlier this week I interviewed a Christian man who recounted how he was nearly killed in a raid last week on the outskirts of Bangui, the country's capital. Shot in the side at close range, he survived by playing dead; he claims that others from his neighborhood were not as lucky.

"It was the Peuhls," he said, referring to an ethnic group of nomadic Muslim herders. "They were armed with Kalashnikovs."

An electrician by trade, the man had gotten up early that morning to get ready for work. Grimacing in pain as he showed me his heavily bandaged back, he said that when he stepped out into his yard he was ambushed by a group of four local Peuhls whom he knew by sight. "I was sure I was dead," he said, still seemingly amazed that he wasn't.

He told me that the attack occurred just off the road leading to Boali, a town some 90 kilometers north of Bangui. I heard the name Boali again the following day, this time from a group of Peuhl women whose village, located a few kilometers from the town, had been set upon by the Christian militia known as "anti-balaka," or anti-machete.

More than a dozen villagers were reportedly killed in the attack, which was carried out just a few days before the larger explosion of violence in Bangui last Thursday. Adults were not the only ones targeted: 10 children were injured, some by gunfire and some by machete. One of the cruel ironies of this conflict is that a group that calls itself anti-machete is even willing to use that weapon on the young.

It has taken less than a year for sectarian passions to become so enflamed. Mostly Muslim rebels known as the Seleka overthrew the government of this majority Christian country last March. At the time of the coup, sectarian motivations were not very apparent; what drove the conflict was the usual desire for power and control over natural resources.

How did a bad situation become worse, and then much, much worse? When did hatred of the Seleka degenerate into - for many of the country's Christians - anger at all Muslims?

A visit to any hospital in Bangui shows where this path leads. But there, at least, among the badly wounded Muslim and Christian patients crowding the wards, are reminders of another, more hopeful way: local doctors and nurses who are providing desperately needed medical care to members of both communities. To them, an injured child is an injured child, not an enemy.

The choice between these two paths rests, for now, with the international community. Unless international peacekeeping forces urgently restore security the sectarian bloodshed will continue. The international community can also help by ensuring that atrocities are independently and impartially investigated, so that individual perpetrators - not entire communities - are held accountable for their crimes.

In the longer term, Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic will need to reconcile. For now they just need to stop killing each other.

Joanne Mariner, is Amnesty International's Senior Crisis Advisor, currently working in Bangui in the Central African Republic.