09/06/2013 04:29 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

Anarchy in the CAR and the Paralysis of a PCV

In the dry season of 1991, I assisted a Central African midwife who delivered a baby in a hospital in Dekoa, Central African Republic (CAR). My job was to hold the kerosene lantern as the new mother pushed her baby into the dark night, illuminated by a single flame.

As a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer (PCV), I had received three months of training as a Biology teacher, not a public health worker. While I had no background as a midwife's assistant, I volunteered in the hospital after the teachers went on strike. Since the educators had not been paid in months, the schools closed their doors (though there weren't any actual doors to close in my classroom without windows or textbooks).

When classes resumed, I could pronounce biological terms in French, as well as converse in the national language of Sango. As a "munju" or "white person," I was grateful for the hospitality of my neighbors, including my closest friend Martha, a single mother raising two daughters and selling small wares in the market.

While I sang in the church choir and helped in the cassava fields, political and economic instability persisted in the country. After my first year, I inadvertently walked down a street in the capital of Bangui where police had sprayed tear gas at a group of protestors. Soon after my three years of service ended, the Peace Corps pulled out of the country.

More than 20 years later, the majority of the population of CAR does not have the choice to leave the humanitarian crisis that threatens to provoke more regional instability in central Africa. In fact, last week, 5,000 to 6,000 residents in Bangui fled their homes to escape the violence, taking refuge at the Bangui International Airport.

Of the 4.6 million people in CAR, half of the population is children, caught in what could become a "new Somalia," as described by Kristalina Georgieva, EU Commissioner for international cooperation. Reuters reports mass rapes, killings, and torture of residents by Seleka rebels, who seized power from President François Bozizé on March 24, 2013. Fighting has displaced 206,000 people within the country and 63,000 have fled the country.

Two decades after my Peace Corps service, when I return to my home after teaching college students, I sit at my laptop each night and scan the headlines -- The Guardian, The New York Times, Reuters, and the BBB -- for daily updates about the CAR. But updated media coverage of this country appears as infrequent as humanitarian aid.

A Facebook group of former Peace Corps volunteers provides my primary source of news. Through status updates, I access links to stories of the dissolved army and judicial system, deserted hospitals, rapes and shootings, and women living in the bush to protect their children from the rebels. Basic lawlessness reigns.

In May, friends circulated a story in The Guardian reporting the slaughter of 24 forest elephants by rebels in the Dzangha-Ndoki national park, where I spent my last year working with the World Wildlife Fund. Two-thirds of the forest elephants in Africa have been poached in the last 10 years.

As a mother, I encourage my 14- and 7-year-old daughters to confront injustice when they see it. But faced with this crisis, all I have done is stare into my laptop and hunt for headlines.

It seems pathetic: my only act of resistance has involved signing an online petition written by Central African refugees encouraging the United Nations and African Union to send peacekeeping troops into the country. (There are now only 196 signatures on the petition, up from 45 last week.)

Paralyzed by inaction and sick with grief, I feel uncertain how to draw attention to a country that most folks in the global North cannot locate on a map -- a country that I, too, had to find on a map in 1990, when I opened my acceptance letter from Peace Corps. The history of CAR depicted in the Peace Corps handouts in that manila envelope reflected a narrative of colonial rule and African dictators, but also a story of cultural and ecological riches, now in peril.

The United Nations and the international community have a responsibility to the people of the CAR, ravaged by total anarchy even as arms continue to flow into the country. Without any security, Central Africans cannot rebuild their country: they cannot farm, teach, build, or sell goods when their very lives are threatened, with only 200 police to protect an entire country.

As we turn our collective attention to Syria, we must confront the need to provide humanitarian and peacekeeping aid in countries such as the CAR, whose plight may be visible to us only on Facebook, but whose conflicts could escalate regional instability that threatens an entire continent and beyond.