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Violence Reigns In Central African Republic Despite Peace Steps


It's the kind of international crisis that is numbingly familiar: a coup, followed by a steep descent into sectarian bloodshed and revenge killings. This is what's happening now in the Central African Republic.


The coup happened last year. It was led by a rebel group call Seleka, drawn from the minority Muslim community in this largely Christian country. After the coup, many of the Muslim rebels targeted Christian neighborhoods, plundering and killing. And then came a moment of hope.

MONTAGNE: French and African peacekeepers arrived in December and last month, at the urging of other African countries, the leader of the coup stepped down. And then, Christians took their revenge. Peter Bouckaert is the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch. We reached him in the capital of the Central African Republic, the city of Bangui.

Thank you very much for joining us.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: There are some 1,600 French troops, and a small number of African Union troops who came in to help calm the country. Have they not put even a dent in the fighting?

BOUCKAERT: Actually, the fighting has increased, if at all, with the arrival of the French forces two months ago, because the Christian militias took advantage of the disarming of some Seleka elements to carry out attacks against Muslim communities all across the country. And the Christian militias are just as brutal. We've talked to women who had their children killed with machetes right in front of their eyes. And we've talked to sole survivors who watched every Muslim resident of their village being killed with machetes in front of them. So we are talking about a real level of horror that's straight out of "Dante's Inferno."

MONTAGNE: What actually can be done to stop this cycle of revenge? What could possibly help?

BOUCKAERT: You know, I've worked in the Central African Republic on and off since 2007, and I love this beautiful country and its people. And I believe that we can save them. And whenever the local villages authorities and the peacekeepers have made a stand and said we will not accept this, we will stop the killings - as the Catholic priests in a town about 80 kilometers north of Bangui did a few weeks ago, when he took the 700 Muslims in his town into his church and said you're under the protection of God - the killings have stopped. So it is possible.

But all too often, we see peacekeepers not being proactive. I was at the scene of a lynching just four or five days ago, where a body was literally being cut to pieces and horrifically mutilated with children watching 50 meters away from French peacekeepers, and they did nothing to stop it or to intervene. Literally, all they had to do was walk over with one patrol and stand next to the body till the Red Cross came to collect it, and they didn't do that.

MONTAGNE: What does that say, then, for what would help?

BOUCKAERT: The peacekeepers who have acted to stop the killings and to draw a line in the sand have managed to bring down the violence. I mean, yesterday when we saved this man from a mob, we ran into the Rwandan peacekeeping base together, and they immediately understand. For the Rwandan soldiers here on the ground, this crisis brings back very painful memories of what happened in 1994, and they are determined to put their lives on the line to stop the killings. We need more determined soldiers like that, and we need a clearer vision.

MONTAGNE: Peter Bouckaert is the emergency director of Human Rights Watch, and we reached him the capital of Central African Republic. Thank you very much for sharing this with us.

BOUCKAERT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.