Central Africa's fragile peace a year after mass killings
BANGUI, Central African Republic/LIBREVILLE, Gabon – In Central African Republic's capital Bangui, what people remember most about the hatred that bubbled over into a killing frenzy a year ago this week is the smell.
As bloody clashes between the country's Christian majority and Muslim minority escalated into full-scale civil war, hundreds of bodies littered the streets.
"Residents living near the local hospital could barely breathe because of the stench of rotting corpses from the morgue. It was really hell," Euloge Kendzia, a computer scientist, recalls.
On December 5, 2013, after receiving the green light from the United Nations, former colonial power France announced it was launching a military intervention to try break the spiral of violence.
Twelve months after the deployment of the Operation Sangaris force the massacres have ceased but CAR, which was already one of the world's least developed nations, is still reeling from the unrest.
The poor landlocked country has suffered numerous coups and bouts of instability since independence from France in 1960, but the March 2013 toppling of Francois Bozize's regime by the Seleka rebel coalition triggered the worst emergency to date.
Relentless attacks by the mainly Muslim rebels on the majority Christian population spurred the formation of vigilante groups, who in turn began exacting revenge on Muslim civilians, driving them out of most parts of the country.
Several thousand people were killed in the tit-for-tat attacks, which plunged the population of 4.8 million into an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
French mission 'like Zorro'
These days, three international forces – France's Sangaris troops, the UN's MINUSCA mission and the European Union's EUROF-RCA – are helping keep the peace.
The killing has ended in Bangui but the capital, which is awash with weapons and where many fight grinding poverty, is still plagued by high crime rates.
In outlying regions, meanwhile, armed gangs continue to sow terror, abetted by the complete breakdown of law and order brought on by decades of neglect by successive governments in Bangui.
Despite the mixed results on the security front, many people in CAR feel a debt of gratitude towards the French soldiers for helping pull the country back from the brink.
"The Sangaris force shouldered the bulk of the security work," an officer from CAR's own army, who did not wish to be named, told Agence France-Presse, describing the national force as virtually "inexistent".
"For me the Sangaris force is Zorro," shopkeeper Suzanne Nguelendo told Agence France-Presse.
"We were dying like flies. We were being massacred by the former Seleka (rebels). Sangaris made their heads spin like Zorro does with bandits."
The French and EU troops are also credited with providing a safe haven for Muslims in PK5, the only Bangui neighborhood not to have been emptied of the religious minority.
But while life in Bangui regains a semblance of normality, the task of silencing the guns remains unfinished.
"French forces have unfortunately failed to restore peace in CAR," Joseph Bendouga, leader of the opposition Democratic Movement for the Renaissance and Development of the Central African Republic (MDREC), said.
CAR is also relying on the international community for help to rebuild tattered state institutions and organize elections expected by mid-2015.
That reliance has in turn led to criticism of interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, who was hailed as a unifying figure at her inauguration 11 months ago but is now dismissed by detractors as a lame-duck leader.
For Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group, the continuing insecurity is holding back the process of national reconciliation.
"As long as there isn't a minimum level of security the political process will remain blocked," he predicted. – Rappler.com