Dispatch

Riptide

A deadly surge of revenge violence has seized the Central African Republic -- and peacekeepers seem powerless to stop it. 

BANGUI, Central African Republic — The death records at the Bangui morgue read like a chapter out of Dante's Inferno, page after page of people killed by machetes, torture, lynching, shooting, explosions, and burning. The overwhelming stench of the dead makes it impossible to remain for long. On really bad days, the records of names and causes of death just stop; only the number of dead is documented before the bodies are buried in mass graves.

The morgue only hints at the deadly toll of communal violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) that has raged for months, claiming an unknown number of lives*, and displacing masses of people. Recently, the Seleka, a predominately Muslim group of fighters that seized Bangui, the capital, and toppled the CAR's government in early 2013, has lost strength and some ground, though the group continues to terrorize wherever possible. In response, Christian forces known as anti-balaka ("machete" in Sango, the local language) have stepped up attacks against Muslim civilians in places where the Seleka fighters no longer hold the sway they did just a few months ago.

[Editor's Note: See Marcus Bleasdale's photos of the brutal violence in CAR in his FP photo essay, "Bangui's Inferno"]

In hopes of quelling the situation, international peacekeeping forces are now in the country. A new president, Catherine Samba-Panza -- a former mayor of Bangui, nicknamed "Madame Courage" -- was also installed in mid-January, in what must be one of the most unwanted jobs on Earth. But the violence continues unabated. On Jan. 29, two Muslim men were hacked to death and their bodies brutally mutilated near Bangui's international airport as onlookers cheered and filmed the scene.

The story of Boyali, a small town roughly 200 miles northwest of the capital, illustrates the horrific developments in the CAR. On Jan. 14, Fatimatu Yamsa, a Muslim woman, was in a truck that was stopped by Christian militia members at a checkpoint in Boyali. Knowing she was about to die, she handed her 7-month-old baby to a Christian woman next to her. The baby was saved, but Yamsa was killed with machetes along with two other Muslim women and their four children on the steps of a mosque. When I visited the mosque, dried pools of blood outside marked where they had died.

This massacre was just the latest chapter in a series of awful tit-for-tat violence in Boyali. A few days prior, hundreds of anti-balaka had captured Boyali from the Seleka and began to slaughter the town's Muslim residents. When I arrived in the town not long after, Red Cross volunteers were burying bodies and filling in wells where corpses had been dumped, leaving the water unusable for drinking.

In a camp for displaced Muslims on the outskirts of Bangui, I found Dairu Soba, 25, with a festering gunshot wound to his knee. He told me he had been shot when a few hundred anti-balaka fighters had attacked Boyali on the morning of Jan. 8. Dairu's older brother, Dibrila, had saved him by dragging him into a house. As Dairu watched, Dibrila, along with his father and uncle, were hacked to death outside. Thirty-four Muslims were killed that day, including the village chief.

The same day, Seleka fighters returned to Boyali to retaliate and wreak havoc on the Christian population. Some victims were executed on the spot; others were shot while fleeing. The Seleka captured the Protestant pastor of the village, Gabriel Yambassa, and cut his throat. The Seleka burned 961 homes in the town.

At one burned house, surviving residents said, Seleka fighters had found Claudine Serefei, 28, a pregnant, physically disabled woman unable to flee. They had tied her hands and feet and thrown her into a fire. Now she lay before us, her hands burned to stumps, and she was shivering from pain.

The massacres in Boyali are indicative of the Seleka's waning power; the group is on the defensive more than ever before, its attacks increasingly ones of terrible retaliation. The tide began to turn against the Seleka in September, when anti-balaka started attacking poorly protected Seleka positions in smaller trading towns in the CAR's northeast, indiscriminately killing Muslim residents. The French intervened in early December, just as the country descended into even greater bloodshed, with up to 1,000 killed in Bangui over the course of just a few days. One month later, the Seleka's self-appointed president, Michel Djotodia, was forced from power by regional and international powers.

Djotodia fled to exile in Benin, and once-strutting Seleka generals now fear for their lives; they want to escape unscathed, while also avoiding justice for their crimes. In some cases, they are rushing into exile, some reportedly with the help of African peacekeepers. As one Seleka official told me, "Now, it is every officer for himself. We are all trying to find our own way out of here."

* * *

Meanwhile, Muslim communities are left behind to face the wrath of the anti-balaka, and the anger of some Christian civilians. Since December, in particular, in community after community, Muslim men, women, and children have been mercilessly killed. In an interview, Col. Dieudonné Oranti, one of the founders of the anti-balaka movement, claimed his men don't kill civilians. He then launched into a long tirade against Muslims, saying that they had betrayed their country and sold it to terrorists, so they no longer belonged in its borders.

In Bangui, entire Muslim neighborhoods face threats to their existence. On Jan. 28, residents fled or were chased out of the PK13 neighborhood by hundreds of anti-balaka fighters. Homes were systematically looted and dismantled. The main mosque was destroyed by a crowd of machete-wielding fighters, declaring things like, "We do not want any more Muslims in our country. We will finish them all off. This country belongs to the Christians."

In another Muslim neighborhood, PK12, many residents who have survived massacres are preparing for the long, hazardous journey to refuge; their destination is Chad -- hundreds of miles to the north. For those who have chosen to stay, tensions are at a boiling point. After a Muslim man was recently lynched, anti-balaka fighters opened fire on his funeral with automatic weapons. French troops arrived, belatedly, and the mass of enraged Muslims then began protesting against them. One of the Muslims was killed by the French soldiers; another was wounded. Then the anger turned on those of us documenting the scene. A menacing crowd shouted that it was whites who had done the killing and it was time for us to leave. As we made our way out, a Christian worker ran for his life past us, chased by a Muslim mob.

The arrival of French forces in late 2013 was initially met with optimism. They joined African troops already on the ground, some of whom view what is happening in the Central African Republic as deeply personal. A commander of Rwandan troops representing the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force told me recently, "What we see here reminds us of what we experienced in Rwanda in 1994, and we are absolutely determined not to let 1994 happen again."

Yet the wave of anti-Muslim violence unleashed by the anti-balaka -- and the Seleka's responses -- has proved difficult to contain. Simply put, the underequipped AU troops and the 1,600 French troops are insufficient in number to halt the bloodshed. Only a U.N. peacekeeping mission with some 6,000 to 10,000 soldiers would have a chance to stop the killings and stabilize the country. Such a mission would also bring police to patrol the streets, human rights monitors to report on the situation, and a political component that could help re-establish order. But whether that will come soon, or at all, is unclear.

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Pastor Koudougeret, a Baptist church leader, is now looking after the orphaned baby of Yamsa, the woman killed at a mosque in Boyali. He vigorously shook his head when I asked him whether there was a religious war unfolding in the country. "The ultimate cause of our instability is not religious but political, because whoever comes to power makes his entourage commit abuses to stay in power," he said, "They treat the country as their private money-making business. We need a real democracy with politicians who have a vision to look after the needs of everyone."

In the face of devastation, there are small signs of hope. For some in the majority-Christian population, the decline of the Seleka has meant a winding down of the terror that forced them to flee their homes in 2013. Villages that were completely abandoned in December are slowly returning to life. Destroyed homes are being rebuilt.

Unexpected bonds are also being formed, with people showing courage amid the carnage. Father Xavier-Arnauld Fagba brought more than 700 Muslims who were under attack to safety at his Catholic Church in mid-January. He held Sunday Mass, surrounded by the belongings of Muslims, including Qurans he had brought inside for safekeeping. He led his followers outside to extend handshakes of peace with their Muslim neighbors.

"We cannot be silent and cower in the face of injustice, but must have courage," he preached. "To be a Christian is not just about being baptized, and true Christians live a life of love and reconciliation, not bloodshed."

*Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect the difficulty of reporting accurate casualty figures in the CAR.

Photo: Marcus Bleasdale/VII

Dispatch

Cambodia's 'Tahrir Square'

Protests against the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen are reaching a boiling point.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — San Sokhan heard the military police shouting, "Beat the men!" as they swarmed into the worker dormitories on the Suntex garment factory compound on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh. On the morning of Friday, Jan. 3, he was in his wife's sister's room when a man in camouflage and a dark green helmet kicked open the metal door. He remembers his wife shrieking and the blunt force of a baton, and then all was black. When he awoke, his head and chest were covered in blood and he was lying on the street outside, next to a row of dead bodies. "They thought I was dead, too," he told me.

Slowly, painfully, San tried to sit up. He doesn't remember fully what happened next, but someone brought the skinny 24-year-old to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, where he underwent surgery and got stitches on the back of his head. His only offense had been joining the union-led strike for garment workers -- to raise their minimum monthly wage from $85 to $160 -- an act that prompted the worst state violence against civilians in 15 years.

When I met him four days later at the crowded clinic, his wife, 21-year-old Ean Rasmey, was sitting beside his bed on a little blue plastic stool, holding his thin hand. "I worry about his brain and about how well he will recover," she said. "I don't have anyone else to support the family and our baby son." Nith Pov, another garment worker who witnessed the police raid near his dormitory, told me: "Once again, Cambodians are killing Cambodians."

When military police wielding batons and tear gas opened fire with AK-47s on striking garment workers in early January -- killing at least six and badly injuring dozens more -- the poor Southeast Asian country of 15 million people best known for the murderous regime of Pol Pot in the 1970s leapt back into international headlines. The current prime minister, Hun Sen, has ruled since 1985.* Now, with growing domestic unrest stemming from public anger at suspected election fraud, endemic corruption, and rampant rural land-grabbing, he faces arguably his greatest challenge.

When Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) claimed victory in July, the opposition party, which has been holding large demonstrations at the millennia-old temple complex of Angkor Wat, refused to take up its congressional seats. Since then, broad sectors of Cambodian society have joined in frequent protests in Phnom Penh calling for an electoral recount and for the autocratic Hun Sen to leave office. At rallies, the chorus of chanted slogans ranges from "Change the government!" to "Hun Sen, step down!", from "End corruption!" to "Increase our salary!"

On the same day San was beaten, tensions rose after police arrested 23 nonprofit and union leaders and workers near factory grounds and in their homes, on dubious charges of inciting violence; they remain in prison without trial. The following day, military police cleared hundreds of pro-union and anti-government protesters out of a public park called Freedom (or Democracy) Square -- the word in Khmer, the language spoken by the vast majority of the population, has both meanings. In response to the sustained anti-government campaign, the government on Jan. 4 banned all public gatherings of more than 10 people. For three weeks, the square sat largely empty, its perimeters attended by heavily armed police in lawn chairs playing cards.

In mid-January, I met Mu Sochua, one of the most recognizable leaders and impassioned voices of the opposition party, in a hallway of Preah Ang Duong Hospital in Phnom Penh. Wearing a demure white blouse and black slacks, she resembles a Cambodian Aung San Suu Kyi -- only she spent 18 years in exile instead of as a political prisoner. She had come to visit Keang Sinak, a 21-year-old garment worker shot in the eye by police on Jan. 3. He was sitting upright in bed, a gauze patch over his left eye as he awaited surgery to remove bullet shrapnel. His mother had come from their modest village home, where she had sold everything she could to raise money for his operation, but was still a few hundred dollars short. (Charity donations allowed him to have surgery a few days later.) Mu was painfully aware of how quickly a moment of national optimism and defiance had turned tragic. Freedom Square, she said, had become like Egypt's Tahrir Square -- an analogy full of both promise and peril.

On Sunday, Jan. 26, Freedom Square filled once again. Nine unions -- representing workers, teachers, civil servants, and other trades -- had requested permission to hold a demonstration for the release of the 23 people in police custody. The Interior Ministry denied the request, calling it an attempt to "overthrow the government." But hundreds of people came anyway, among them garment workers, Buddhist monks, supporters of the main opposition party, and radio station owner Mam Sonando, who demanded the right to establish an independent TV network in a country where much of the influential media is government-controlled. Police tried to block demonstrators from entering the square. It's not clear how the violence began, but police and protesters threw stones at each other, and security forces threatened the crowd with batons and stun guns. At least eight people were injured before police dispersed the crowd with smoke canisters.

The recent violent clashes are the latest act in a tense drama that has been mounting since the disputed national election last summer, when Hun Sen's ruling party claimed victory among widespread accusations of voter fraud. The cynicism and complacency that characterized past national elections gave way to a new era of public engagement, partly fueled by social media spreading news outside state-controlled TV and radio broadcasts. The newly formed Cambodia National Rescue Party, which united two leading opposition parties -- the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party -- promised a set of concrete economic reforms, including raising garment workers' minimum wage, raising civil servants' monthly salaries to $250, offering better loans for students, lowering the microcredit interest rate, and expanding health care. It pledged to find extra money in the budget by trimming government waste and corruption, in a country ranked 160 out of 177 on Transparency International's 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Ultimately, the opposition -- whose diverse backers include workers' unions, Buddhist monks, and youth leaders -- stands for prying wealth from the hands of a corrupt elite and sharing the spoils of Cambodia's recent economic boom with a broader swath of society. While Cambodia's GDP has tripled in a decade, largely fueled by rapid growth in the garment-manufacturing sector, the country's Gini coefficient -- a measure of income inequality -- has risen at a worryingly quick rate.

"The government strategy is not to give more -- the government strategy is just to intimidate," says Ee Sarom, executive director of Palm Tree Leaf, a nonprofit that works on urban poverty in Phnom Penh. "Last summer, people thought they could change the government and change the country. The government only wants to scare people so they don't mobilize now. It looks like Burma before the military junta fell." As former Buddhist monk turned opposition activist Setha Ly told me, "Cambodians need real democracy, not fake democracy." But many more may have to die before they get it.

*Correction, Jan. 28, 2014: This article originally misstated the year in which Hun Sen became Cambodia's prime minister. He has ruled the country since 1985, not 1998. (Return to reading.)

Photo: Omar Havana/Getty Images