BANGUI, Central African Republic — Troops from a Portuguese-led U.N. “Rapid Defense Force” fanned out across Bangui’s deserted city streets last Monday evening, scanning empty market stalls and roadside bars for “insurgents.” They were on high alert after a weekend grenade attack and reprisal killings left seven dead and over 20 injured in CAR’s capital city.
Nearby, a group of young people drinking beers and listening to a soccer match on the radio commented bitterly as the troops patrolled their neighborhood, uttering the common opinion here that these UN peacekeepers should leave their country.
Public distrust and a series of disturbing sexual abuse scandals have plagued the 12,000-strong peacekeeping mission since it deployed in 2014 to calm communal tensions and contain a crippling civil war between armed Muslim and Christian militia groups.
Now, as offshoots of the same armed groups threaten to drag the country back toward all-out war, the peacekeeping mission is struggling to stop spasms of ethnic cleansing and to regain the public’s trust in the process.
A city of cynics
To Emmanuel Ngallos, a musician injured in last Saturday’s grenade attack in the Bangui’s PK5 neighborhood, the notion that MINUSCA (the UN peacekeeping force here) will bring peace to his city, let alone the country, is laughable.
“With all these military assets circling Bangui, supposedly to protect us. MINUSCA does nothing. They’re here to make money and to blood-let,” he said from his hospital bed.
Ngallos insists Central Africans can end the violence on their own and reconcile the country. He is equally adamant the U.N. peacekeepers are not the answer.
The notion that MINUSCA, which replaced a flailing African Union mission in 2014, has accomplished little is common.
“MINUSCA so clearly has huge amounts of resources — cars, compounds — and yet it is not always clear to people what they are actually doing, other than making very good money in CAR,” Louisa Lombard, an assistant professor of Anthropology at Yale University said. “This feeds people’s concerns that MINUSCA is there to foment conflict and make money.”
Recent attacks by armed groups on peacekeepers have raised questions about their ability to protect their own troops, let alone CAR’s most vulnerable civilians.
Fifty-six peacekeepers have been killed in CAR since missions began, 13 in 2017 alone.
Keenly aware of this reality, the U.N. Security Council voted last Wednesday to extend MINUSCA’s mandate, increasing the budget and unanimously approving the addition of 900 more blue helmets. It was the only peacekeeping mission to receive increased funding this year.
Outside of the capital, the mission’s reception is less complicated: More often than not, MINUSCA is the only hope for protection from armed groups that target civilians based on their religion. The factions — remnants of the Muslim Seleka and Christian anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) militant groups that characterized the conflict in 2013 — now fight to control strategic, resource-rich areas throughout the country.
Khadija Ahamat, a 50-year-old saleswoman, was on her way back to Bangassou, a small town 300 miles outside the capital, when she heard reports that anti-balaka groups were attacking a Muslim neighborhood.
As she approached a roadblock, she heard those manning it were searching for Muslims to kill. She fled the bus and hid in the bush with her son. Later, she heard that the seven passengers who remained on board were massacred.
For the next two weeks, she hid in the bush, walking from Bangassou across CAR’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. There she received help from the U.N.’s refugee agency, who resettled her in CAR’s capital city.
Today, she is living with family in the Bangui’s PK5 district, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood. But after recent attacks, she is afraid to leave PK5 for fear she will be targeted for being Muslim.
“We’re trapped. We’re in prison, an open-air prison. But it’s better than my family in Bangassou,” she said.
Ahamat is lucky to be in Bangui — the capital city has enjoyed relative stability compared to the country’s resource rich southeast. She worries often for her family and friends still stuck in Bangassou, where over 1,000 Muslims remain in the small town’s church, protected by U.N. peacekeepers.
“I’m scared for them,” Khadija said. “They can’t leave and have no means to survive. It’s only because MINUSCA is there that anti-balaka do not attack and kill them.”
The violence raging in the southeast raises questions about MINUSCA’s ability to predict these kinds of attacks and to respond accordingly, said Lewis Mudge, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But when they do show up with quality troops and use force, they can stem the violence.”
Mudge noted that the mission’s clear emphasis on stabilizing Bangui, where nearly 40 percent of its troops are stationed, in the name of establishing a government and averting state failure has likely come at the expense of small towns and rural areas.
MINUSCA is here tucked away [in] their bases, spending millions on logistics and people are dying in Bangassou, in Bria, now here in Bangui.”
The mission is “coming up short in the southeast, where we saw huge amounts of violence,” he said.
MINUSCA’s force commander, Lieutenant-General Balla Keita, acknowledged the growing insecurity in the country’s eastern provinces.
“When we get these additional 900 troops, the first thing that we will be doing is to stabilize the southeast. It will cool down and the killing will stop,” Keita said.
A Tarnished Image
For victims of MINUSCA’s abuses, the mission’s complicated image plays out in more profound ways.
Sadam Abdoulaye, 21, was shot by Rwandan peacekeepers in October 2015, after anti-balaka soldiers reportedly killed a woman who they claimed was selling food to a Muslim.
“We took her body to the Red Cross, and on my way back to my neighborhood, they started shooting,” Sadam said, gesturing to the two bullet wounds on his leg and foot. He was treated by the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders but refused to amputate his foot.
“They shot me and left me like this, unable to work. It’s not justice when you can just shoot an innocent person,” he said. He had hoped MINUSCA would reach out to him to discuss the incident and apologize, but two years on, he’s heard nothing. Worse, he has little confidence in the forces deployed to protect him and his family.
“They are not doing their job to protect people,” he said. “They make patrols everywhere but are not doing anything to help people in the moment.”
Regional analysts acknowledge the growing criticism of the mission but agree that additional peacekeepers and more time is necessary.
When it comes to the peacekeepers in his country, local activist Moussa Ibrahim has lost his all patience.
“Donald Trump is right. It’s a joke. MINUSCA is here tucked away [in] their bases, spending millions on logistics and people are dying in Bangassou, in Bria, now here in Bangui.”
Julia Steers is an East Africa-based reporter and producer covering politics and human rights. Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.