Journey Through the Central African Republic Crisis


The Frank Karel Grant for Multimedia Reporting

In November 2013, the photographer Marcus Bleasdale and I began a year-long journey to document the Central African Republic’s descent into horrific bloodshed. We wanted to draw the world’s attention to a massive crisis in a country that few people in the world even knew existed.

A Country On The Run

In the schoolrooms of the northern Central African Republic, the blackboards still show dates from late March 2013—when Seleka rebels seized power in the country, and the nightmare began. Since then, the armed Seleka rebels, whose collective name means “alliance” in Sango, the national language, have ruled through fear—burning down village after village, firing randomly at civilians from their pick-up trucks, executing farmers in their fields, torturing anyone suspected of plotting against them, and murdering women and children. Their brutality continues to spread like a deadly cancer.

In our 4x4 truck, loaded with fuel, food, camping gear, and everything else we need to survive in the devastated countryside, we travel down roads that have not seen a single vehicle pass by in months. People often mistake our vehicle for a Seleka military vehicle coming to attack them. They flee before us in terror. One day, our passage is blocked by the meager bundles of belongings dropped by a family that had fled into the bush as they heard us approach.

We find a toddler crying on the road: his parents had abandoned him as they ran. When they emerge a few minutes later, after much coaxing, they explain that they had been walking all night to reach Bossangoa, the regional capital, where some 40,000 people are living in dismal conditions around the Catholic Cathedral. “There are so many children dying from malaria and typhoid fever,” the exhausted father tells us.

Two days later, it happens again. Our road is blocked by left-behind belongings, and as we step out of the car to clear the road, we hear the cries of a newborn nearby. We wade into the dense bush, and find a tiny one-month-old, who fell from his mother’s back as she kept running. It takes us nearly half an hour to reassure her it is safe to come out. Such is the terror created by the Seleka, who shoot at every person they pass.

In the areas controlled by Seleka, we drive for hours through abandoned, burned villages without seeing a single soul. Goats and pigs wander through the empty villages, but their owners have fled deep into the bush to escape the Seleka killers. The devastation all around us leaves us stunned.

The Fighters

In Bossangoa, the capital of northern CAR, we finally encounter the heavily armed fighters of the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel movement, manning the checkpoint at the entry to the city. Warily, we stare at each other. Communication is difficult: most of the Seleka fighters don’t speak French or the national Sango, preferring to communicate in their native Arabic, the language of the extreme northeast of the country, and of Chad and Sudan, home to many of the foreign fighters who joined the Seleka ranks.

Many of these men have been fighting in various rebellions since they were first hired by Francois Bozizé in 2002 to bring him to power. As president, Bozizé failed to integrate them into his army and exacerbated the discrimination Muslims had historically faced in the predominantly Christian country. So the men went back to the bush to fight again.

They have already suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the mysterious anti-balaka militias that have sprung up to oppose them, and rumors of large-scale massacres against Muslims at the hands of the anti-balaka in the remote countryside are circulating. They are losing their air of invincibility.

A few days later, we set off to seek out the anti-balaka militia. They move on foot, covering huge distances to carry out their attacks, and care little about road conditions. To protect their bases from Seleka attacks, they break down the bridges and litter the roads with cut-down trees, blocking the Seleka from coming in their feared 4x4 vehicles.

Ten kilometers out of Bossangoa on the road to the trading center of Ouham-Bac, we face a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: a bridge has been destroyed, leaving only two metal beams across the deep river. As we despair, groups of young men emerge from the bush, wearing the distinctive gris-gris amulets of the anti-balaka, who believe the amulets protect them from being harmed by bullets. We explain the purpose of our visit, and they agree to open the bridge for us, jumping down to the riverbanks and retrieving the heavy teakwood beams that form the surface of the bridge, repairing it in just half-an-hour. We drive over the rickety bridge in our heavily loaded 4x4, knowing that the slightest deviation can plunge us into the river below.

Down the road from the just-repaired bridge, we enter the heartland of the anti-balaka militia. Everywhere are men and boys, and even women, wearing their gris-gris amulets and armed with machetes, spears, and homemade hunting guns. They may not have the heavy weapons of the Seleka, but their sheer prevalence in the countryside makes it a deadly no-go zone for Muslims, who are nowhere to be seen.

At the town of Wikamo, hundreds of heavily armed anti-balaka fighters emerge from the burned-out homes to hold an impromptu meeting with us. All around us are armed anti-balaka fighters, some of them kids as young as 12, shorter than their homemade rifles.

Eric Zalo, the secretary of the anti-balaka in the village, explains that he has more than 200 armed fighters in Wikamo alone, and that they formed the anti-balaka movement in response to the atrocities being committed by the mostly Muslim Seleka fighters:

“The anti-balaka are exclusively Christian, and our aim is to liberate the Christian population from the yoke of the Muslims. We are not a rebel group. We only fight against the Seleka and protect the population.”

Zalo denies his men attack Muslim civilians, but we know he is lying. Just the day before, we met a Muslim woman whose unarmed son had been killed in this exact village a few weeks earlier.

My colleague Lewis Mudge conducted investigations in the Central African Republic during the months when violence against Christians was rampant. Neither side is blameless in this war. But we meet too many civilians who have been senselessly attacked for belonging to the wrong religion.


At the Catholic Church in Bossangoa, displaced people are everywhere, a camp so dense that it is difficult even to walk around among all of the crowded misery. Some 40,000 people have fled their homes following Seleka attacks and sought out the protection of the Catholic Church. The air is filled with smoke, pungent odors, dust, and noise. In tiny little tents fit for maybe two adults, entire families are cramped, trying to squeeze between their meager belongings. Many sleep in the open.

In tent after tent, we find stories of death and horror. Leonie Danta, 20, nursing a newborn, tells me that four Seleka fighters took her husband, Jean-Baptiste, 37, from their home in Bossangoa. She had seen him alive at the Seleka base in town and had begged for his release, but the Seleka executed him that night, his body thrown in the river and never found. I pause when she tells me she has six children. “Wait a minute, how old where you when the first was born?” I ask. When she was only 10, she says in a whisper, explaining that she had been playing outside with her friends when a man came, grabbed her arm, and dragged her away to be raped. She became pregnant, and her parents forced the rapist to marry her. I leave wondering how she really felt about the death of the man who had greatly terrorized her.

The people here are literally trapped: stepping just a few meters from the safety of the camp can mean death. When farmers try to make a furtive visit to their fields, Seleka fighters often lie in ambush, waiting to kill them. One day, a little boy comes running toward us, crying that the Seleka has just executed his uncle. As we go to investigate, we find out that the uncle had managed to escape alive, but only just. He had gone to the Muslim side of town to look for a stray pig. A displaced Muslim woman started yelling that his parents were anti-balaka fighters and urged the nearby Seleka to execute him. Nonchalantly, and within view of a horrified international TV crew, the Seleka men began beating the man mercilessly with their gun butts, then took out a large knife to slaughter him. At the last moment, he managed to escape, dodging the bullets they fired at him.

Life In The Bush

Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes and hide deep in the bush, where many are dying from disease, bad water, and malnutrition. In the Ouham province surrounding Bossangoa, the country’s worst-affected area, at least 170,000 people have fled their homes.

At the large but deserted gold-trading town of Ndjo, we ask the few local villagers we can find if they can take us to their hiding places in the bush. They look at us skeptically, wondering if we are up for the 4 kilometer march along narrow tracks and through a waist-deep river. They ask us to hide our car deep in the bush so it won’t be seen by passing-by Seleka fighters.

At the first lean-to shelter, we find the dignified village chief of Ndjo, 55-year-old Rafael Newane, whose face is lined with sadness. He shows us the graves of two of his grandchildren, Frediane Mobene, 9 months, and Oreli Newane, 6 months, who had died just the week before, three days apart, from untreated malaria. They make small mounds in the reddish dirt.

At the next shelter down the path, we find Placide Yamingi, Ndjo’s medical officer, who had buried his sister, dead from malaria, just 48 hours before. He tells us that there are four or five deaths every week among the displaced from the village. Despite his medical training as a nurse, he is unable to help most of the sick and dying: Seleka fighters looted Ndjo’s hospital and its pharmacy on September 16, leaving Yamingi without medications. He shows us the tiny medical kit he managed to save, which contains a single bandage and a few surgical tools. “We live and die here like animals,” he adds, barely able to contain his anger.

We leave behind all of the medications and first aid kits we have with us and return a few weeks later with a humble contribution of malaria medicines. Yamingi tells us that our colleagues from Médecins sans Frontières had begun a mobile clinic in Ndjo once a week, one of the few signs of a humanitarian response amid all the suffering.


In early December, France decides to intervene militarily to stop the bloodshed in its former colony, deploying more than 1,000 soldiers on a mission called Operation Sangaris, after a local species of butterfly. Suddenly, French warplanes are flying low and loud over Bossangoa and Bangui, sending a powerful message to the warlords that things are about to change.

But the arrival of the Sangaris soldiers, in their tanks and armored vehicles, coincides with the outbreak of an even more deadly cycle of violence, as the anti-balaka militia seize the moment to launch a surprise offensive on the Seleka. Within just a few days, an estimated 1,000 people are killed in Bangui alone, as both the anti-balaka and the Seleka go house-to-house in tit-for-tat murder sprees.

The newly arrived French soldiers seemed stunned by the violence, having planned to disarm the Seleka militia, rather than to step into an escalating communal conflict. They have carefully studied the Seleka militia, but seem to know little about the mysterious anti-balaka, and are at a loss for how to confront them.

By early January, the violence in Bangui and the rest of the country spins even more out of control, as the Seleka starts fleeing its positions and regrouping in the East, leaving the Muslim civilian population to face the wrath of the anti-balaka and a furious Christian population.

Almost every day, Muslims are lynched in the streets of Bangui, their bodies cut to pieces. Entire towns and neighborhoods are emptied of their Muslim populations. In the face of stupefying violence, the French Sangaris seem indecisive. They are clearly outnumbered and outmatched, and seem unclear on their mandate.

The African Union peacekeeping mission is more complex. Known as Misca, the French acronym for the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic, the mission consists of 6,000 troops from eight African nations.

Some of the peacekeepers—particularly those from Rwanda and Burundi—seem to genuinely understand the gravity of what is going on, and intervene time and time again to try to stop the killings. For many Rwandan soldiers, what they see and experience in CAR is deeply personal, reminding them of what happened in Rwanda 20 years ago, during the 1994 genocide. The situation in CAR is different, but the levels of hatred and communal violence bring back dark memories.

But among the Misca troops are also Chadian soldiers, who frequently side with the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels. In January, we witness a large Chadian Misca convoy heading north from Bangui, and spot some of the Seleka’s most senior generals being evacuated in the convoy. Soon we start documenting a new wave of killings, village burnings, and torture being committed by the regrouped Seleka.

Confronting The Seleka

Colonel Saleh Zabadi, the commander of the Seleka forces in Bossangoa, is widely feared for his ruthlessness. Just a few days before our meeting, I sit down with three men who had barely survived an encounter with the Colonel. Seleka fighters captured seven Christian men as they were returning from selling produce at a market outside Bossangoa. Tied up and beaten, the men were brought before Colonel Zabadi and his commander, General Issa Yahya.

With barely a second thought, Colonel Zabadi accepted his men’s accusation that the tied-up traders were enemy fighters. “Go throw them in the river,” he said, ordering the men drowned. Four died. The three who survived told us their story. Now, Colonel Zabadi is sitting next to me, and we are about to confront him and his fellow Seleka commanders with the evidence we had collected of their crimes.

“Every day, the Seleka murder farmers going to their fields. They hunt us like animals, hiding in the bush to ambush us.”

A higher-ranking officer, General Mahamat Bahr, head of Seleka’s military intelligence, arrived in Bossangoa the night before, surviving several anti-balaka ambushes on the road. He joins us. In a lucky break, he remembers me from a visit to his rebel camp in 2007, and reassures his fellow Seleka fighters: “I know these guys care about Muslims; they even came all the way to visit us in 2007.”

General Bahr, Colonel Zabadi, and his men listen attentively for half-an-hour as I explain, through an Arabic interpreter, our research on the widespread attacks against Muslims. They nod in appreciation. But then it comes time to discuss the numerous atrocities committed by the heavily armed Seleka men sitting all around us.

I tell them what a Christian farmer had told me just the day before: “Every day, the Seleka murder farmers going to their fields. They hunt us like animals, hiding in the bush to ambush us. Just yesterday, they shot dead a mother by the river, and they left her body with her baby crying next to her.”

I tell Colonel Zabadi we know about the drowning of the traders: “I know it was you who gave the orders, because some of the men survived.”

The whole group seems to tense up. General Bahr takes out a towel to wipe the sweat pouring off his face. I open my backpack and unfold a dozen large printouts generated by satellite imagery, villages Seleka had burned to the ground around Bossangoa. I have printed them out on a brief trip from CAR back to Geneva, my home. I tell them, “All those red dots are the houses you burned. More than 400 in Ben Zambé. More than 300 in Zéré. Not one home left in this village, the same in this one.” I tell the men this was direct evidence that could be used against them in the International Criminal Court.

There is silence all around us. Cornered, Colonel Zabadi doesn't deny our accusations. The next day, we return unannounced to the Seleka base, and find General Bahr and Colonel Saleh in a heated discussion with other Seleka commanders about “human rights.” At the end of the meeting, General Bahr orders the fighters to respect the orders from the French peacekeepers who had just arrived in Bossangoa to stay in their barracks, hand in their weapons, and ask permission before going anywhere. He ends by saying, “This is our last chance.”

Incredibly, under the watchful eye of the nearby French and African peacekeepers, the Seleka men stick to orders to remain in their bases. Overnight, in this one town, the terror of the Seleka has noticeably diminished. In much of the rest of the country, the killings continue.

Caught in the Crossfire

We wake up on December 5 in Bossangoa to troubling news. The anti-balaka militia has launched a massive offensive in the capital, Bangui, and heavy clashes are taking place all over the capital, which will ultimately claim more than 1,000 lives in just a few days. Our driver and translator are clearly worried about their relatives in Bangui. News soon follows that General Yaya has been killed in the fighting in Bangui, adding to the tension.

At the house of Bossangoa’s Imam, we find Oumar Abacar, a young Peuhl cattle herder with a badly infected gunshot wound to the knee from an anti-balaka attack. We take him to the hospital for treatment. As we return him to the Imam’s house just after noon, heavily armed Seleka fighters arrive, and we find ourselves in the midst of a gun battle, when anti-balaka fighters enter Bossangoa.

The battle for Bossangoa has begun. Together with hundreds of local civilians, we rush for the relative safety of the African peacekeepers’ base, gunshots and explosions all around us. For hours, the battle rages. As the fighting intensifies, one peacekeeping commander distinguishes himself by his concern for civilian life: Captain Wilson of the Republic of Congo rallies his troops with remarkable speed and courage, deploying them around town to safeguard the tens of thousands of displaced people at the Catholic Church, as well as the Muslim population in the Boro neighborhood of Bossangoa, who are at risk of reprisal attacks by the anti-balaka militia.

The next morning, we return to Boro neighborhood, and find a community displaced and in mourning. Overnight, at least 7,000 Muslims have fled their homes and are now sheltering in the heavily protected Ecole Liberté, Bossangoa’s town school.

The Imam is busy saying prayers for the dead, and men we have known for months now sit around him sobbing. Speaking in whispers, one of them gives us terrible news: Oumar Abacar, the Peuhl herder, has been killed. With his badly wounded knee, he stood no chance of escaping.

Children of War

French forces arrive in Bossangoa after this terrible battle, and the mood in town grows even more tense. We pay another visit to the Seleka base where General Bahr is in command. I notice a young boy, no older than 12, standing amid the assembled troops. He quickly looks away, trying to avoid my attention.

Child soldiers are common among the Seleka, and they often turn hostile when asked their ages. They know they are not supposed to be there. “I’m 43,” declared one Seleka fighter who was obviously under 15. His automatic rifle made it clear that he wouldn’t entertain any follow-up questions. Even more children seem to have been mobilized to join the ranks of the anti-balaka. Entire villages, including kids as young as 11, have been armed. In one village, we find groups of young boys with machetes and hunting rifles, and one tiny boy wearing a UNICEF T-shirt and carrying a gun.

At the Seleka base, we bring the young boy we found within the ranks of the assembled Seleka fighters over to General Bahr and his commanders, who are having tea, and remind them that it is a crime to use child soldiers. Colonel Zabadi, the Bossangoa commander, jumps up and twists the boy’s elbow behind his head. He is trying to prove that the lack of flexibility in the boy’s joints proves he is old enough to fight. It’s a curious and highly unscientific test, and anyway the boy fails it.

“OK, he is very little, but he lost his whole family, they were all killed by the anti-balaka, and he wants to be with us,” General Bahr argues. “He doesn’t have anyone left to look after him.” The boy confirms that the anti-balaka had attacked his family’s cattle camp a few weeks before and killed his father, mother, and siblings, as well as most of his extended family. He is tiny and young, but life among these hardened men clearly feels to him like his only option.

After a long discussion, the Seleka fighters finally agree to release the boy into the custody of Bossangoa's Imam, so he can live among civilians. It is not only the many kids with guns that worry us. At the scenes of the most brutal lynchings in Bangui, we often found small children among the spectators, watching human beings being cut apart. What effect will these images have on them? They will surely grow up with scars.

Bangui’s Inferno

The death records of 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. If unclaimed by relatives, the bodies are generally buried in mass graves.

With the forced resignation of President Michel Djotodia, on January 10, Seleka forces in Bangui are melting away, leaving the country’s Muslims to face the fury of the virulently anti-Muslim anti-balaka fighters.

During three weeks in Bangui in January 2014, we witness a dozen lynchings and attempted lynchings of Muslims. One evening, we find a man running for his life from a lynch mob, and put our vehicle between him and the mob until we can run together into the safety of a Rwandan peacekeeping base. On many other occasions, we can do little more than witness and document the horror of bodies literally being ripped apart by the mob.

One day on the road to the airport, we find a mob that has just lynched two Muslim traders. The anti-balaka fighters are busy mutilating the bodies, as French troops stand by 50 meters away.

Children are watching the scene, and many people are recording the mutilation on their cellphones. When we back away in horror, worried about our own safety, the killers laugh and try to reassure us. “You can stay and keep filming - We are not yet done,” they boast. We walk away, not wanting to encourage such barbarity with our presence.

The commander of the French peacekeepers, General Soriano, calls me a few hours later, upset that I had criticized his men on Twitter for doing nothing while bodies were being mutilated. “We’re busy enough protecting the living, and they were dead already,” he argues. But the Geneva Conventions declare the desecration of a corpse a war crime, and General Soriano assures me at the end of our discussion that his troops will act differently next time.

We don't have to wait long. Just a few days later, the new interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, proudly addresses a national army ceremony meant to re-launch the army, telling the assembled uniformed soldiers how proud she is to see them back on duty.

Most had fled and deserted during the time of the Seleka, when they were killed on sight. Just after the interim president leaves the ceremony, a large mob of uniformed soldiers brutally lynches a suspected Seleka fighter in their midst, cutting his body to pieces and burning it on the street in front of the gathered dignitaries and media.

The French peacekeepers arrive, and as promised by General Soriano, deploy to guard the now-burning corpse. In a surreal moment, a young man walks up to the French soldiers, holding the severed leg of the lynching victim. The young French soldiers gasp in horror. Not knowing what else to do, they order the man to put down the leg and leave. There isn’t a single functioning prison now in the entire country, so it is impossible for them even to arrest the leg-wielding man.

Neighborhood Destroyed

Not just people, but entire neighborhoods die in the Central African Republic’s conflict. In late January, we find ourselves in the midst of an orgy of looting and destruction at PK13, a Muslim neighborhood on the outskirts of Bangui. As we drive by, we notice Rwandan peacekeepers at the roadside, and stop to find out what is happening. We meet a group of 36 Muslims being protected by the Rwandans, the last remnants of a once thriving neighborhood. “The anti-balaka came and attacked this morning, with automatic weapons and grenades,” one tells us, “They wanted to kill us all, and now they are destroying our homes.”

“We do not want any more Muslims in our country. We will finish them all off, this country belongs to the Christians!”

We walk into surreal scenes of looting and destruction, as thousands of non-Muslims descend on the emptied neighborhood to carry away whatever they can. Looters are everywhere anti-balaka men armed with machetes, but also women and even small children. Fires are burning all around us, as the looters torch what they cannot carry away, filling the neighborhood with acrid smoke. The noise is deafening, as hundreds of hammers slam down to remove metal roofs, doors, and windows from the Muslim homes. The mood is almost jovial, intoxicated, as the crowds encourage each other. “Loot! Loot! Today is our turn to loot!” they shout. “We will take our revenge!” another young man shouts at us as he carts away handfuls of stolen goods.

Before our eyes, a crowd of machete-wielding fighters is destroying the main mosque. Suddenly, the mood turns menacing, as they surround us and vent their anger. Waving their machetes, they shout at us: “We do not want any more Muslims in our country. We will finish them all off, this country belongs to the Christians!”

The outnumbered African peacekeepers try to stop the looting, firing in the air to disperse the looters, who return to continue looting just minutes later. The peacekeepers set up a few checkpoints to confiscate looted goods and weapons, but their efforts are as futile as trying to hold water in a sieve: the looters just outmaneuver them, overwhelming the peacekeepers with their sheer numbers.

As night falls, the 36 Muslims, mostly women and children, are still stuck, but protected by the Rwandan peacekeepers. The anti-balaka fighters just across the road tell me, “If you don’t get them out of here, we will kill them this night.”

We go a kilometer down the road, trying to convince the better-equipped French peacekeepers to come evacuate the trapped Muslims. The French soldiers are skeptical, saying, “We don’t want to be perceived as choosing sides here.” I threaten to make a stink if they leave the Muslims to their fate. They reluctantly call their commander and get the order to go rescue the last Muslims from PK 13.

Back in the PK13 neighborhood, there’s a desperate scramble to take a few remaining possessions on the French military trucks, with only a few minutes to load up. These Muslims will survive tonight, but we all know that the neighborhood we are taking them to is also likely to be attacked. When we return to the PK13 neighborhood a few days later, it is dead. All the houses are stripped down, with only the walls remaining. There is a dreadful silence. And all of a sudden, we are surprised by an anti-balaka fighter who walks by and cocks his AK-47, looking to attack Muslims in the next neighborhood. Amid the destruction, I think about all of the lives lived here, the neighborly relations torn apart forever, and realize that neighborhoods too can die.

Real-Time Reporting

The most difficult challenge we face in the Central African Republic is not the daily hardship of working in a war-ravaged country. We are used to the rough roads and camping wild, scraping together a meal when we need it. The horrific violence and suffering we see every day is soul-destroying, but even that isn’t the hardest part of the job. The most difficult thing is trying to get the world to care about what is happening in a place they have never heard of, and to mobilize them to act to stop the killings.

Most of the world’s media – with a few notable exceptions – are nowhere to be found amid the carnage, so we try to get the word out ourselves. We decide to live-tweet the war.

It takes a suitcase full of electronics to tweet from a conflict zone without electricity or mobile phone networks: we need generators, battery chargers, satellite phones and satellite internet access to share a constant stream of photos capturing the dramatic events unfolding before our eyes. Every morning, we rise at 4 a.m. to post dozens of tweets and images from the previous day’s events, taking advantage of a faster internet connection while everyone else is still asleep, before setting out on another day of research. Marcus Bleasdale’s images garner a big following on Instagram. We both tweet like mad.

Soon, virtually every policymaker, humanitarian, and journalist interested in the crisis is following us, as well as thousands of ordinary people inside and outside the country who want to help make a difference. My phone is ringing off the hook, as journalists seek more information about the latest killings, and diplomats ask for detailed briefings.

The haiku-like tweets are powerful, sometimes irking international officials when I complain they need to do more. We have another powerful analytical tool in our arsenal, our eyes in the sky. Using commercially available satellite imagery, we begin mapping out the massive destruction caused by the fighting, showing towns and villages completely devastated by Seleka and anti-balaka arson attacks. In a country the size of France with ravaged roads, our satellite imagery analysis allows us to assess what is happening in places we have not yet reached, and to provide a powerful illustration of the places we have visited. A satellite image, like any picture, can speak 1,000 words.

The Heroes

It is difficult to find rays of hope amid all of the killing and suffering. Hate often rules the streets, and bystanders seem to rejoice in the violence, looting, and ultimate humiliation of their former neighbors. Acts of kindness and humanity are few and far between, which is why the individuals we meet who dare to stand up to the brutal violence seem all the more extraordinary.

Father Jean-Xavier Fagba, the Catholic priest in Boali, 80 kilometers north of Bangui, did not have second thoughts when the anti-balaka came into his town in January and began attacking its Muslim population. He strode into the violence, and personally led the threatened Muslims to the relative safety of his church, placing them under his protection. They remained there for six weeks, until a convoy of commercial trucks evacuated them to Cameroon in March.

One Sunday in January, we stop at the Boali church to listen to Father Fagba’s Sunday service. The Muslims are waiting outside the church as his congregation celebrates Mass. Although he is regularly threatened by the anti-balaka, Father Fagba’s sermon is uncompromisingly tough. “Being a Christian is not just about being baptized into our church,” he preaches, “It is about following the example of Jesus, who taught us love and reconciliation. Do you think Jesus would have killed his neighbor?”

“He tried to run away from me when we found him,” Kinvi recounts, “He thought I was the anti-balaka who came to kill him.”

Then it is time for the parishioners to exchange handshakes. Instead of asking his congregation to shake the hand of the person sitting next to them, Father Fagba leads them outside, and blesses the displaced Muslims gathered outside, extending his handshake of peace to them. In town after town we visit, the courageous Catholic priests and nuns often seem to be the only force able to protect vulnerable Muslim communities. In Bossemptélé, 297 km northwest of Bangui, hundreds of Muslims are gathered at the Catholic Mission, whose hospital is filled with the wounded from the fighting, both Christian and Muslim. At the hospital, we meet 12-year-old Mamadou Oumaru, whom the anti-balaka tried to kill with their machetes. His right arm is missing from a machete blow.

Father Bernard Kinvi, the Togolese priest who administers the hospital, spent days looking for Muslim survivors after more than 80 were killed by the anti-balaka in late January. Many days after the massacre, he still found survivors hiding in fear. Five days after the attack, he discovered Iyasa, a 12-year-old polio survivor, abandoned by a nearby river. “He tried to run away from me when we found him,” Kinvi recounts, “He thought I was the anti-balaka who came to kill him.”

Father Kinvi seems unfazed by the tremendous burden of care placed upon him and his fellow priests and nuns, and shrugs off threats he’s received from the anti-balaka. He is full of smiles and reassuring hugs for the vulnerable Muslims. When asked where he finds the energy and courage, he responds: “All my religious life, I have waited for the moment where my faith would be tested, to see the strength of our faith. That moment has come, and it is a blessing.”

Not only the religious stand up for humanity in the midst of the crisis. Although the humanitarian response from the United Nations is feeble at best, the medical teams of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and the courageous local staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross are everywhere we go, treating the wounded and the sick, and burying the dead with the respect they deserve. One day in December, at the height of the bloodshed around Bossangoa, we travel for hours along absolutely deserted roads, only to run into hundreds of people gathered, patiently waiting for the arrival of MSF’s weekly mobile medical clinic.

In January, we arrive at the village of Boyali, 120 kilometer north of Bangui, as the local Red Cross volunteers are busy burying the bodies from several rounds of killings. Dressed in heavy rubber gloves and face masks, they face the unenviable task of locating and burying the decomposing bodies of the victims of the communal violence, doing their volunteer work with dignity and humanity.

André Ngaisenne, the local president of the Red Cross, himself disabled from a childhood illness, leads us around Boyali with a heavy limp, patiently showing us where they had found and buried the various victims, referring to the careful notes he had taken in his notebook to recount the details of lives lost: here is a Christian preacher who had been decapitated by the Seleka rebels; there in front of the mosque are the bloody outlines where three women and two children were hacked to death by the anti-balaka. As we walk around with this courageous man, we can see his fellow villagers bow their heads in shame, fully aware of what he is sharing with us.

The Exodus

Halima, a 25-year-old Muslim woman, cannot hold back tears. We are meeting for the second time, in the town of Bossemptélé, about 298 kilometers northwest of Bangui.

When we first met two days earlier, Halima had told me how her husband and father-in-law were among the victims of a massacre in January, and that she had not heard from her three young children since they had run away from the killers. She didn't know if they were alive or dead. At that first meeting, there were still 270 Muslims in Bossemptélé, all living at the Catholic Church. Forty-eight hours later, only 80 Muslims remained at the church—and they were the weakest, almost all women, children, and people with disabilities.

In the interim, a convoy of commercial trucks protected by African peacekeepers had come through town. Those strong enough took their chances, scrambling on to the trucks with the few possessions they had managed to save. In the chaos, parents abandoned children with disabilities, and some men left behind their wives and children.

For paper-thin Halima, who had stopped eating, dying seemed to be the only option left. “There is no-one to help me,” she said, crying, while the local Catholic priest tried to comfort her, “I did not have the strength to climb onto the trucks, and no one helped me. I kept calling after them to take me, but they left without me.” Everywhere we travel in March, down Central African Republic’s terribly degraded roads, we find a horrible emptiness, Muslim communities wiped off the map by the anti-balaka. In Bekadilli, we find the mosque gutted and hundreds of Muslim homes destroyed, and stumble upon human remains just outside the mosque. The remaining non-Muslim villagers look away in shame, knowing what horrors had occurred. Baoro was once home to at least 4,000 Muslims who were a majority in the town, displaying their wealth by constructing more than a dozen mosques. Now not a single one remains.

The anti-Muslim violence is unrelenting. In Bossemptélé, we receive the news that the last remaining Muslim in Mbaiki, Saleh Dido, was murdered, his throat slit as he tried to flee to the police station. Three weeks earlier, Samba-Panza and the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, had visited the major southwestern city of Mbaiki and declared it a “symbol of living together and reconciliation.” Four months into our journey, we are face-to-face with an unprecedented exodus of much of the country’s Muslim population, the culmination of a year of terror and suffering. There is not yet any sign of living together or reconciliation.

Escape from a Nightmare

Refugees who fled from brutal violence in the Central African Republic can look across a river border with Cameroon and see the men who still want them dead. Will they ever be able to return home?

Between December 2013 and October 2014, 187,000 people fled the CAR to seek shelter in neighboring Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville). All told, some 850,000 people, or about 20 percent of the country’s population, have been displaced either internally or as refugees. Cameroon hosts the bulk of the refugees—more than 135,000, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

The refugee camps are in the most remote regions of Cameroon, many hours’ hard driving from the nearest towns.

In October, I drove through seemingly endless forests before suddenly finding myself amid white plastic tents stretching to the horizon. I was in one of a dozen or so large camps, the ethnic profiles of which provide perhaps the starkest evidence of just how sharply targeted the anti-balaka’s brutal campaign has been. The Muslim Peuhl, an ethnic minority who traditionally live as nomads, were estimated before the current conflict to number only 300,000 in the CAR, out of a total population of 4.5 million—or less than 1 percent. (The entire Muslim population comprised less than 15 percent of the total.) But in almost all of the refugee camps in Cameroon, they make up over 90 percent of the population. At the Timangolo camp, according to UNHCR, Peuhl make up 98 percent of a population of 6,200. At the Mbile camp, home to more than 9,500 refugees, 93 percent are Peuhl. Almost all others people in the camps are Muslim traders of Arab origin.

At the Gbiti camp, I met 33-year-old Mamadou Bouba, a Peuhl cattle herder from Bossemptélé. His body bears the scars of his encounters with the anti-balaka: a deep gash across his skull and several more across his back. His thumb was slashed off as he tried to protect himself from machete blows, he said. He told me he fled Bossemptélé with his 50 cows in January in a group of about 100 people, after the anti-balaka first attacked the town and killed about 80 of his neighbors. During their flight through the bush, the group was repeatedly attacked, but most of them managed to make it to the Kadei River, which marks the CAR’s border with Cameroon.

When asked if he could ever imagine returning home, Bouba shuddered and then chuckled quietly at the bizarre suggestion. “Never,” he responded. “I can't even think about returning. I've escaped from that nightmare. I will not return to it.”

For Peuhl refugees, the future looks discouraging. They have lost their livelihoods, and the prospects of returning to their traditional lifestyle are bleak, as their vast and irreplaceable cattle herds have been slaughtered. Their prospects of simply crossing back into the CAR are no better: In most of the western part of the country, vast areas remain no-go zones for Muslims, given the still-strong presence of the anti-balaka. Indeed, the day when U.N. peacekeepers will re-establish security seems very far away.

Humanitarian groups, underfunded and overstretched, are doing a commendable job trying to make the refugees’ lives as dignified and comfortable as possible. Camps are laid out and organized carefully in an effort to ensure security; endeavoring to prevent gender-based violence, for instance, requires safe sanitation facilities, safe spaces for women and children, and the incorporation of female representatives into camp management decisions.

But the challenges left untackled are immense. The vast majority of Peuhl are illiterate and uneducated, so trying to put their children—many of them teenagers—into school for the first time is a difficult process. There are deep concerns among humanitarian groups that child marriage rates, already an endemic problem in the CAR, will explode in the camps. Humanitarian aid providers also face the difficult job of ensuring co-existence between refugees and the already-deprived communities that host them, to prevent conflicts over a host of basic resources.

Most importantly, though, there remains a pressing need to create conditions that will enable the refugees to return home safely and voluntarily. For that to happen, violence in the Central African Republic must be brought under control. The U.N. peacekeeping mission, supported by French and European Union forces, will need to act forcefully to protect civilians, standing their ground when the Seleka or anti-balaka threaten civilians. They face a difficult task, with almost no local security forces with which to work. Former soldiers of the national army and local gendarmes have left their posts; many have joined the anti-balaka, whose top leadership is almost completely made up of former army and police commanders. But reorganizing and rearming the army is considered too risky a solution at the moment.

Many Seleka soldiers want to join a newly constituted army, but their own horrific record of abuse and the hostility they are likely to face from the population means that integrating them will be difficult. Any effort to establish a new security force in the country, essential as it is, would require vetting and excluding people who have committed crimes.

In a similar vein, a return to normality in CAR requires justice both for the crimes committed over the last two years and for historical crimes. For decades, corruption and human rights abuses have marred the country. In 2004, the government referred the situation surrounding a 2002 coup to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Today, the ICC is trying the former vice president of neighboring Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose troops were called in 2002 to assist the then-president of the CAR and who committed grave crimes, including widespread sexual violence, against civilians. Aside from this ongoing prosecution, however, there has been complete impunity for those responsible for wrongs committed in the CAR over more than a decade.

CAR Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza referred the current conflict to the ICC in May, which was followed by the ICC prosecutor’s announcement in September that her office will open an investigation in the country for grave crimes committed since August 2012. This is one of the best hopes for victims of the conflict, but given the limited capacity of the ICC—which has active cases from seven other countries, can only handle so many cases at a time, and has recently struggled with pressure and criticism surrounding its handling of 2007 violence in Kenya—it cannot be the only answer.

National prosecutions will be essential. The national justice system needs to be restarted and strengthened with international experts to try war crimes and crimes against humanity—which requires a long-term commitment. The interim government, along with international partners, should take the necessary steps to ensure that the justice system can investigate crimes committed by all parties in an impartial, effective, independent, and secure manner. This will have the secondary effect of rebuilding trust in the rule of law and national institutions, which the people of the CAR lost.

Realistically, it will take years to heal the scars of the brutal violence the people of the CAR have suffered over the last 18 months, and to bring about a semblance of stability that will allow for the safe return of refugees. In the meantime, in Cameroon, refugees are still coming to grips with the horrific violence they have survived in the past year. Many are still in disbelief that they made it out alive.


Produced by Human Rights Watch's Documentary Video Team

Cinematography: Marcus Bleasdale, Thierry Messongo, Tim Grucza & Peter Bouckaert
Design: Fruitmachine