We have all witnessed how Syria became a living picture of the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our time in a span of just three years.
Rebel fights, chemical attacks, refugee crises and despotism in the civil war-stricken country are facts that have been well documented both on paper and film.
Still, the world has not been able to do anything significant to help nurse the wounds of the affected population – many of whom are now wandering the streets and slums of neighboring nations for basic necessities such as food, water and clothes.
The point here is that despite the flow of information from Syria – almost from all the embattled cities – since the civil conflict started in 2011, the country never received the support from the international community to remedy the tragedy.
Imagine how worse, then, it is for a country to not even get scant media coverage of a huge crisis within its borders – as horrendous as the fighting in Syria.
The Central African Republic is one such example.
The country is the center of one of the most underreported crises in recent history – and in an era where information should be at our fingertips instantaneously.
Although rich in resources, including huge deposits of gold, uranium, diamonds and oil, CAR is among the world’s 10 poorest countries.
However, poverty is not the only reason the country set out on the dangerous path of civil war.
For people who don’t know much about its history, CAR was a French colony known as Oubangui-Chari until 1960. Ever since its independence, the nation has been unstable – both politically and economically – enduring several coups, including a brutal regime under a self-declared military emperor, Jean-Bedel Bokassa that lasted for almost 13 years.
The fact that it is landlocked by other largely undeveloped, troubled nations such as Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the Congo twins and Cameroon, also adds to CAR’s miseries.
Despite the sad state of affairs, one of the (very) few positives about life in CAR was that there was no history of clashes between the most sensitive and vulnerable communities found in any part of the world – the religious groups.
Of its 4.7 million citizens, 15 percent are Muslim in CAR while the rest of the population follows some form of Christianity, often practiced along with indigenous animist beliefs.
The turning point:
Unfortunately in 2012, the clean record of no religious conflict was soaked in blood when reports about Muslim Séléka rebels, or “Alliance,” started to emerge.
Fighters in Séléka hail from three groups – Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), the Union of Republican Forces (UFR) and the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) – who accused the then-President Francoise Bozize of not honoring a peace deal, which promised the release of some of their high-profile political prisoners.
Although Séléka’s motives were primarily political in the beginning, their struggle took the form of religious strife after the Antibalaka – a largely Christian militia – came into being in 2013 to retaliate against the Muslim rebels.
Consequently, the fight escalated into a horrific sectarian civil war which shows no signs of abating.
The Antibalaka, as some reports indicate, then committed acts so hostile that the Muslim civilians that thousands of them had to flee – leading to an exodus.
When stories of Muslims being cannibalized began to surface, a genocide warning was issued in CAR.
The crisis has claimed thousands of lives and displaced millions others accompanied by fears of a possible genocide.
“An estimated 2.5 million in need of humanitarian aid including more than 410,000 displaced people, 424,268 CAR refugees in neighboring countries and 132,414 evacuees people,” stated United Nation’s ReliefWeb – the largest humanitarian information portal in the world – on Oct. 18.
In 2011, the name Central African Republic frequently popped up in news after President Barack Obama dispatched a special-forces team to help hunt down the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army.
But after the country actually entered a phase of bloodshed and massacre, the rest of the world stopped caring, or so it seems.
So how come the world – and by world we actually mean the ever-vigilant international media and press – turned a blind eye towards a conflict so tragic?
Well, maybe it didn’t.
It could, however, come down to two things:
- The fast changing nature of news that perhaps didn’t lend the CAR crisis the attention it deserved. It was “in” the news but not in the spotlight.
- Our natural inclination to read or know about stuff that either has a direct effect on us, (such as the Ebola outbreak), or almost everyone around us is talking about it (like with the Islamic State terrorism in the Middle East).
Just to analyze how the mass slaughter in CAR was eclipsed by news, let’s divide the duration of the almost two-year-old civil into three parts.
December 2012 – May 2013:
Occurrences in CAR:
The earliest reports of unrest in the Central African Republic emerged on December 10 when the Séléka rebel alliance launched its offensive and moved to the northern and central region of CAR.
From January 2013 onwards May, tensions only escalated eventually leading to President Bozize’s ouster. French and South African troops intervened, several of whom were slaughtered.
Global and regional organizations like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), UN Security Council (UNSC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), International Contact Group-CAR (ICG-CAR) and African Union Peace and Security Council expressed deep concern, calling for humanitarian aid for the affected civilian population.
World News Focus:
Meanwhile, the international headlines were dominated by the Sandy Hook tragedy (December 14, 2012), the Indian Delhi rape case (December 16, 2012), Obama’s second term (January 2013), the new pope’s election and how different he appeared from his predecessors (March 2013-ongoing) and the Turkey protests (May 2013).
Boston Marathon bombings (April 15, 2013), Bangladesh’s Factory Disaster (April 24, 2013) and the minority killings in Pakistan also grabbed attention for a about three months.
In addition, the civil war atrocities in Syria prompted fears of a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia.
June 2013 – December 2013:
Occurrences in CAR:
During this period, results of investigations into human rights abuses were released followed by grave statements from different organizations.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said the fighting had reached “unprecedented levels of violence” while the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) announced the “seeds of a pre-genocidal event” were being sown.
Thousands of troops, this time from Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi, and Equatorial Guinea were flown in.
The African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) tasked with the protection of civilians was formed.
Anthony Lake, UNICEF's executive director, stated the vicious conflict was affecting around “2.3 million children” targeted because “they are Christian or Muslim."
December 2013 ended with the UNHCR saying:
“210,000 believed to be displaced in Bangui since the outbreak of the latest violence on 5 December. Also, 710,000 are reportedly displaced inside CAR and over 75,000 have sought refuge in neighboring countries.”
World News Focus:
Along with Syria, another story that dominated news for the rest of 2013 was the National Security Agency (NSA) leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden. These two were followed closely by the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (July 2013), the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (August 2013), Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines (November 2013), and Nelson Mandela’s death (December 5, 2013).
As tragic as it may sound, Prince Greorge’s birth on July 22 perhaps made more rounds online than CAR Crisis stories.
Jan 2014 – present:
Occurrences in CAR:
Although international aid started coming in during this phase, the situation got more out of control in the conflict-ridden areas at least.
January 2014 started off with “new evidence of slaughter of women, children and the elderly.” Amnesty International said Muslims were under threat in CAR and called for better peacekeeping efforts to protect civilians and released a report accusing the anti-Balaka of targeting Muslims, describing the attacks as ethnic cleansing.
Despite negating Amnesty’s claim, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated CAR is in a “state of anarchy,” adding if ignored it could become a repeat of 1994 Rwandan genocide.
For the most part, these six months included news of hundreds of Muslims continuing to flee as MISCA declared the Anti-balaka as terrorists.
June ended with at least 45 people dead – both Christians and Muslims –and several others wounded in fresh clashes in and around the town of Bambari, where the Muslim community previously had demanded a separate state.
In September, Obama announced U.S. troops had been deployed in CAR to help control the sectarian crisis.
In a letter to Congress, Obama wrote:
“This decision is solely due to concerns about the security of our personnel and has no relation to our continuing and long-standing diplomatic relations with the CAR.”
World News Focus:
As for 2014, the ten months spent so far, have been about the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Iraq and Syria the Ebola outbreak and the Israel-Gaza conflict.
However, before these three, international focus of news remained fixed on Russia, firstly because of its Winter Olympics followed closely by its invasion of Ukraine.
Kidnapping of school girls by Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram was also highlighted globally, thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama’s #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
As ignored and forgotten as it has been so far, it’s not too late to treat the crisis in Central African Republic as an important global issue.
It’s about time the 2.5 million people in the already-impoverished nation get the attention and humanitarian support the world owes them.