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'One Day, We Will Start a Big War'

‘One Day, We Will Start a Big War’

Outgunned by powerful rebels in the Central African Republic, the U.N. can’t even protect civilians. Now it’s pushing for early elections that could destroy a fragile peace.

By Ty McCormick

Anti-Balaka fighters pose with weapons and amulets in a village in Boy-Rabe, a neighborhood of Bangui, Dec. 14, 2013. (Ivan Lieman/AFP | Getty Images)

There are scarcely 200 paces of tarmacked road in Bambari, a sprawling city of rusty tin kiosks and crumbling concrete edifices, smudged with rust-colored clay, deep in the heavily forested interior of the Central African Republic (CAR). They span the length of a single-lane bridge across the Ouaka River, a muddy torrent that cleaves Bambari in half from north to south. They also happen to be the most important 200 paces of road in town, though for reasons unrelated to the quality of the driving surface. The bridge marks the boundary between two dangerously divided communities, a red line across which visitors from the other side risk death, occasionally by decapitation.

See the communities of Bambari on a mapThe east bank of the Ouaka is controlled by remnants of the Seleka, a largely Muslim rebel coalition that pillaged and raped its way across CAR before seizing power over the country for a brief period in 2013. The west bank belongs to the anti-Balaka, the knife- and machete-wielding Christian self-defense militias that sprang up to counter the Seleka but managed to make the Muslim rebel coalition’s abuses look relatively mild by comparison. “Muslims are too afraid to travel to the [west] bank,” the mayor of Bambari, Abel Matchipata, told me recently. “Some Christians are traveling to the [east] bank, but they are doing so with a lot of fear.”

Bambari’s stark divisions mirror those in the rest of CAR, a Texas-sized swath of rainforest and savannah that is sandwiched between Chad, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other troubled neighbors. Even before the latest crisis, CAR was “worse than a failed state,” according to the International Crisis Group. Now, after two-and-a-half years of turmoil stemming from the Seleka coup, the country is de facto partitioned: anti-Balaka in the southwest and former Seleka fighters in the northeast, where they fled after the coalition was disbanded and its leader stepped down under intense international pressure in January 2014. (They are now known as ex-Seleka, an umbrella term that refers to a smattering of armed groups lacking an organized central command.) Outside of CAR’s capital city, Bangui, virtually nothing is under government control. At least 6,000 people have been killed and 832,000 displaced — 368,000 inside the country and 464,000 abroad. About half of the country’s 4.7 million inhabitants are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

When I visited Bambari last month, ahead of planned elections that many fear could be destabilizing, the city of just under 50,000, the third-largest in CAR, was still reeling from its latest spasm of violence. On Aug. 20, a Muslim taxi driver was plucked from his car outside the city and beheaded by anti-Balaka fighters. The incident provoked a backlash from the Muslim community and a counter-backlash from the Christian community, both of which have acquired a healthy appetite for revenge. By the time the dust had settled, at least 10 people were dead and dozens more wounded, including two aid workers from the Red Cross.

The unenviable task of keeping Bambari’s residents from each other’s throats falls mainly on a single battalion of U.N. peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is itself home to the largest peacekeeping operation in the world. The Congolese are part of a 12,000-strong U.N. force in CAR known by its French acronym, MINUSCA. Authorized with a robust Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians and support the transitional government that replaced the Seleka, MINUSCA has been dogged by persistent charges of abuse and incompetence since taking over for a beleaguered African Union force in September 2014. U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of rape and of firing indiscriminately on civilians. They have also struggled to halt periodic outbursts of violence, like the spate of clashes and looting in late September that paralyzed the capital for close to a week. “Plagued by accusations of sexual abuse and facing mounting violence, MINUSCA threatens to turn into a disaster for the U.N.,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

An ex-Seleka rebel adjusts his AK-47s as he walks toward a checkpoint on the eastern fringe of Bambari, on Sept. 24. (Ty McCormick | Foreign Policy)

After the most recent round of fighting in Bambari, the Congolese battalion was reinforced by a small number of troops from Pakistan and the Republic of Congo. Even with an expanded footprint, however, MINUSCA remains powerless to rein in the city’s pantheon of armed groups or prevent intercommunal tensions from boiling over into violence. “For the last year, anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka have fought in skirmishes, and civilians continue to suffer,” said Lewis Mudge, a researcher at Human Rights Watch focusing on CAR. “MINSUCA has, to date, not been able to fulfill a core part of its mandate — civilian protection — in Bambari.”

Troublingly, the U.N.’s weakness has come to be seen as malice by many on both sides of the river: In a city divided on practically every other issue, there is a broad consensus that the U.N. mission is biased, incompetent, and partially responsible for the ongoing violence. “The people here are very upset with the U.N.,” a young anti-Balaka leader who goes by the name Commander Zulu told me when I visited him at a camp for displaced people on the west bank of the Ouaka River. “Did they come here to protect civilians or just to give strength to the armed groups?”

Commander Zulu was soft-spoken with gentle features and a boyish grin. As he spoke, he thumbed a pair of amulets that hung from his neck. One was fashioned from a bullet. The other, square and gold-colored, was stamped “L♡V.” “When Christians are beaten or killed, they do nothing,” he said of the U.N. peacekeepers. “Do they enjoy watching us die?” As we spoke, a crowd of anti-Balaka fighters formed around us. Soon everyone was airing their gripes about the U.N. mission. “They have given weapons to the Seleka,” claimed one fighter, who was wearing business slacks and an Arsenal soccer jersey. “Yes, they even sell their uniforms to their fighters,” answered another, a young woman in a bulky brown smock. Commander Zulu nodded in agreement: “[The ex-Seleka] are stronger than the U.N. That’s what we are understanding now.”

One of Gen. Gaitan’s men stands guard at the anti-Balaka leader’s house on the west bank of the Ouaka, on Sept. 25. This area is technically within the U.N.-enforced arms-free zone, but Gaitan continues to maintain a small coterie of armed guards at his compound. (Ty McCormick | Foreign Policy)

On the way back from meeting with the anti-Balaka fighters, my translator and I stumbled into a tense standoff between Congolese U.N. peacekeepers and armed youths of the Fulani ethnic group, from which many of the ex-Seleka fighters are drawn. (Given the abundance of armed men in Bambari and the fluid membership of armed groups there, it can be difficult to distinguish ex-Seleka fighters from gun-toting Fulani civilians.) The youths, some of whom brandished AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, were arguing bitterly with the peacekeepers, who remained remarkably serene in the face of superior firepower.

Just then, some of the Fulanis spotted us, a white man with a camera and a Central African in civilian clothes. All at once they seemed to forget their quarrel with the peacekeepers and refocused their outrage on the two of us. Some of the youths began shouting angrily, their voices strained and guttural. Others waved us off emphatically. One young man raised a skinny arm, leveled it deliberately at us, and mimed the squeezing of a trigger. We turned and walked briskly in the other direction.

Later, when things had calmed down, I asked several witnesses what had caused the dispute. The Muslim Fulanis, they said, had tried to prevent a U.N.-escorted convoy carrying Muslims from departing for Bangui, located a little less than 200 miles to the southwest. The anti-Balaka had killed several Muslims traveling in an earlier convoy, they said, and the youths accused the U.N. of failing to protect them. “They said the U.N. is delivering the Muslims to the anti-Balaka to be slaughtered,” one of the witnesses said.

A French soldier of the Sangaris contingent in Ngakobo, Central African Republic, June 5, 2014. (Stephane Jourdain/AFP | Getty Images)

When the French first came to what is now CAR in the 1890s and established the colony of Oubangui-Chari, they tried to build as little infrastructure as possible. Instead of investing in bridges and roads, they doled out concessions to private companies that endeavored to strip the region’s assets as quickly and cheaply as possible before depositing a percentage of their profits into the French treasury. The inspiration for this scheme came from the nearby Belgian Congo, where King Leopold II had set a bold example for rapacious efficiency.

The French operation in CAR was never as profitable as the Belgian Congo, but it matched Leopold’s slave colony measure for measure in brutality. The concessionary companies forced local people to harvest rubber, coffee, and other commodities without pay — and held their families hostage until they met their quotas. Between 1890, a year after the first French explorers arrived in Bangui, and 1940, about half of the population died as a result of colonial violence or the disease that followed in its wake.

Independence did little to alter the character of the Central African state, which the historian Stephen Smith has described as at once “a painful absence and a hurtful presence” in the lives of most citizens. The country’s most recognizable leader, president and later self-proclaimed Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who ruled from 1966 to 1979, ran CAR mainly as a vehicle for self-enrichment and a playground for French aristocrats who enjoyed hunting big game. He famously spent a third of the country’s annual budget on his own coronation ceremony, complete with white horses and a fleet of Mercedes limousines.

Subsequent leaders kept up the tradition of governing in the private interest, leasing the rights to the country’s vast mineral and timber reserves to foreign companies in exchange for just enough cash to service their narrow patronage networks. They also continued to make room for their former colonial masters, who meddled consistently in the political realm and left their fingerprints on several coups. (France has intervened militarily five times since 1979 and maintained an active military presence for all but four years — 1999 to 2003 — during that period.) Rather than address the grievances of ordinary citizens, the tutelary government in Bangui unleashed the army on those who inevitably rebelled. The last 20 years have seen too many mutinies and rebellions to count, some of them shape-shifting between insurgencies and criminal enterprises.

It was out of this history of neglect and abuse — most pronounced in the country’s heavily Muslim northeast — that the Seleka was born. Drawing on a potent mixture of regional discontent and trigger-happy mercenaries from neighboring Chad and Sudan, the rebel coalition captured much of the northeastern hinterlands before being repulsed by regional peacekeepers at the gates of the capital in December 2013. A brief power-sharing deal was negotiated between President François Bozizé and Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, but neither side abided by its terms. Then, in March 2013, the Seleka succeeded in toppling Bozizé and installed Djotodia in his place. With the exception of Bokassa’s brief and quixotic attempt to win over Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi by converting to Islam in the mid-1970s, it was the first time in CAR’s history that a Muslim had occupied the presidential palace.

But the Seleka fighters were united by little more than their desire to loot as vigorously as their predecessors had done, and Djotodia soon found himself unable to control the movement that had brought him to power. “It was very early that I realized the Seleka cannot be one group — one week after we took power I realized this,” said Mohamed Dhaffane, who served as the Seleka’s second vice president. He described the Seleka as a marriage of convenience between otherwise unfriendly warlords, an effective vehicle for toppling the government but not much else. “Some people [in the Seleka] used to fight each other, so they couldn’t trust each other when they got into government,” he told me.

The result was calamitous for the population of CAR. Without a functioning leadership structure, the Seleka fighters simply took what they wanted and destroyed much of what remained. Although Muslims and Christians had lived in relative harmony for the post-independence period, the violence began to take on a sectarian tinge as the Seleka disproportionately targeted the Christian population. Gen. Joseph Zoundeiko, who served as the coalition’s army chief of staff and now heads one of the ex-Seleka factions in Bambari, blamed the mayhem on mercenaries. “The mercenaries came in large numbers, even after we were already in power,” he told me. “They didn’t listen to Djotodia’s orders. For the nine months that the Seleka was in power, it was nine months of looting and nine months of killing.” (Rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have blamed the entire rebel coalition for these abuses, not just its foreign elements.)

The violence begat more violence. Soon, the Seleka was facing down a loose coalition of Christian self-defense militias calling themselves anti-Balaka. The name was a play on the words for “machete” and “AK-47” in Sango, the national language. “The anti-Balaka was formed as a popular reaction to the exactions by the Seleka. We formed the movement just to protect ourselves,” Sebastien Wenezoui, the movement’s deputy national leader, told me. The Christian self-defense militias had none of the Seleka’s heavy weaponry, much of which was supplied by the mercenaries, but they more than made up for it in viciousness. Wenezoui claimed that any abuses committed during this period were the work of imposters — escaped prisoners and other degenerates, who thought that they could “hide within the anti-Balaka.” This is not the view of a U.N. commission of inquiry, which determined that the group carried out an ethnic cleansing against the country’s Muslim minority.

Muslims fleeing from Bangui to Kaga-Bandoro under the protection of members of the Multinational Force of Central Africa in Bangui, Central African Republic, on April 29, 2014. (Nacer Telal/Anadolu Agency | Getty Images)

By late 2013, the situation had spiraled out of control. “Both sides are committing unimaginable atrocities,” warned a Dec. 6 update from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that year. Seleka and anti-Balaka fighters rarely squared off against each other. Instead, they targeted defenseless members of the civilian population, propelling CAR into a devastating cycle of reprisal attacks. Soon, truckloads of Muslims were fleeing the country, often with anti-Balaka fighters following close on their heels. Those that fell from the convoys or were left behind in the mayhem were sometimes hacked to pieces on the spot. By the following December, the U.N. estimated that 99 percent of Bangui’s Muslim population had fled the capital.

In Bambari, the conflict followed a slightly different script. After Djotodia’s government was eased out by regional powers, the rapidly fracturing Seleka coalition was driven back into the northeast of the country. Bambari had been under Seleka control since December 2012, but the loss of Bangui meant that it was suddenly flooded with now ex-Seleka troops. The fighters found new patrons in two ex-Seleka commanders, Zoundeiko and Gen. Ali Darassa, the coalition’s commander in Ouaka prefecture, who vied for dominance in the city. Their militias eventually skirmished over control of profitable checkpoints, with Darassa's group establishing itself as the dominant force.

The Christian community chafed under their new militant overlords, who seized government buildings and taxed the local population, but things remained relatively stable until June 2014, when ex-Seleka fighters attacked a nearby Christian village and set off a cascade of retaliatory violence. In Bambari, Muslim civilians and ex-Seleka fighters operating outside Darassa’s chain of command responded to anti-Balaka attacks by ransacking Christian neighborhoods. “They came flooding up the hill with AKs and rockets,” said Bertille, a slender Christian woman who now lives in a camp for internally displaced people on the west side of the Ouaka River. She asked only to be identified by her first name, for fear of retribution from the ex-Seleka. “They killed many and destroyed all of our homes,” she said.

Bertille and her family — those members that survived — fled up the hill to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, an idyllic neo-Romanesque compound where thousands of Christians had taken refuge. But less than a month later, in July, the cathedral came under attack by Muslim civilians and ex-Seleka fighters. They killed at least 27 people and shredded part of the chapel’s exterior with a rocket-propelled grenade. The 86-year-old bishop of Bambari, Edouard Mathos, told me attackers scaled the walls of his residence and struck him in the back of the head with the butt of a rifle. They made off with many of his belongings and several vehicles that belonged to St. Joseph’s. Those the attackers weren’t able to hot-wire, they burned on the spot.

French forces stationed in Bambari as part of an international peacekeeping operation thrown together in late 2013 claim to have responded to the attack on St. Joseph’s within an hour, but Mathos says it took them two or three hours to arrive. In the meantime, the bishop was forced to look to an unlikely source for protection. “I called Darassa,” he said, referring to the ex-Seleka leader, many of whose fighters were involved in the attack. “Fifteen or 20 minutes later, Darassa sent fighters to try to stop the violence,” he said.

Ever since then, St. Joseph's has been under the nominal protection of Darassa's ex-Seleka fighters. The displaced Christians have long since fled to camps, mostly on the opposite side of the river, where roughly 40,000 of them are guarded around the clock by U.N. peacekeepers. But the bishop still lives in his residence next to the cathedral. When I stayed there in September, two or three ex-Seleka fighters were posted at the entrance at all times. “Ça va?” they would ask me every morning when I went out. “Ça va,” I would answer, venturing into Darassa’s ministate.

U.N. peacekeeping soldiers from Rwanda in Bangui, Dec. 9, 2014. (Pacome Pabandji/AFP | Getty Images)

For a country that has been in the news only a handful of times since Bokassa’s outrageous coronation bash in 1977, CAR has had a surprisingly long list of peacekeeping interventions. Since 1997, it has hosted almost a dozen, earning it the title of “world champion of peacekeeping,” according to Agence France-Presse. The United Nations, African Union, and, of course, France have all intervened in CAR, as have the European Union, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, and the Economic Community of Central African States. Some of these interventions have helped restore order, but none has addressed the underlying pathology of the Central African state: its ability to offend with both its absence and its presence.

Part of the problem has been the tendency for intervening parties to focus on what Nathaniel Olin, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls “cheap solutions leading to quick exits.” As he writes in a new volume on CAR edited by Tatiana Carayannis and Louisa Lombard, “In the past, U.N. peacekeepers departed quickly after securing elections.” This left delicate political transitions in the hands of regional players like Chad and Congo, feeding into two other problems identified by Olin: the tendency of meddlesome neighbors to intervene in CAR in order to advance their own interests and for their forces to work at cross-purposes with one another. The latter problem was especially evident in the French and African Union intervention that preceded the current U.N. mission.

French forces from so-called Operation Sangaris, named for a short-lived butterfly that was supposed to symbolize Paris’s temporal peacekeeping ambitions, were seen as partial to the anti-Balaka, while the African Union forces became the main protectors of the Muslim population. Compounding the problem was the fact that the 2,000 or so Sangaris troops remained distinct from the 6,000-strong AU mission, answering directly to the French Ministry of Defense. Gamesmanship between the two forces made them both less effective, and their tactics sometimes actively fueled the violence. According to Evan Cinq-Mars, an advocacy officer at the New York-based Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, the decision to focus initial disarmament efforts exclusively on the Seleka inadvertently handed the anti-Balaka the upper hand. This, coupled with the retreat of the fractured rebel coalition to the country’s northeast after Djotodia’s resignation, he writes, “ultimately enabled the forced displacement of Muslim civilians by anti-Balaka in Bangui and western CAR.”

The arrival of U.N. blue helmets in September 2014, late though it was, nearly doubled the number of peacekeepers on the ground and doubtlessly saved thousands of lives. But like the African Union force that preceded it, MINUSCA quickly developed a reputation for responding slowly or inadequately when civilians came under attack. “People thought the U.N. would come in and restore order, but they didn’t,” Lawrence Wohlers, a former U.S. ambassador in Bangui who served as the deputy special representative of the U.N. secretary-general in CAR for a brief period in 2014, told me. "The problem is that foreign peacekeepers, they don't want to go into neighborhoods and take that on because they don't understand the neighborhoods; they don't want to die in a foreign country. And so they basically patrol the main streets, and the situation has been allowed to fester."

The lion’s share of the press coverage of MINUSCA has focused on the allegations of sexual abuse, but just as significant from the point of view of average civilians has been the U.N.’s inability to protect them from armed groups. At the end of a four-day visit to CAR in September, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein described a nation “gripped with fear.” He called for a “much more robust approach” to combat armed groups, whose leaders, “with much blood on their hands, are not being arrested, let alone prosecuted, tried, and convicted.”

Zlatko Bars-Dimitroff, the top MINUSCA official in Bambari, understands this problem well. A middle-aged Bulgarian with short unkempt hair and deep wrinkles under his eyes, he spends his days mediating between rebel groups that operate with virtual impunity. Against the backdrop of total state failure, armed entrepreneurs have carved out personal fiefdoms in which they prey indiscriminately on the local population. They set up checkpoints, collect illegal taxes, and extort protection money from gold mines and other commercial ventures. Their license is the gun.

Zlatko is known around town by his first name. He is also well-liked, or at least respected, by most of the men with guns (the top anti-Balaka leader told me that the regional MINUSCA chief is trustworthy but that the Congolese peacekeepers don’t always listen to him). When sectarian fighting broke out in August, Zlatko was away on leave. He returned to find ex-Seleka fighters occupying the non-Muslim side of town and anti-Balaka fighters holed up dangerously close to the ex-Seleka positions. “You had, practically next to each other, some meters away, two armed groups on the west bank,” he told me. “That, of course, was not only a risk, but there were also some clashes.”

After bringing the leaders of both armed groups together for a peace summit of sorts, Zlatko convinced the ex-Seleka to withdraw under the supervision of MINUSCA. But almost immediately, the western, non-Muslim bank of the river was hit by a terrifying crime wave. Motorcycles were stolen, two women were raped, and a number of people were attacked in the street. “So we had to undertake urgent measures,” Zlatko explained.

The urgent measures took the form of a so-called “arms-free zone,” enforced by MINUSCA, that runs from the center of town, known as PK Zero, across the bridge and roughly 7.5 miles along the road leading toward Bangui. “Any armed person within the arms-free zone is going to be arrested,” he said. “The objective is to collect — confiscate — arms and then destroy them.”

The most striking feature of the arms-free zone, to anyone familiar with Bambari’s geography, is that it is located almost entirely within the anti-Balaka’s sphere of influence. Only a tiny sliver of ex-Seleka territory, between PK Zero and the bridge, falls within its current boundaries. The main Muslim quarter, located east of PK Zero, is not included — not that a casual observer would think it was, given the abundance of armed men whirring about in white pickup trucks.

When I asked Zlatko whether this might play into the perception that MINUSCA is biased, he shook his head side to side. “The problems we faced were on the [west] bank," he said. "They were not so much here on the [east] bank. We had to take measures to protect the civilian population.” The regional MINUSCA chief added that the arms-free zone is a work in progress. “The objective is to make Bambari — the whole town — a weapons-free zone,” he said. “It has to be done gradually.”

As it happens, the United Nations has already begun touting the arms-free zone as a potential model for other flashpoints around CAR. After a trip to Bambari in September, the head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, Hervé Ladsous, delivered a remarkably upbeat briefing to the press. If the weapons-free arrangement works, he said, “we might try and use that recipe in other places.”

Ex-Seleka fighters play cards not far from the MINUSCA headquarters in Bambari, on Sept. 22. Their weapons are openly displayed within the U.N.-enforced “arms-free zone.” (Ty McCormick | Foreign Policy)

As I was leaving Zlatko's office, another MINUSCA official pulled me aside. “We don’t have anywhere close to enough resources,” said the official, who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly. “We are completely on our own. There are no national police here. There are some [government] gendarmes, but they are all non-Muslim, so they can’t operate effectively within the Muslim neighborhood. We can’t cope with just one battalion of Congolese.”

Departing the MINUSCA headquarters, which is located in ex-Seleka territory not far from PK Zero, I traveled maybe 100 yards before encountering my first violation of the arms-free zone. Off to the side of the rutted dirt road that winds into the center of town, I came upon a half-dozen ex-Seleka fighters playing cards on an intricately woven straw mat. I counted six different firearms: five AK-47s and what looked like a 9mm pistol. All of the weapons were displayed openly. About 30 yards beyond the card game, a rebel in faded camouflage and the same red beret that the national gendarmes wear, leaned against a battered motorbike and picked his teeth with a fearsome-looking dagger. An American-made M16 teetered on the seat next to him.

Ex-Seleka rebels man a checkpoint on the eastern fringe of Bambari, on Sept. 24. (Ty McCormick | Foreign Policy)

The most powerful man in Bambari is rumored to be from Niger. He does not speak French or Sango, or even pidgin Arabic, as many of his own fighters do. According to most of the rebels I talked with, Ali Darassa speaks only the language of his Fulani ethnic group and often engages in a comical game of interpretational telephone when communicating with U.N. officials. I spent the better part of a week trying to get an interview with the rebel leader, but he ducked me at every turn (perhaps because a top U.S. official had recently called for the leaders of all armed groups to be arrested). The best I could do was an audience with his spokesman, Hamat Nejad, who met me outside an ex-Seleka safe house in the Muslim quarter.

To get there from St. Joseph’s Cathedral, located on the southeastern fringe of the city, I passed through what remained of the Christian neighborhood where Bertille, the displaced woman I had met on the other side of town, once lived. Dozens of mud-brick homes, nearly all of them destroyed, sat baking in the sun. There was not a soul in sight. Enterprising residents of the east bank had removed most of the corrugated tin roofs, and a mess of thorny brambles and dense green undergrowth had begun to reclaim the interiors of many structures. In another year or two, I thought, the rains will have melted away the remainder of the buildings, and the jungle will have returned to its original state.

Closer to town, I passed the main hospital, which is operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and turned up a wide dirt road lined with palm trees and shops with names like “Rolex” and “Boutique Confiance New York.” Women in brightly colored hijabs sold peanuts and biscuits. Men rolled barrels of fuel off huge trucks bearing Sudanese license plates. Bambari’s main open-air market, closer to PK Zero in the center of town, stood totally abandoned, all of the surrounding shops under lock and key. But here in the Muslim quarter was something approaching normalcy, save for the abundance of young men toting guns and rockets. I passed three small kiosks with signs that read: “Jesus Est La Solution.” All three were boarded up.

When I arrived at the ex-Seleka safe house, Hamat was seated at a white plastic table, surrounded by an assembly of young fighters. Hamat motioned for me to sit in the chair opposite him and offered me a Coke. Or would I rather have a Fanta? Just then, two Congolese peacekeepers trundled up the road behind us. "Les Congolais sont faux," remarked one of the teenage fighters seated to the right of Hamat. He was slouched over a plastic chair, one knee over the armrest and an arm dangling listlessly over the back. "The Congolese are untrustworthy."

I asked Hamat if that was true. He looked at me for a moment, a coy smile curling about his wiry goatee. “The MINUSCA is incompetent,” he said slowly, as if that settled the matter.

Hamat wanted to talk about the political vision that guided Darassa's rebel movement, which, after the Seleka fractured in early 2014, became known as the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic, or UPC for its French name. He told me that the group was fighting for the security of all Central Africans, not just Muslims. "We are a national movement, but we are also fighting for the place of Muslims within society," he told me.

Just then, Hamat's phone buzzed on the table and the opening chords of "What Goes Around ... Comes Around" by Justin Timberlake played for several seconds before he switched it off.

What I wanted to know was how a rebel group whose members plundered and killed with impunity had come to be viewed by someone like Bishop Mathos as the best guarantor of security — and why the group would provide that security when many of its supporters would like to see the cathedral burned to the ground. Hamat appeared not to see the contradiction. "We want peace; we want stability," he said, sticking to his talking points.

But in a way, he was right that stability is compatible with impunity. Rebel groups across the country are raking in millions of dollars from the illicit coffee, mineral, and timber trades. Their profits have been documented by watchdog organizations like Amnesty International, which recently warned that merchants in Bangui have stockpiled millions of dollars’ worth of diamonds "without adequately investigating whether they financed armed groups responsible for summary executions, rape, enforced disappearances and widespread looting." The London-based advocacy group Global Witness estimated that in 2013 alone, international logging companies paid $3.7 million in protection money, mainly to Seleka rebels in the country's northeast.

The UPC is an important player in CAR’s thriving illicit economy. Hamat said that the group sustains itself purely on donations from the Fulani community, which relies on the UPC for protection. But according to Mudge, the researcher who has made five trips to the region for Human Rights Watch, Darassa controls the coffee trade throughout all of Ouaka prefecture, where Bambari is located, as well as the Ndassima gold mine, located roughly 40 miles north of the city. He also collects protection money from traders, who pay UPC fighters for safe passage through checkpoints, which are scattered throughout Ouaka.

Ex-Seleka rebels man a checkpoint on Sept. 24, on the eastern edge of Bambari, where they extract protection money from traders and passing motorists. Loyal to warlord Ali Darassa, the rebel group controls much of the gold and coffee trades in Ouaka prefecture. (Ty McCormick | Foreign Policy)

One day, I rented a car and drove east out of Bambari until I encountered a UPC roadblock. As I approached, a group of armed men emerged from straw huts and motioned for my driver to stop. Rolling down the window, I inquired what their marching orders were. After some murmuring between fighters, one whose red beret nearly matched his bloodshot eyes replied that they were there to provide security. When I asked about payments, he allowed that they also collected taxes from those who passed through. He was noncommittal on the rates for specific merchandise but said that for those transporting large volumes of cargo, "you pay according to what you have." Later, I was able to determine that the going rate for private vehicles was roughly $3 to $4 and that motorcycle taxis were paying around $13 for monthly "passes" that allowed them to operate on both sides of the checkpoint.

All of this helped to explain why the UPC fighters, rapacious though they were, might strive to maintain a modicum of stability. “Ali Darassa is making money,” said Mudge. “He can’t benefit from the trade in coffee and gold or his road barriers if people are too afraid to move around…. We have seen Darassa’s UPC soldiers kill civilians and destroy villages suspected of harboring anti-Balaka, while at the same time taking pains to protect displacement sites from Muslim civilians and even his own troops.”

I asked Hamat whether he thought the status quo was sustainable. Could the anti-Balaka be trusted to uphold a kind of cold peace in which the UPC could continue to prosper? “There are two anti-Balakas,” he replied. “Some of them can be trusted to negotiate in good faith, but some of them are like the Hitler Youth. They just want to kill Muslims.”

About a month after our conversation, Hamat was abducted by suspected anti-Balaka militants. He and three other UPC officials had been in Bangui for peace talks with the transitional government when their taxicab was ambushed. One official reportedly survived, but Hamat and two others are feared dead.

Cantoned anti-Balaka fighters kill time outside an abandoned military barracks on the west side of the Ouaka River in Bambari, Central African Republic, on Sept. 25. (Ty McCormick | Foreign Policy)

The highest-ranking anti-Balaka commander in Bambari is Gaitan Boade, a soft-spoken wisp of a man known around town as “Gen. Gaitan” or simply “The General.” He lives in a squat, tin-roofed abode some 200 yards off the main road leading to Bangui, on the west bank of the Ouaka River. The house is surrounded by a thatched bamboo fence of medium height and guarded by a small army of foot soldiers, one of whom appeared at the front gate wearing the anti-Balaka’s signature gris-gris, or good-luck charm, around his neck and cradling an AK-47. He greeted me with a nod and pealed back the worn tarp that doubled as Gaitan’s door. It was stamped “UNICEF” in faded blue letters.

The general was seated in a plastic chair in the courtyard, dressed in maroon chinos and an Arnold Palmer golf shirt with breathable mesh underarms. I had expected him to deliver a philippic against the ex-Seleka, which he did eventually, but the first words out of his mouth after a brusque salutation were directed at another target: “At the beginning, we thought the MINUSCA came here to protect everyone,” he said. “But now we can see that they are corrupt and support only one side.”

The general was deeply aggrieved by what he saw as the partisan peacekeeping of the Congolese contingent. “They can get away with things I cannot,” he said, referring to the ex-Seleka fighters, whose abuses against Christian civilians, Gaitan claimed, went mostly unpunished. He was particularly incensed by the uneven enforcement of the “arms-free zone” Zlatko had told me about. “When [MINUSCA peacekeepers] see a Christian with a simple knife, they will disarm him and make a lot of trouble,” he said. “But when people are killed on the other side, they do not react.”

The way Gaitan saw it, the conduct of the Congolese peacekeepers risked igniting a conflict beyond the scale of anything Bambari has yet experienced. The ex-Seleka had been allowed to loot the homes of Christians and occupy their villages, he told me. Now the mostly Muslim rebels, many of whom Gaitan claimed were foreign, were allowed to flaunt their weapons in plain sight of U.N. peacekeepers, while many Christians were banished to displacement camps on the west bank of the Ouaka. “We are very upset with the U.N.,” he told me. “They have the means to stop this problem, but they are doing nothing. If the U.N. keeps doing nothing, the population will be killed, bit by bit.”

The general paused to flick a large green insect off his chinos. It hurtled wildly toward the ground before reversing course in midair and alighting in a nearby tree. “One day, we will start a big war,” he said.

I asked what would need to happen in order to avoid more bloodshed. Gaitan told me the ex-Seleka would need to go. “We want them to leave. They are foreigners. There are even some jihadists there,” he said, motioning across the river. “Their intention is to control the whole province and take taxes from all the mines and the coffee.” If it weren’t for the anti-Balaka, he said, “all of the Christian civilians would have fled to the bush.”

Like Hamat on the other side of the Ouaka, Gaitan insisted that the anti-Balaka were fighting for the security of all Central Africans. “Once the foreigners leave, we will be able to live in harmony with the Central African Muslims,” he said.

In addition to ridding Bambari of foreign fighters, the general said it was imperative to proceed with disarmament, especially before Central Africans vote to replace the current transitional government, which has been in place since the Seleka coalition was eased out of power in 2014. (The current U.N.-backed transition plan calls for elections before the end of the year.) If the vote is held before the various militias are disarmed, he said, “there will be contestation and some fighting could take place. There are not many Muslims, so the country will vote for a Christian. Maybe the Muslims will start fighting again.”

This is a concern shared by many in the international community. The 464,000 Central Africans living as refugees in neighboring countries are disproportionately Muslim — as high as 93 percent in Cameroon. The transitional parliament initially voted to bar refugees from casting ballots on the grounds that registering them could invite electoral fraud. “You have many foreigners among the refugee populations,” Gina Michèle Sanzé, a member of the transitional parliament, told me. “It is impossible to tell who is Central African and who is not.” But CAR’s highest court struck down the parliament’s decision, and efforts are underway to register eligible voters in most refugee camps. Still, there is a risk that the country’s already marginalized Muslim minority may feel further disenfranchised in a vote that proceeds even as new traumas unfold. This, in turn, could feed into the same sense of alienation that fueled the rise of the Seleka and other rebel groups before it. “Exclusionary and botched elections are likely to trigger additional waves of sectarian violence,” E.J. Hogendoorn, the deputy Africa director at the International Crisis Group, said in a recent statement calling for the postponement of elections.

This is not an idle fear. When I spoke with Dhaffane, the former Seleka second vice president, he told me it was likely his former coalition partners, including UPC leader Ali Darassa, would refuse to lay down their weapons in the absence of a fair vote. “If they keep feeling persecuted, there is a risk they will keep on fighting,” he said. “If the refugees are not included in the vote, it will be one more exclusion, one more reason not to trust the government, one more reason not to put down your arms.”

Yet the international community, led by France, has proceeded with the farce that elections must take place by the end of the year — before any meaningful disarmament can be accomplished. Funding from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund will dry up at the end of the year, U.N. officials warn, and an extension of the transitional government would precipitate a constitutional crisis. “We cannot wait. The elections will take place still this year in good time and will be correct,” Ladsous, the head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, said in September. He added that there will be no extension of the transitional government. “Transition is exactly what it means. It ends — and everybody agrees on that — on the 31st of December.”

It is true that postponing the election would generate a host of logistical problems. But just as important, analysts say, is that there is little appetite for additional investment in CAR. The world champion of peacekeeping missions has worn out its welcome with international donors, who did their best to avoid upgrading the African Union force to a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the first place. (The United States, which funds a quarter of the total U.N. peacekeeping budget, initially resisted the authorization of blue helmets for budgetary reasons.) France, meanwhile, has been humiliated by the allegations of sexual abuse and is desperate to wind down a mission that has already dragged on much longer than intended. The French “never really wanted to be there, and they don’t think they can afford it,” said Wohlers, the former U.S. ambassador to CAR. He added that the international community “always pushes for elections because that’s a clear marker that we’ve accomplished something, and it allows us to start saying we can withdraw our troops and normalize.”

The result is that disarmament — known in U.N. parlance as "DDR," for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration — almost certainly won’t happen before the elections. And given existing budgetary constraints, it probably won’t ever happen on anything approaching the scale that is needed. Yet Gen. Gaitan was holding out hope that some funding for DDR would eventually come through. As a result, he seemed eager to show me how many of his fighters had been cantoned in a nearby military facility. “They are all ready for disarmament,” he told me. “We have already removed the weapons from the arms-free zone, but the next step is that the MINUSCA must assume responsibility for the fighters.”

The following day, I went with Gaitan to see the cantoned fighters myself. We arrived at the anti-Balaka base, an old cement barracks that once belonged to government gendarmes, just as the morning mist was beginning to melt off the overhanging foliage. A few bleary-eyed rebels appeared at the shutterless windows, but nobody came to the door. It seemed that most of the fighters had already left for the day. Perhaps they had never been there at all.

As I stood surveying the scene, the general began shouting furiously in Sango. He seized a length of bamboo and beat it forcefully into the earth. At first, I had no idea what was happening. The fighters at the window snapped to attention. Then they scurried off into the bush. It was only when they returned a few moments later with more young men in tow that I started to catch on.

Gaitan was angry that his men had abandoned their post, not least because a reporter was there to document their readiness to disarm. On our way over, he claimed to have more than 1,500 fighters, spread out over close to a dozen bases. Even after his men had returned with reinforcements, however, we were looking at less than 30 troops. They stood awkwardly in rows, one fighter in a camouflage overcoat and the rest in civilian garb. To a man, they wore plastic sandals on their feet. Gaitan proceeded to give a long-winded speech about discipline, the gist of which was that ex-Seleka fighters had bested them on this front.

One of Gen. Gaitan’s men cries out in pain as another anti-Balaka fighter unties his elbows and ankles, on Sept. 25. Known as arbatasher, this form of torture can lead to paralysis and death. (Ty McCormick | Foreign Policy)

“How can we face the UPC when they are a real army and we are not even maintaining an orderly base?” he said to the assembled men at one point.

The general was still fuming on the way back to his home. We exchanged a few words about the accessibility of weapons — Gaitan said his men could be ready for combat “within minutes,” even though their arsenal had been moved outside the arms-free zone — but otherwise we walked in silence. The same guard with the gris-gris pulled back the UNICEF tarp when we arrived. He seemed surprised to see me, shooting a blanched look at the general as we entered. On the ground at his feet, a young man lay writhing in agony. His elbows and ankles were bound behind his back with a single length of rope, his spine arched dangerously in the wrong direction. It was a form of torture known as arbatasher, and done long enough, it can lead to paralysis and death.

I glanced up at Gaitan to see if he shared the guard’s unease at my presence. If he was concerned about being observed in the commission of a war crime, he did not show it. "Discipline is very important," he said, motioning to the prostrate fighter. "This man stole my pistol, so he must be punished."

I asked if the fighter could please be untied. The general laughed, and some of his men joined in. I was suddenly very aware of the potential for things to go wrong.  My translator stopped relaying my pleas on behalf of the bound fighter, and I sensed that he was concerned that I might anger Gaitan. On the scale of abuses committed by the anti-Balaka, after all, this was relatively mild.

It was at that point that I remembered the camera that hung around my neck. I unscrewed the lens cap and began snapping photographs. Perhaps the general would not want the scene documented and order the man's release. But I took dozens of photographs before one of the other fighters ambled over and began to grapple with the knot. Several times he yanked cruelly on the rope, causing the bound fighter to cry out in pain.

When he was finally freed, Gaitan ordered the young man to beat the trunk of a tree with both hands. His arms were dislocated from the arbatasher and swung uselessly against its girth. Tears poured down his cheeks as I clicked away with my Nikon.

Demonstrators gather in Bangui to demand the resignation of interim president Catherine Samba Panza in Central African Republic, Sept. 28. (Herve Cyriaque Serefio/Anadolu Agency | Getty Images)

I left Bambari the next morning on a U.N. flight. When we touched down at the international airport in Bangui, a voice came over the intercom recommending that all passengers remain in the terminal until further notice. There was fighting on the airport road and no safe way to get into the city.

What unfolded over the next five days was a grander version of the intercommunal violence that had played out in Bambari a month earlier. Even the trigger was the same: A Muslim taxi driver had been decapitated, allegedly by anti-Balaka fighters, and young men from one of the last remaining Muslim enclaves in the capital responded by attacking a Christian neighborhood.

The city quickly descended into chaos. Anti-Balaka fighters fought pitched battles against U.N. peacekeepers on residential streets while looters scaled the razor-wired gates of NGOs and humanitarian organizations, making off with aid rations intended for the desperate. At least 77 people were killed, according to the latest government estimate, and some 32,000 people were forced from their homes. That’s on top of the 27,000 already displaced in the capital.

The violence forced CAR’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, to cut short a visit to New York, where she had been attending meetings at the U.N. General Assembly.  She accused elements of the former regime of conspiring with anti-Balaka leaders to orchestrate a coup in her absence. “This was nothing short of an attempt to take power by force,” she said upon landing in Bangui. Sightings of former Bozizé loyalists at violent demonstrations that week seemed to lend credence to the accusation, but it’s hard to be certain of anything that circulates in Bangui’s supercharged rumor mill. “What is clear is that people are jockeying for power,” a senior U.N. official told me by phone one afternoon, as the rat-a-tat of automatic gunfire ricocheted off the walls of my hotel. “One of the things about the transition [is that] everyone who has a position [in the transitional government] is excluded from standing for office. But the political class is minute, so they're all excluded. Everyone is looking for a plan B. They all have their militias, and they’re trying to see what they can get out of it.”

The U.N. official said that political maneuvering ahead of the vote was likely to result in more violence but that elections should still go ahead as scheduled. "We can't keep on delaying," he said. "The money dries up at the end of the year. What are we going to do? Keep on extending the transition indefinitely?"

Even assuming it is possible to organize a vote without triggering additional bloodshed, it remains unclear what exactly an election will accomplish — besides potentially adding to the long list of grievances that has fueled instability in the past. "You can have elections, but then what?” asked Wohlers. “You're going to have a new president who isn't going to have much more legitimacy in the eyes of the population than the transitional president did, [who] is not going to have an army, [and who] is not going to have a lot of institutions. How long will that last?"

The use of elections as an exit strategy for French troops, meanwhile, risks falling back on the kind of short-term thinking that has stymied two decades of peacekeeping missions in the country. Without sustained peace-building efforts from the international community, such as meaningful disarmament and reconciliation programs, CAR has limped along from crisis to crisis, without ever gaining the ability to stand on its own. The rush to hold a vote before international troops depart slots nicely into this pattern. Even if MINUSCA remains in place after the ballots are counted, the overall effectiveness of the peacekeeping presence will drop off precipitously in the absence of better trained and equipped French regiments. “There have always been concerns that the mission is too reliant on African units that lack the military capabilities to keep order,” said Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “In reality, the U.N. [has] to rely on the French to do the tough stuff.”

And things are getting tougher by the day. Armed groups in places like Bambari “are growing stronger, not weaker” in the face of inadequate peacekeeping and law enforcement efforts, according to Wohlers. Even with a democratic mandate, the new government will remain a phantom presence within their domains. “The government ends in Bangui,” Youssoufa Boubu, the self-described political coordinator for Darassa, told me. “My whole life it’s been like that. Do I think it will change? I’m guessing not until after I’m dead.”

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