Our Visit to CAR: Lessons in Sacrifice and Hope

By Chandrima Das, Director, Peacekeeping Policy, United Nations Foundation & Micah Spangler, Deputy Director, Legislative Affairs, United Nations Foundation

Like so many things in the Central African Republic (CAR), the news spread slowly. Then, suddenly, it seemed to be everywhere at once.

When we landed in Bangui, our phones lit up with a devastating message confirming the rumors: Five United Nations peacekeepers had been killed in a remote area approximately 300 miles east of the capital city. The deaths were the worst attack on peacekeepers since the UN Peacekeeping Mission in CAR was launched three years ago and immediately reinforced the importance of our trip to learn more about the UN’s work in this war-torn country.

The UN Peacekeeping Mission (MINUSCA) deployed to CAR — one of the world’s poorest countries — at the height of a sectarian civil war that toppled the national government and threatened to turn into an all-out genocide. The international community — exactly 20 years removed from the failure of Rwanda — forcefully responded to the rampant violence and instability in CAR with MINUSCA, now the UN’s fourth largest peacekeeping mission.

While relative safety has returned to Bangui and a few surrounding areas thanks to the presence of MINUSCA, CAR’s nearly non-existent infrastructure and vast terrain have presented complex challenges to extending the newly elected government’s authority — and that’s to say nothing of the numerous armed groups constantly seeking to exploit the massive security vacuum swirling in far corners of the landlocked country.

Those challenges were on full and tragic display last Monday night when a MINUSCA envoy was suddenly ambushed on its way to Bangassou. Four of the five peacekeepers who were killed were part of an engineering unit — a contingent of Cambodians who left their homes and families to build roads and bridges for the people of CAR. The fifth fallen peacekeeper was a Moroccan soldier who was abducted during the fighting and whose body was recovered later. Ten additional soldiers were wounded in the attack.

The tragic news was a stark reminder of the perilous work UN peacekeepers and humanitarians do every day, often with little to no fanfare, in some of the most dangerous places in the world.

Despite this immense tragedy, however, the Central African Republic has vastly progressed from where it was when MINUSCA was established in 2014. That progress was on full display when we visited PK5, Bangui’s Muslim enclave that experienced some of the most intense fighting during the crisis that griped the country in 2013 and 2014. This time last year, PK5 was a complete ghost town, littered with burnt out cars and collapsed buildings — an international symbol of the war in CAR.

Due to the neighborhood’s tragic history of violence, we traveled in an armored vehicle, guarded by a tank and an Egyptian peacekeeper. During our visit, we met with local Muslim leaders whose office was being protected by a contingent of UN peacekeepers, and then a leader of an armed group, a young, smiling man clad in a camouflage t-shirt and jeans. The former combatant “commander” and his young troops had put down their weapons, at the urging of the UN, and were rebuilding a bridge in the same neighborhood that they had terrorized only months ago.

We then traveled to an adjacent Christian neighborhood and observed MINUSCA-supported sensitization training at a middle school. The neighborhood once had 2,000 Muslim families living in it and now only has one. The training emphasized that the war had ended and that it was time for Christians and Muslims to unite and live together again — as they had for so many decades before the conflict began. The children were excited by our visit and responsive to the message of unity.

Amid the tangible optimism, our day ended on a somber note, with the memorial service of the five peacekeepers that tragically lost their lives in Bangassou. The newly appointed UN Under-Secretary-General Jean-Pierre Lacroix traveled to MINUSCA for the memorial — his first official visit to a UN Peacekeeping Mission.

The Cambodian contingent commander pleaded to the head of MINUSCA, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for CAR, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga and Under-Secretary-General Lacroix to find the perpetrators who murdered his soldiers, but simultaneously pledged that the disaster in Bangassou would not deter Cambodia from its commitment to UN peacekeeping.

Lacroix, after laying wreaths for each of the fallen peacekeepers, promised that these crimes would not go unpunished, and Onango-Ayanga made strong remarks, declaring:

“Together we are stronger, the forces of darkness and destruction have failed and will always fail.”

Despite the gains made here, there is obviously much work to do in the Central African Republic, as reports of shocking violence in the country continue. On Saturday, during a separate fire-fight in Bangassou, a second Moroccan peacekeeper was killed near an area where the Red Cross recently reported uncovering 115 bodies.

In the face of extreme risk, however, the UN remains dedicated to helping the people of CAR — who after suffering violence and barbarity — deserve a chance at a better life. It is a life that any person would want — a life free from endless war, where living is not simply about surviving today, but dreaming for tomorrow.

The UN, slowly but surely, is helping the people of CAR turn that hope into a reality.