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Multiple crises emerge from conflict in the Central African Republic

April 2, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
More than 800,000 people have been displaced in the Central African Republic in the past year, caught in the crossfire between warring groups. Gwen Ifill talks to Mark Yarnell of Refugees International about the multiple layers of the human rights emergency there, and the debate in the international community on how to respond.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Leaders from Africa and the European Union met today in Brussels to confront the crisis in the Central African Republic. More than 800,000 people have been displaced in the CAR in the past year, caught in the crossfire between warring Muslim and Christian groups.

Yesterday, Gwen recorded this conversation about what’s behind the recent violence and the humanitarian situation it’s caused.

GWEN IFILL: I’m joined by Mark Yarnell, a senior advocate at Refugees International. He has recently returned from the Central African Republic, where he visited refugee camps and victims of the conflict.

Welcome, and thank you for coming to tell us about it.

What is at the root of this conflict?

MARK YARNELL, Refugees International: Well, essentially, there was an attack by a coalition of rebels known as Seleka, an amalgamation of various individual rebel groups who were frustrated at the central government.

And when they came down and launched an attack and overthrew the government, they continued to carry out, you know, fairly severe harassment and abuse against villagers and civilians. Eventually, the head of that rebel group was himself forced from power. And since then, there’s been reprisal attacks, mainly by anti-balaka groups, which are essentially Christian militias.

GWEN IFILL: To the extent that we hear about CAR, we hear about this as a conflict between Christians and Muslims. Is it that simple?

MARK YARNELL: Absolutely not.

It’s certainly taken on a characteristic where people are being targeted now because they either are Christian or Muslim. But at the source, it’s much more based on political — political confrontation, issues over resources, and control over the central government.

GWEN IFILL: Four months ago, a human rights emergency was declared there. What has happened since then?

MARK YARNELL: Unfortunately, it’s even gotten worse.

We were in CAR a short while ago, and even since returning, the levels of violence have spiked. And so while there are certain areas where people are returning home and certain places in the country where there’s more stability, in the capital itself, we’re seeing increased numbers of displacement due to conflict.

GWEN IFILL: What is the biggest challenge? Is it hunger? Is it violence? Is it just simple displacement?

MARK YARNELL: It’s all of those. And that’s what is so challenging, is there’s multiple crises within this one conflict.

But I think one thing that is clear is that there are people who can be accessed and can be reached with aide, despite the complexities. We actually met a man who — when the violence met his town near Bossangoa, he fled into the bush. And when we were up there visiting, he just moved home after six months and was trying to restart his life, but was in need of, you know, basic services. The health center was destroyed.

Three of his kids had died while they were living in the bush, and was just eager to have the basics of trying to get his — even planting again.

GWEN IFILL: There are 2,000 French troops that are there, and there’s talk about more and at least an appeal for much more from the U.N. Where does that stand?

MARK YARNELL: You know, right now — you are exactly right — there’s a debate about around trying to switch from the African Union-led force to a U.N.-led mission.

That debate and vote is expected to happen next week. But, even if it’s voted on and approved, it would take potentially a year until those troops are deployed. And so it’s an issue of getting troops now into Bangui, into the country to try to protect people who are being threatened today, not a year from now.

GWEN IFILL: Rainy season looms. Is that kind of a deadline of sorts for action to happen?

MARK YARNELL: It is, in the sense that there are still tens of thousands of people living in displacement camps that are in flood-prone areas. And when those rains come — they have already started — it will create a major disaster in terms of waterborne diseases and poor sanitation.

GWEN IFILL: They also can’t farm. They also can’t create the food that they need to continue to live if the rainy season begins and they can’t…

MARK YARNELL: No, exactly

Because of this conflict, a previous planting season last year was already missed. And the planting for this year should be happening today, but because there are people who are not at their homes, they have lost the tools to plant, it’s a significant crisis that could have implications further down the road.

GWEN IFILL: When you look at the number of refugees who have been scattered to the winds, is there a way or is there are preferred method for evacuating them, especially Muslims who apparently have been surrounded by these Christian militias?

MARK YARNELL: If they leave the protection of the African Union peacekeeping troops, their lives are literally in danger in terms of being attacked.

And, so, it requires movements to safer areas with pretty heavy African Union peacekeeping contingents. And it’s unclear right now if there’s the resources to be able to do that effectively.

GWEN IFILL: If there’s one thing the outside world needs to know about this conflict or do about this conflict, what would — in your opinion, would that be?

MARK YARNELL: We met with people who can be reached and can be accessed and would do — would benefit greatly from increased support.

But, at the moment, the funding that has been reached, that’s been contributed for the crisis is only 20 percent of what is needed. And so just basic, basic resources would make a big difference.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Yarnell of Refugees International, thank you.

MARK YARNELL: Thank you.