Yesterday social media feeds lit up with images of the brutal execution of James Foley, a western journalist, by the Islamic State (IS). The video showing the beheading was first wildly distributed. Later it was denounced, and soon after criticized in the harshest terms by even Barack Obama himself, and banned off the airways.
All through yesterday and today, Foley’s life and times were reminisced. His execution was perceived as a direct attack on the western normal: life styles, freedoms, ideals. Life and times of Foley still don our timelines and will for sometime. A lot was vested in that moment of killing: the freedom of press was in danger, it was a “dare” for America, and a chance for IS to declare they still held captive another journalist, a freelancer, Steven Sotloff.
What went almost completely unnoticed yesterday in the virtual world of breaking news was yet another death. A humanitarian volunteer was shot and killed while in the line of duty in Central African Republic. All that ran was a short obituary by ICRC for whom Bienvenu Bandios had volunteered for five years.
Not that calling for comparisons would alleviate the pain of losing someone, nor brutal and cold blooded murder should ever be simplified, yet Bienvenu, whom ICRC recalls being an “open-minded, cheerful, motivated” individual, who was “always ready to help others” was not only that. He was a hero. He was shot and killed while evacuating casualties in the “km 5” zone of the capital.
I can hear most of you saying, CAR, km 5, who? So, in Bienvenu’s memory, here is a quick historical timeline of one of the most violent regions in Africa:
Central African Republic is a former French colony that gains its independence from France in 1960, only to hand it all over to the local Boganda family. David Dacko becomes CAR’s first elected president (with no other candidates running.) The fate of the single family, party, government era ends in a coup, and the commander of the coup Jean-Bedel Bokassa declares himself “president for life” in 1972.
He soon after proclaims himself emperor and the country is renamed from French Equatorial Africa to Central African Republic, well, with an emperor. A few years later Dacko strikes back. A bloody battle, involving French armed forces fires up, leading to the arrest and subsequent massacre of school children in which Bokassa takes an active role himself. Dacko reclaims presidency, is soon ousted by another army commander Andre Kolingba, and following an amnesty, Bokassa returns to CAR from his exile country, France. Upon his return, he is sentenced to death for murder and embezzlement, with the sentence soon commuted to life imprisonment.
Enter 90’s, and CAR sees the forming of political parties (notice, plural.) Following a confusing set of elections spread over a two year period, in 1993 Ange-Felix Patasse wins, ends the military rule, releases political prisoners in the thousands. Among those he release is Bokassa himself.
Three years on, soldiers mutiny in Bangui. The uprising continues well into 1997, with France withdrawing its forces in full, leaving a void soon to be filled by African Union peacekeepers.
In the second run of elections, Patasse is re-elected, only to be faced with a rally by the opposition and general strike over accusations of corruption. Rally turn into a massive riot, Andre Kolingba attempts a military coup, Patasse averts the attempt backed by Libya, Chad and a helping hand from Congolese rebels.
Few months later new clashes erupt as Patasse’s troops attempt to arrest former army general Francois Bozize. Thousands are uprooted while fleeing the fighting between government troops and Bozize’s forces.
In 2003, Bozize seizes Bangui. He declares himself president, dissolves the parliament, sets up a transitional government. A year later, a new constitution is approved in a referendum.
In 2005 a devastating flood incapacitates the capital, leaving 20,000 people homeless. Things get out of control in the Northwest, and with a complete collapse of security, hundreds of thousands flee to Southern Chad. The situation becomes dire, aid organizations stage several pleas for help, yet the emergency never becomes as sexy as Darfur, or Iraq, and hardly visible.
As the west looks away, flood waters retreat, and fighting escalates. France, feeling responsible, sends fighter jets to bomb rebel positions in the Northeast. More people become displaced. A truce is signed between rebel leader Abdoulaye Miskine and Bozize. A year later two other rebel factions, UFDR and APRD, sign a DDR agreement with the government, following in the footsteps of Miskine and his People’s Democratic Front (PDF), and another year later a national unity government is formed, including the leaders of the two main rebel groups.
A month later Ugandan LRA rebels cross into CAR, heading for the capital. Enter: Joseph Kony. On news of them entering Bangui, French troops are deployed in the area, leading to clashes. UNSC votes to send peacekeepers to CAR. By August 2009, according to UN data, more than a million people have been affected by the violence in the country. Bozize hangs on to government, albeit by a thread. Meanwhile conflict, poverty, rape, violent murder leads to forced migration en masse and further deteriorates the already feeble health system of the country. CAR steps into a state of “chronic medical emergency” as declared by MSF.
In 2012 the AU deploys military forces to hunt down Joseph Kony.
Same year, Séléka rebels rapidly overrun northern and central CAR, Bozize flees as rebel leader Michel Djotodia seizes power. Djotodia suspends constitution, dissolves parliment and assumes presidency. UNSC declares CAR “a risk to regional stability” a year later.
As Djotodia’s fighters ran amok in the country last year and UN approved a peacekeeping force to support AU and French troops, fierce battles continued to be reported between Séléka forces – a large portion of whom are Muslim – and the Christian anti-Balaka rebels.
Around November of last year the Kony debate heated up once again. In a BBC report, a US State Department official was quoted that CAR authorities had “been in contact for several months with a small LRA group in CAR that has expressed interest in surrendering”.
As of December, ongoing turmoil and a near complete breakdown of security has further ignited the existing secterian fighting between rival Séléka and anti-Balaka forces. Civilians are always stuck in between, with scores of them dead, as France and UN decide to up their “boots on the ground” respectively. Government has so much but dissolved with Catherine Samba-Panza assuming the role of an interim-leader.
By February, violent attacks on Muslims have become the norm in CAR. EU resigns to watching the massacres from a distance, unwilling to send peacekeeping troops, much to France’s dismay. In May, succumbing to mild international pressure, European troops finally take charge of Bangui International Airport, securing the area. MSF has announced it will reduce its operations in the country as three of its aid workers are murdered.
Only last month, armed militia later identified as Séléka rebels ride into KM 5 in Bangui, to the Church of Fatima where thousands are seeking refuge from ongoing fighting and where Bienvenu was shot and killed yesterday. They first throw hand-grenades into the church and later shoot at those that come out. 19 people are killed, and 27 people are abducted by the militia.
Last but not least, remember the declaration of Statehood by IS last month? Well, there was another declaration coming from CAR of the same nature four days ago. Séléka rebels issued a press release calling for a new State being formed in place of CAR, to be called Dar El Kouti. Announced prematurely (and perhaps intentionally so, as patience and trust runs thin in the region) the announcement was rebuted by Djotodia as he doesn’t seem to want anything to foreshadow the ongoing peace negotiations in Brazzaville.
Now you are relatively up-to-date on a distant land, locked in the middle of a distant continent. Should you consider this write up a late eulogy for a fallen aid worker and a cliff-note on the CAR Crisis, please keep in mind, this is a very very shallow summary. More is buried in the sidelines. If you are interested, drop a note, and will be happy to fill you in on future posts. But ’till then, I will let you digest this bit first.