Photographer: Central African Republic "Falling Apart" in "Horrific Violence"
Marcus Bleasdale reports from the front lines of chaos.
Widespread violence has erupted again in the Central African Republic, where thousands of people have been killed and nearly a million—20 percent of the population—have been displaced over the past few months.
The conflict began in December 2012 and has seen tit-for-tat exchanges of violence between an alliance of largely Muslim militia groups and Christian "anti-balaka" militias, resulting in thousands of deaths, according to Human Rights Watch.
Violence has escalated since March 2013, when a coup d'état by the loosely organized Muslim alliance, known as Seleka, ousted then President Francois Bozize, a Christian. The Central African Republic has a Christian majority, with a substantial Muslim minority.
The overthrow was followed by the installation of the nation's first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia, who stepped down January 10 amid international pressure over the continued bloodshed.
Last month, Catherine Samba-Panza was sworn in as the Central African Republic's first female president. She had been mayor of the nation's capital city and is seen as a nonpartisan who enjoys support from Christians and Muslims.
Samba-Panza has been calling for peace, but British photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale, a National Geographic contributor who has been documenting
Central African Republic's crisis for months, says the violence is spiraling on.
This week, Bleasdale, along with an Associated Press photographer and a Human Rights Watch worker, rescued thousands of photo negatives from the looted home of internationally known photographer Samuel Fasso in Bangui, the capital.
Fasso is famous for his provocative self-portraits that explore issues of African identity, evoking Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and African chieftains. In one he depicts himself as Muhammad Ali shot full of arrows.
The Cameroon-born photographer recently fled the Central African Republic with his family out of concerns for their safety, leaving thousands of archival negatives behind at his home in Bangui.
Jerome Delay, the AP photographer, had noticed negatives lying in the dirt outside Fasso's home and picked up some prints from inside the looted studio. He, Bleasdale, and Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch returned the next day and rescued thousands of negatives from the house, while looting and shooting swirled around them.
We spoke with Bleasdale about his recent experiences.
What has it been like there the last few days?
It's horrific, actually. You have a country that is essentially falling apart. Neighbor killing neighbor on a daily basis in the most brutal, horrific fashion I have ever seen. Lynchings, people attacked by mobs, people having their arms cut off, people burnt with tires around their necks like we saw in South Africa in the 1990s.
It is a complete catastrophe that no one seems to be paying much attention to. I can count the number of journalists here on my hand.
I just saw today 10,000 Muslims forced to flee from Bangui and surrounding towns north toward Chad, because they are in fear for their lives. They are getting hacked to death, attacked in streets by mobs, the districts they live in and their houses and mosques are being looted and burned, so they have no choice but to leave.
What is the violence stemming from?
This violence and hatred stems from months of Muslim Seleka rule—they quite honestly treated the Christian population horrifically.
Last year I spent time documenting abuses Seleka were inflicting, and many Christians had fled out of Bangui. Many thousands lived in the bush, and over 100,000 moved to a displaced camp in the airport.
Since March 2013 [the country] has been a violent pit of hell.
What has been the impact of 1,600 French and 4,000 African Union troops who are there, trying to keep peace?
Thankfully they're here but there's not enough of them to take care of the problem. They are doing a valiant job but the country is larger than France, so it's not enough troops to control Bangui, let alone towns outside the main city.
I was driving today down a road and a body was lying there who had been lynched. His left hand and left foot had been chopped off, his penis chopped off and his throat had been slit. That happened seven times today.
I've documented seven or eight lynchings like this in three weeks, and a lot more killings. Those are just the ones I have seen.
Has the situation gotten worse?
Yes. The international community and politicians would like you to believe that it hasn't. But it's the most violent and hateful environment I've ever documented in 16 years. And I've covered every conflict in Africa over that time, but I've never documented anything this bad.
There is so much hatred. Yesterday I was in a town that had eight mosques and over 30,000 Muslims, but now the mosques have been burnt and there are only 300 Muslims left there, hiding in a mosque surrounded by French peacekeeping forces who are trying to keep them alive.
Have there been calls for more UN peacekeeping troops?
There have been calls for at least another 10,000 troops on the ground, because you need many more troops to try to make this work.
What is the current political situation?
There is a new president who was voted by parliament. Her dialogue has been very peaceful and full of hope. She says the violence has to stop.
Just days ago she gave a speech to Christian FACA (The National Army) and told them that the violence must end. But five minutes after she left the FACA lynched a Muslim man, right in front of the international press. It's complete and utter chaos.