The Paris Attacks: How do we respond?

The slaughter of 131 civilians in Paris, one of the world’s most famous and vibrant cities, represents the worst terrorist attack to hit Europe since the Madrid bombings in 2004. It is another blow to a wounded nation in a string of attacks which have struck France in 2015 and an atrocity which dwarfs the horrific assault on Charlie Hebdo magazine’s headquarters by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on 7 January 2015.  There is no doubt these events are shocking, the events must be thoroughly analysed, the images are harrowing and the perpetrators of these crimes must be brought to justice. However these attacks must be put into context, policymakers must be scrutinised and our reactions at an individual, community and government level must be cautious as well as fearless in the short-term.

For all the horrors splashed across newspapers and television in recent days ISIS stands badly wounded. The organisation’s territories are shrinking under the combined pressure of a variety of international, regional and local forces. Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Army in-coordination with Russian air-strikes, and supported by Iranian fire-power have retaken key territories and broke year-long jihadist siege of a military air base in the country’s north days before the massacre in Paris. Its forces are encircled by Iraqi Security Forces and its backbone of Shiite militia at Ramadi, whose seizure by ISIS in May, 2015 had policymakers and political commentators alike contemplating that an assault on Baghdad was imminent.  Similarly Tikrit, seized by ISIS in 2014 and the home of Saddam Hussein, was recaptured in April 2015.  More symbolically, Kurdish forces (supported by Yezidi militia) have recaptured Sinjar cutting the main road which connect ISIS’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa (which is under sustained bombardment by Russian, U.S, and French aircraft) from its headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. The retaking of Sinjar, whose fall was followed by harrowing mass-executions, the ethnic cleansing of the Yezidi population, and an event which heralded ISIS’s emergence as a major player in the Middle Eastern wars represents a practical and symbolic military breakthrough while Mosul stands isolated should Kurdish and U.S Special Forces consolidate their gains at Sinjar.

ISIS is losing the conventional war. Their perverse idea of a ‘caliphate’, a far-cry from its envisaged utopia,  is cracking under sustained military pressure and it should not come as a surprise despite its vast array of fighters, its military and territorial gains in 2014, and its propaganda. ISIS’s twisted blend of revolutionary ultra-violence has united practically every international, regional and local powers against the organisation. At a conventional military level, as a functioning state it could never survive as a long-term political and economic entity.

However as the Paris attacks and the bombing of the Russian airline over the Sinai have illustrated, modern extremism is flexible, diverse, dynamic, fragmented and the equivalent of a modern hydra. Even if counterinsurgency eliminates leaders such as Osama Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the former leader of ISIS) and its executioners such as Mohammad Emwazi, new leaders and new extremists will fill the void. The death of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, would not symbolise the death-blow to the organisation. The death of Mohammad Emwazi (also known as Jihadi John) days before the Paris attacks demonstrate this paradox; ISIS have the capability to inflict deep damage on our societies even when Western policyymakers strike symbolic victories.  ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Jahbat al-Nusra and the modern phenomenon of militant Islamic extremism cannot be defeated by conventional warfare. Modern extremism is absent a conventional hierarchical structure.  ISIS is presented by politicians as monolithic yet it is the organisation’s very ambiguity which makes it difficult, if not impossible to completely eradicate, despite the bullish rhetoric of politicians such as Hollande, Cameron, and Obama in the wake of the Paris attacks.

While ISIS is part of the legacy of the catastrophic Iraq War, the Syrian Civil War and its ideology  was significantly developed by men such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam and Seyed Qutb during the turbulent Cold War era, ISIS is also a brand, it is a system of ideas, it is a digital caliphate and it is a wider part of the upheaval created by the Information Age. ISIS is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. As Jason Burke notes ‘Islamic militants use social media because we use social media; they seek resources…money…hydrocarbons…weapons…in the way that many actors do across the world today…they multi-task as terrorists, insurgents and administrators because all play roles that are increasingly ill-defined; they exploit and are formed by the dramatic disruption…the Internet has brought…financing is crowd-sourced from donors…in a way that would be recognisable to any entrepreneurial start-up anywhere in the world.’ This is what differentiates ISIS from Al-Qaeda; it is a hybrid, a combination of old and new as globalisation and newer forms  global interaction of politics, economics, culture, technology and social organisation that dominate our contemporary world have rapidly ‘weakened older forms of authority.’

As ISIS’s conventional military operations and ambitions as a state faltered, it switched back to its most potent strategy; sowing political, communal and societal divisions and altering national politics and military policy for the worst through urban terrorism and asymmetrical warfare.  This classic formula of asymmetrical warfare has produced results. Suicide bombings hampered the Americans ill-fated state-building project in Iraq and proved to be a lethal catalyst for tit-for-tat Shiite and Sunni pogroms, the Ankara bombings were scheduled days before highly-charged elections in Turkey, and most devastatingly on September 11th 2001, the destruction of the World Trade Center led to the gross misapplication of American political and military power across the globe, to which the most devastating consequences were seen in the Middle East. These small attacks occuring in cities across the world, by comparison to the bloodshed and large-scale confrontations occurring across the Middle East, are more unnerving because they are difficult to prevent, they require a strong response by the targeted government, and their response, if heavy-handed and driven by ill-advised policies, can increase problems rather than alleviate them. In Paris the attacks were designed precisely to foment religious and racial war and strengthen hard-line right and right-wing parties just three weeks before regional elections in which parties such as Front National (led by Marine Le Pen) are ‘tipped to make historic gains.’ While the terrorist attacks witnessed in Paris were fanatical acts, they were first and foremost political acts dressed in religious rhetoric and designed to cause havoc at a hyper-sensitive moment in French politics.

At face-value Western values continue to be upheld, but in reality, at-least at a state-level, they may become an increasing illusion in the obsessive quest for security. Security is tightened, refugees, opposition and minorities are stereotyped and vilified, military arrests and operations are conducted and often kill more civilians, and the hunt for terrorists, their affiliates, and potential suspects justifies the violation and eradication of human rights. More disturbingly in Europe it empowers hard-right and right-wing politicians, journalists and commentators who seek to exploit the tragedy to advance unnerving political agendas, ideologies, and policies.

While the acts of violence are a consequence of extremism, they are also a product of gang violence, immigration problems, poverty, issues of societal segregation and integration, contextual regional and national politics, and the policies governments’ are using to pursue potential and real threats. These are all factors which are difficult for many governments to address under normal conditions and in an atmosphere of relative stability and now these socio-political and religious issues have been ruthlessly exploited by ISIS and its affiliates in times of grave political and economic crisis in Europe.

The narratives of terrorism and Islamic militancy dominate mainstream political, military, and media discourse as ‘Islamism, Islamic extremism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic theology, Islamic irrationalism – makes Islam seem more than ever a concept in search of some content while normalising hatred and prejudice against more than 1.5 billion people.’ At the other end of the spectrum ISIS has constructed an equally potent narrative. Its propaganda distorts local and national context, its warped interpretation and vile manipulation of religion (used as another form of politics) has alienated other factors driving conflict in the Middle East and has, as Medhi Hasan claims, ‘been a disaster for the public image of Islam – and a boon for the Islamophobia industry.’  ISIS is a symptom, not the cause of violence in the Middle East, and has been fueled by friend and foe alike in the region. Both polarised narratives feed off each other, promote disinformation, produce generalisations, they exacerbate intolerance and distort truth and they pollute the values of billions such as tolerance, religious diversity, multiculturalism, the exchange of ideas, innovation, enlightenment, spirituality, education, and progressive thinking. These are all values which are under threat. 

Security is an undeniable necessity in this age of crisis and war, we must remain vigilant against those individuals and organisations who seek to violently slaughter our families, our neighbours, our friends and our fellow citizens. Yet we cannot sacrifice our ideals, our principles, and our values for absolute security, a security which is practically impossible to enforce constantly in the face of modern extremism.

We must remain equally wary of individuals and groups within our own society who seek to exploit such pain to advance repugnant and racist forms of politics wrapped in promises of security. If we do not, if we harden our own attitudes, if we lash out wildly at provocation, if we scapegoat minorities and refugees and label them spies, outsiders and infiltrators because of the atrocities of the few, we will empower and give individuals and organisations who seek to advance their cause through force their twisted sense of justice, logic and legitimisation to conduct appalling violence and divide communities across the world. If we pursue this path, we give terrorists, politicians and people who seek to exploit tragedy their victory. How we react to the harrowing events of 13th-14th November, 2015 as a community of nations, as societies from all walks of life, as individuals will define whether these attacks were a resounding success or a spectacular failure.

I see only spectacular failure. The Paris attacks were a potent symbol of a world gripped by crisis, war and one which is dangerously polarised politically, religiously and fractured economically. These are undeniable realities facing us and they must be challenged. Yet the attacks were also a symbol of an unyielding determination of individuals and communities to act and stand courageously in the face of sorrow, extraordinary pain, and uncertainty. Time and again we have seen this across the world whether it be from Beirut to Paris, Tel Aviv to Damascus,  Baghdad to New York, Volgograd to London, Sydney to Mumbai and Ankara to Kabul. The shocking brutality and intolerance of the few is met by the same courage, the same raw outpourings of grief and love which are as beautiful as they are heart-wrenching to witness, and every time this ferocity is met with the same response by millions of families, friends, and individuals; they fearlessly say no to extremism, intolerance and violence every year against every attack and atrocity across the globe. So long as this continues, so long as even a single individual, regardless of their religion, political affiliation, culture or society, says no to the extremities of war and says no to violence as the only palpable outcome to disagreement while forsaking hatred and vengeance the principles and values which have seen man through the darkest of times can never be defeated. Liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Matthew Williams






Military Intervention: The Implications for the Central African Republic?

In April the United Nations authorised the intervention of a further 10,000 soldiers to the Central African Republic. Alongside the 2,000 strong French force dispatched in late November 2013 and the 6,000 African Union troops code-named MISCA (Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine) this will come to form some 18,000 men positioned in the Central African Republic (CAR) which is beset by violence. Since  February 2014 the violence has been defined by some as ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence. The question is will this military intervention work? 

Military interventions in Africa have become increasingly prudent since the disasters of the 1990s in Somalia and Rwanda which proved a shameful experience for the United States in the former and the latter for French foreign policy.

The increase in military muscle on the ground indicates a number of negatives and positives. A criticism would be that it was clear that 8,000 soldiers alone would be insufficient to contain the violence in a country similar in size to Ukraine and larger than France.

The military interventionists while possessing significant military capabilities and control of Bangui were unable to prevent the anti-balaka (the ‘Christian’ militia) and Seleka (the rebel Muslim faction removed from power in December) from committing crimes against humanity and mass-atrocities in the countryside.  Killings have continued between Christians and the increasingly isolated Muslim communities despite the presence  of foreign troops while the numerous members of the intervention force have already been killed.×302/public/2013/12/07/central_african_republic_xjd103_39699485.jpg?itok=Hp6PvsdT

This isn’t Mali where air-power could be decisive against the Islamic militants. The backstreets of CAR’s capital Bangui and the thick bush of the country’s interior mean susceptibility to ambush is high and difficulty in rooting out the perpetrators of extremist violence complicates matters. The African Union peacekeeping mission is trying to fill the gap left by neighboring Chad, which withdrew its 850 troops following allegations some of its soldiers had indiscriminately killed thirty-two  unarmed civilians in the marketplace. This coincided with an attempt to put down the anti-balaka now branded a terrorist organisation by the foreign interventionists.

The introduction of substantial reinforcements is welcome and a brave move given the uncertainty in Europe and the Middle East and highlights the determination of Ban Ki Moon to not let CAR become the Rwanda of our time. However there is one problem in this deployment, the operations that were to commence in mid-September are still under-capacity and still struggling to contain violence hampering a peaceful transition of governmental power.

How many civilians, particularly Muslims, lives will be lost in this lengthy process of logistical preparation and how effective will the expanded U.N and MINUSCA forces be in containing continued violence?

It is also important to note that the Central African Republic is not Rwanda. The situation on the ground is more chaotic, the lack of an effective government means that coordinated genocide is highly unlikely against the Muslim community. Ethnic cleansing however can be carried out by groups and the anti-balaka has succeeded thus far in driving the majority of the Muslim population from the country and slaughtering thousands. According to the United Nations, the proportion of Muslims in the overall population has shrunk from around fifteen percent to two percent since the bloodletting began.

There are chilling similarities to the Serb units in Bosnia in 1990s who conducted ethnic cleansing through systematic sexual violence, seizure of Muslim land, the destruction of their cultural heritage and legacy and massacre of innocent men, women and children. In many cases  they carry out murder in front of or in close proximity to foreign troops; the latter have been found wanting in protecting civilians from perpetrators of violence.

They are however up against overwhelming numbers and geographical stretched in terms of distributing troops. Thus the introduction of more troops will lift the strain on the low numbers of peacekeepers who are boxed in trying to protect the remaining pockets of the Muslim population. The objectives of the anti-balaka will largely be complete.

What concerns should concern onlookers is the evolution of the violence, the nature and purpose of the violence and the imprint it will leave on the country for future generations. Civil war is one thing, ethnic cleansing and sectarian division is opens up a damaging rift between the communities in question.

In a country like CAR lacking in effective educational, political and economic infrastructure and beset by socio-economic inequalities these social divisions cannot be healed quickly and the twist in the violence based upon religious identity will leave a deep impression upon the population now divided by religious hatred and intolerance even if the campaign lacks coordination amongst the perpetrators.

An indicator of  success can be the restoration of peace in Sierra Leone in 2000 by the British troops who successfully put down the rebellious and bloody Revoultionary United Front (who also had support from Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia), restored order, maintained order, and ensured a peace that has lasted after a decade of civil war (1991-2002). This only required 1,200 soldiers allied with government forces and since then Sierra Leone has encountered little difficulties. This is remarkable considering the resumption of civil war in countries afflicted by both economic weakness and civil strife is more likely than in a modernised country.

Simply ending the conflict isn’t the only challenge facing the intervention forces, it is re-building the socio-political and economic fabric of the Central African Republic so that it may prosper whilst maintaining and imposing security so that it narrows down a repeat of the bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing or worse genocide.They can be mediators on the political scene and can restrain the more violent elements of the local militia and armed forces. MINUSCA must impose order. The question is can they impose peace and stability while being hampered by chaos, crime, and violence?

Matthew Williams

France’s Dance with Death in Rwanda

France has a both tempestuous and intriguing relationship with Africa. To be fair most former colonialists do given the brutality of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the late 19th century and early 20th century. They are the most frequent interventionists in African conflict as we have seen in Mali and the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic. France’s role in the Rwandan genocide still sparks controversy to this very day as relations between the two countries appeared to drastically sour after Kagame’s verbal condemnation of the French government who supposedly propped up Habyarimana’s genocidal regime known as the akuzu or ‘Network Zero’. 

Belgium created the unstable mainframe for Rwandan politics during its colonial rule of the country, the United States and United Nations did nothing in the face of overwhelming evidence that genocide was occurring but France were intimate allies with ‘Network Zero’. They bear the greatest mark of shame out of all the Western powers in the horrors of 1994. Kagame’s criticism is correct, but he is not without controversy funding a proxy war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nevertheless numerous authors including Daniela Kroslak and Andrew Wallis, journalists and high ranking officials such as Romeo Dallaire have given damning verdicts of France’s role.

Such a large group with such varying backgrounds cannot be mere coincidence. The facts are there; France provided the regime with diplomatic, military, and financial support. Their fingerprints are all over the place and though they may not have directly contributed to the slaughter on the ground they moulded a genocidal state. If they were so keen not be branded as the Machiavellian sculptor why does Madame Agathe (Mrs Habyarimana), regarded as the real power behind the presidential throne and central figure in the akazu, still reside in France and has not been long ago condemned as a war criminal or brought those they ‘mistakenly’ supported to justice?

Let us rewind back to 1987, seven years before the genocide. This was the year the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), originally a coalition of factions opposed to Habyarimana’s regime, was consolidated by a group of Tutsi refugees in southern Uganda.

Kagame 1990-1994 and the RPF were seen by the French as terrorists
Kagame 1990-1994 and the RPF were seen by the French as terrorists

The rise of the RPF coincided with another significant event. The previous year (1986) a thirty-nine year old began his role as adviser to his father on African affairs in the French government. His name was Jean Christophe Mitterrand, son of Francois Mitterrand (the former president of France). His appointment to the African Unit gave him direct access to all Francophone African state leaders and likely an understanding of inner circles of power in which they operated.

The seventeen francophone states in Africa constituted the only region in the world where France retained enough influence to support its claims to medium power status’ (Meredith, State of Africa, p.493) and its position as a major power on the international stage. France is one of the key five members on the United Nations Council. France like most significant Cold War powers did not want to lose influence in global politics and under such circumstances where Cold War ideologies, though dying in the 1980s, still held sway in halls of power and pervaded the psychologies of many politicians. The RPF (formed by commanders once loyal to the English speaking Uganda’s state) constituted a major threat to this status

The French in the late 1980s and 1990s seemed to be gripped by fears of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ influence in Africa and jealously guarded both her economic and cultural interests. The paranoia of this British neo-imperialism and the geo-political threat to France’s hegemony in Africa had to be dealt with even if it meant turning a blind eye to human rights abuses during the time of tyrants whereby political power and economic wealth remained in the hands of the few during the 1980s.

‘This included Habyarimana and his powerful Hutu clique (MRND) which had made considerable financial benefits under an abusive system of patronage and clientism since  Habyarimana seized power in 1973. In 1975 France had also signed a defence pact with the Rwandan government. Jean Christophe Mitterrand was to head operations to maintain and enhance relationships with the Francophone states in Africa. These leaders were quick to try to curry favour from his department which Mitterrand in turned into an extensive network of personal connections which in turn improved his ability to influence strategy across Africa. Naturally he would hold the ear of his father. Alistair Cole highlights some interesting facts about Francois Mitterrand’s political power:

“Portrayals of Francois Mitterrand as a republican monarch have claimed support for their theses by focusing on his use of patronage, especially in his promotion of members of his own family to prominent positions….which are informative of his political persona.”

Habyarimana similarly held a tight family based power structure from his home region of Gisenyi in northern Rwanda dominated by Hutus and it is a well-known fact that he developed a close friendship with Jean Christophe Mitterrand and Francois Mitterrand. Similar power structures equaled similar interests and the relationship between Jean Christophe and President Habyarimana was not solely a friendship, but a business partnership as Dallaire notes when he met military general Lafourcade  and his staff officers in Goma during Operation Turquoise (Dallaire, SHWTD, p.450). Jean Christophe, as did his father, had plenty to lose on a potential RPF victory in both their first invasion in 1990 and their second invasion in 1994 during the genocide.

Even Habyarimana’s death was coated in his strong relationship to the French President. His plane (a private Falcon 50 French-built super mid-sized, long-range corporate jet) was a personal present from Francois Mitterrand. It was shot out of the sky and sparked the Rwandan genocide. It should also be noted that Jean Christophe was inherently corrupt and greedy politician who given thirty months on probation for tax evasion and was imprisoned under allegations of complicity of arms traffic.

Jean-Christophe Mitterrand
Jean-Christophe Mitterrand

 The first invasion of the RPF (October 1990) sucked France into the genocidal quagmire as they deployed French soldiers to uphold the defence pact (signed in 1975). These included the 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, the 2nd French Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment3rd Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment and 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment; a considerable show of strength for a government claiming to be merely protecting French nationals in Rwanda.

Military support was also included considerable logistical support to the Rwandan Government Forces and financial support for Habyarimana’s sagging regime. The RPF guerrilla army (4,000 strong) was repulsed by the combined forces and the repercussions of the invasion were to be fatal for thousands of Tutsis, thanks to Operation Noroit. Gerard Prunier commented that their was little hesitancy in sending troops to Rwanda in 1990, that when ‘Habyarimana telephoned the Africa Unit to speak to Jean-Christophe Mitterand….he was reassured “We are going to send him a few boys, old man Habyarimana. We are going to bail him out” were Jean-Christophe’s words with an added wink…’ (Meredith, State of Africa, p.494)

This bail out mentioned was that had it not been for French intervention Habyarimana’s regime, already on its knees during a turbulent 1980s, would have fallen. Instead it was allowed to endure and use the ‘Tutsi’ invasion as a pretext towards extermination and consolidate its weakening power base, unifying opposition opposed to Habyarimana’s monopoly against the Tutsi minority.  France aided this consolidation of power and tightened the security of a regime making a transition to a genocidal one to remain in power.

It is highly unlikely that France did not possess vast quantities of information that detailed the vast human rights abuses of the Rwandan population. Thousands were detained by Habyarimana as political repression escalated and hundreds of Tutsis were slaughtered; a reaction to the invasion of the RPF in 1990. Also such a closeness to the regime would likely mean that the Africa Unit understood very the well the nature of Habyarimana’s and his compatriots ideologies and personal views on Tutsis.

This is where French complicity began to take shape. The problem in this debate is that it is difficult to garner whether the French government either made a serious error of interpreting the situation in Rwanda, turned a blind eye to the atrocities of a clearly genocidal regime or that they were directly aiding the Rwandan government’s planned violence.  The country’s political elite in a one-party state  embraced Paris as a source of cultural identity anprotection and France like any indulging parent provided such protection to a regime with devious intentions. My view is that it was a combination of serious miscalculations in turning the blind eye to the clear dangers of Habyarimana’s regime liquidating what France may have seen as opposition which eventually meant the entire ethnic Tutsi population. 

French Troops training the Interahamwe militia
French Troops training the Interahamwe militia

French complicity increased dramatically after 1990. The period between 1990-1994 brought about the biggest questions over the French government’s knowledge of the genocide. Was it sheer incompetence on the ground that they couldn’t see the sinister signs? Was it simply that what the French saw as a ‘defensive’ operation were misread? Or did they simply not care about the consequences for the Tutsis in the context of geo-political chessboard, that no one would notice or care like the Zero Network?

The latter seems the most likely as the French in-particular showed considerable prejudice towards the RPF whom some in government branded the ‘Khmer Noir’ (Khmer Black), a distasteful comparison to the rebels conducting genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot. The French military in Operation Turquoise continued to believe that the RPF were the enemy, the men behind the killings, and that the men they were safeguarding into Zaire were victims of the civil war started by the Tutsi rebels.

Numerous authors have illustrated the French military investment and training that was put into the extremist Hutu organisations such as CDR, akazu and Hutu Power. According to Meredith the Rwandan Government Forces were increased to from 9,000 men in October 1990 to 28,000 men by 1991 whilst France provided both counter-insurgency strategies and training to the incoherent ramble of soldiers. Alex Wallis provides even more detail;

“In the 1990-1994 period the French equipped the Rwandan army with…the most modern weaponry available. The French….had to finance and ship the armaments….officially and unofficially…. to the RGF and train…an unskilled army to use the weaponry….ignoring a new 1992 EU directive aimed at ‘ethical’ deliveries of arms to regions in a state of war or internal unrest.”

According to Wallis, French weapon exports to Rwanda  totaled $24 million (this included unofficial/black-market/illegal sales) out of $100 million of the total weapon imports to Rwanda in this period. When a particular journalist during this period questioned Colonel Bernard Cussac on supplying a regime known for its human rights abuses he retorted ‘are you saying providing military assistance is a human rights violation?!’

Hardly a direct answer given the circumstances and proof of brutal violence in Rwanda. Whilst the military expenditure was in excess, Rwanda’s economy nosedived and the people suffered in poverty. From this extremism grew, encouraged by the Rwandan government who needed a scapegoat for their economic woes.

The French trainers lived within the camps and helped train both the RGF and militias who would conduct the genocide. It would not be surprising if the French military, like most soldiers, would ‘form a strong bond with the RGF soldiers’ the French joining them at local bars to mix with them where naturally political views on the Tutsis and RPF would be communicated to the French.

These small things do make a difference as trainers and soldiers in Rwanda would have gained, after several years or even months on the ground, an understanding of the poisonous atmosphere in the country, nor would they have not informed headquarters of the problems. It is highly unlikely that the French embassy and military did not pick up on the extremist propaganda in the Kangura (which included a picture of Habyarimana and Mitterrand stating the latter was ‘a true friend of Rwanda’) and Hutu Power Radio.

Once the genocide began the French evacuated key members of the network and northern Hutu clique responsible for planning the genocide including Agathe amongst their nationals. Whilst they saved the elite bloated on the excesses of corruption and aid meant for the Rwandan people, they left thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus to die at the hands of the Interahamwe.

France, holding a key position in the United Nations, did not want 800,000 corpses to appear on their doorstep so they placed faith in the fact that the RGF would win the war whom the French continued to support during the conflict. Similarly Colonel Bagasora who was imprisoned for war crimes and was a key planner of the genocide was allowed to pass through the French’s safety net during Operation Turquoise in June 1994. He was followed by thousands of Hutus who had taken part in the killings.

The French adamantly opposed a Belgian request at the United Nations to intervene militarily during the early stages of the genocide as they knew foreign intervention like Operation Noroit in 1990 would spell doom for the RGF as French intervention had done for the RPF’s original invasion. European troops combined with that of Romeo Dallaire’s 2500 men would have given the RPF overwhelming superiority strategically as they were placed at the epicentre of both the government stronghold, Kigali and that of the genocide.

French soldier protecting Hutu refugees, amongst them many killers and Hutu extremists complicit in mass-murder
French soldier protecting Hutu refugees, amongst them many killers and Hutu extremists complicit in mass-murder×682.jpg

This would seem strange given the supposed military superiority of the RGF, but the French did not predict that the regime would invest so much time in conducting their liquidation of the Tutsi. This tactic was played by the Nazi regime during World War II to wipe out the Jews and this in turn had a debilitating effect on their ability to wage war on the Soviet juggernaut. The French were stalling to allow either their allies to regain their composure. It was embarrassing on all accounts both because they had invested millions of francs in a military which was still tactically inferior to the RPF and Kagame and they hadn’t trained the RGF on a balanced basis. Dallaire noted this even before the onset of genocide.

“I visited the RGF side of the demilitarized zone…the front-line units of the army were composed of poorly trained recruits…using children…. who lacked weapons, food, medical supplies, and above all leadership and morale. There was a double standard in this army:  high for the elite units (including the Presidential Guard) and low for the rest of the army.” (Dallaire, SHWTD, p.68)

Operation Turquoise evidently was done to prop up the regime and the French military safeguarding the passage of millions of Hutu extremists and Hutu refugees. However it was clear that the reality of genocide brought those who saw the RPF as the prime enemy to their senses as well as the French media. Many became disgusted with their role in helping the Hutus escape and the conduct of the massacres.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise though as French soldiers had witnessed butchery in the early stages of genocide during the evacuation of refugees.The government meanwhile shifted uncomfortably in their seats as their hands were stained with the blood of thousands. If they had been so determined to halt the killings why hadn’t they provided information at the U.N Security Council?

The clothes of victims killed during the Rwandan genocide laid out in the Nyamata Church in Nyamata
The clothes of victims killed during the Rwandan genocide laid out in the Nyamata Church in Nyamata

Rwanda is France’s Machiavellian jungle. The lack of investigations into their role in not just funding the slaughter, but aiding the escape of thousands of war criminals is both shocking and perplexing. For sure Kagame’s accusations were harsh in light of his own flaws as a leader, but Kagame is a soldier at heart, not a democrat and he has witnessed many of his friends and soldiers die at the hands of French allies supplied with French weapons, can you blame him for pointing the finger? The French government held the RPF in contempt before, during, and after the genocide and as Nicolas Sarkozy recognized serious errors of judgment” and “a kind of blindness” by France over the issue when he visited.

Instead of helping them escape, why have they not essentially tracked down  the ‘Hitlers’ and ‘Himmlers’ of Rwanda, the planners of mass-atrocity? France, only less than a month ago, on 15th March 2014 made their first conviction against the former Rwandan government. After twenty years of failing to answer questions and problems that still reverberate to this very day, you must suspect that France are trying to bury something sinister.

Madame Agathe is still at large and in France. She is wanted for war crimes.
Madame Agathe is still at large and in France. She is wanted for war crimes.

These problems must be understood in the wider context not simply because it is a key historical debate but also in the understanding French motives for current operations in the Central African Republic. Is this an opportunity for them to banish the ghosts of Rwanda by saving Muslims being ethnically cleansed from the anti-balaka?

This is not a problem of the past. It is a contemporary problem and must be addressed. Even if they did gravely miscalculate and were mistaken to supply a murderous regime, they still have blood on their hands and as yet have not investigated or even attempted to wash their hands of the accusations that they directly aided a genocidal regime. As such can the French government complain that history judges them so harshly in the wake of some of darkest moments in world history? The French people, Rwanda and the world need answers from a government’s unanswered questions.

Matthew Williams

Zero Networks

“Although I had seen war before, had seen the face of cruelty, Rwanda belonged in the nightmare zone where my capacity to understand, much less rationalise, was overwhelmed. This was a country of corpses and orphans…this was where my spirit withered”

Fergal Keane (Season of Blood, p.4)

File photo of a Rwandan boy covering his face from the stench of dead bodies

This weekend will herald twenty years since the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana which signaled the beginning of one of the world’s most devastating genocides in world history and modern Africa, exceeding the mass slaughter perpetrated in Burundi and rivaling that of Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia and the Nazi Holocaust. The Rwandan genocide was ruthless and methodical, the most productive genocide in history and created by the Hutu extremists that dominated the heart of Habyarinama’s government also known as the akuzu or the ‘Zero Network’. The name paralleled  their objective; a Rwanda with zero Tutsis.

The genocide was as Romeo Dallaire suggests ‘the failure of humanity’ in every sense of the word. What separates Rwanda from the Third Reich and Cambodia is that it happened so quickly, the Nazi regime took years to implement its murderous policies. No one emerged with a sense of righteousness from the Rwandan Civil War. Mass-murder, devastation, and racism are the usual terms associated with genocide. With Rwanda however the terms injustice, cowardice and inaction, indifference and a marked culture of impunity also come into the equation on the part of the West’s response to genocide.

Let’s start with some facts courtesy of

  •  8,00,000-1,000,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus were murdered in total in 100 days (April 7 – July 15 1994)
  • This is 20% of the country’s total population and 70% of the Tutsi then living in Rwanda.
  • 8,000 people were murdered on average a day
  • Around 333 people were murdered an hour.
  • 6 men, women and children were murdered every minute.
  • Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped (67% of women who were raped during the genocide were infected with HIV and AIDS.)
  • Phillip Gourevitch: ‘In 100 days, 800,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus were exterminated by Hutu Power extremists, this equates to 8,000 people on average a day and 333 every hour. The Rwandan genocide (1994) was the most efficient mass killing since the use of the atomic bombs in 1945 and three times the rate of Jewish dead in the Holocaust.

It has become customary for those with less understanding of African history to think of the genocide in Rwanda as a sudden catastrophe, a simple product of ‘ancient tribal hatreds’, triggered by the plane-crash in which Rwanda’s president was killed. Far from that, the genocide was the climax of years of subjugation, isolation and violence towards the Tutsi minority decades before 6th April 1994. What I seek to explain predominantly is how the genocide occurred, how it was organised.

Rwanda formerly belonged to Belgium and operated as a colony in which the colonial masters exploited the local populace, carving society as they saw fit, re-moulding the delicate webs that was traditional African culture alongside the larger territory of Zaire (Now the Democratic Republic of Congo).

The terms ‘Hutu and Tutsi’ were manipulated by the Belgian colonists. Originally socio-economic titles; for example a person with a lot of cattle would be called ‘Tutsi’ and when he became poor, he was called ‘Hutu’ so a person could be both ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Hutu’ in one lifetime. The story is well-known; the Tutsi’s were seen by the Belgians as the superior governing elite. The Tutsi’s were classified as the superior ethnic group and as a result were the only ethnic group that could participate in the colonial government. Such discriminatory policies created resentment as the classification/ identity cards that specified which ethnicity you belonged to. This form of identification which could not be changed split Rwandan society between Tutsi’s and Hutu’s, the latter in particular developing a pathological hated for the Tutsis. A culture of rapacious, barbaric rule by a Belgian elite which had absolutely no interest in developing the country or population was created. The resultant product was an unstable mainframe for Rwandan politics.

The Rwandan ‘revolution’ (1959-1962) prompted the beginning of recurrent genocidal violence which reached its zenith in 1994 under the extremist Hutu regime, the MRND and volatile ‘Hutu Power’.. The revolution witnessed the overhauling of the two-tier educational system that favoured Tutsi hegemony by Hutu nationalists who in the years proceeding the revolution had published the Bahutu Manifesto which proclaimed the need for liberation from both white colonialism and the Tutsi minority. The Bahutu Manifesto established two enemies (the Belgians and Tutsis) and distinguished the Tutsi as a separate race who had, with the assistance of Belgian power, established a political, social and economic monopoly at the expense of the majority.


The revolution that struck the shackles from the Hutu population was near sacrosanct and the extent to which some Hutu politicians would try to gain, consolidate and maintain the power seized by the social revolution were shocking before the eventual genocide. The machete, clubs (often embedded with sharps nails) or blocks of wood were cheap and preferred alternatives to dispose of and maintain control of  the Tutsi minority by the newly installed government. Effectively one repressive regime replaced another and massacres occurred frequently. Between 1957 and Rwandan eventual independence in 1962, thousands of Tutsi’s were slaughtered and over 100,000 were forced to flee the country most of whom became refugees in southern Uganda and would remain so largely until 1994. The RPF was formed by the refugees who had fled to southern Uganda by Paul Kagame. They vowed to return to their homeland.


Terms of distinguishing ‘genocide’ or simply put for now ‘genocidal violence’ was complicated in the Western world. After all when the term genocide is contemplated the first thought is of concentration camps, gas,  an almost industrial style conduct in the extermination of an ethnic group. No one even decided to admit that walking across your neighbour’s lawn and bludgeoning them to death with a club or hacking at them with a machete could be determined as genocide.

Rwanda was seen as the atypical failed African state in the Western media, the reality however was that Rwanda was one of the most codified, authoritarian and methodically ruled police states on the planet in the early 1990s under an organized regime which was prepared to make the transition to a genocidal one to remain in power after the RPF (Tutsis refugees who had been in exile since the rise of the Hutus) invaded Rwanda in the early 1990s. All levels of Rwanda’s society, the political hierarchy and the tools it used (the army, church, police etc.) combined to provide Hutu Power the springboard under which it could attempt to wipe out the Tutsi minority. Their were even ‘practice’ runs of slaughter done in 1993, kidnappings, the reduction of Tutsis economic rights and access to government and more. These were all springboards to eventual genocide.

Gasoline was thrown on the fire by the persistent political instability in Rwanda’s southern neighbour Burundi, which, like its northern brothers has experienced persistent socio-economic problems and conflict between Tutsis and Hutus but in reverese with the Tutsi government keen to supress the Hutu majority. Over 100,000 were massacred in a ‘selective genocide’ by the Tutsi army in 1972 who liquidated all educated Hutus. Hutu Power, the CDR and the MRND were given further ‘evidence’ by the murder of the newly elected Burundian president (A Hutu), the death of some 150,000 and the creation of 300,000 Hutu refugees at the hands of Tutsi hardliners that the Tutsi inyenzi (cockroach) in Rwanda could not be trusted. ‘Know that the person whose throat you do not cut now will be the one that will cut yours.’ was a statement issued by Mugesera, a MRND militant in 1992. The outbreak of violence  again in Burundi (1993)  was a short-term external factor that contributed to genocide in 1994, whereby many conservative Hutu factions united behind Hutu Power and the akuzu.

The setting for mass-violence was long term and building to a climax, the economic and social instability in both the 1980s and early 1990s severe. The final catalyst needed to start the descent into bloody violence, as with any major genocide in the 20th century, was war. In 1993 Rwanda was effectively bankrupt, awash with refugees and dependent on emergency food supplies.

The economic and social issues originally a problem to the sagging government of Habyarimana, were eased by the government party’s construction of a radical ideology which distracted the Hutu population from the politicians with whom they had recently been disenchanted.  The creation of the unholy ‘Hutu Ten Commandments’ has been seen as the worst excesses of ‘Hutu Power’ ideology and ‘draw direct parallels to extremist ideologies in other genocidal and racist regimes such as the Nuremberg Laws and the Bosnian Serbs’ 1992 edicts, which hoped to impose specific rules on the minority.

The international commission and a UN rapporteur who soon followed warned explicitly of a possible genocide in 1993. Added to this ominous prediction was the fact that Rwanda, though supposedly wanting a ‘peaceful’, multi-party government was quite literally overflowing with weapon imports be it grenades and Kalashnikovs to machetes. The government’s military expenditure alone was hardly a sign that the  country was paving the way for a transition towards peace.

As early as 1993 lists were being drawn up, stockpiles of weaponry were overflowing with the influx of machetes, grenades and rifles from abroad, and RTLM (Rwanda’s national radio) and the Kangura paper was spouting out racist, anti-Tutsi propaganda encouraging the destruction of all ‘cockroaches’ and the need to maintain ‘Hutu Power’ by whatever means necessary.

The emergence of the Interhamwe and the Impuzamugambi militia/paramilitary  trained by the army and to be used in ‘emergency’ situations would prove to be a harrowing reminder of the genocide. Dallaire described them as ‘clowns’, a group of men who looked to be dressed for a carnival or celebration, the reality however was far different.
Hutu Power rally

Armed with axes, machetes, clubs and a crude array of weaponry with potent banana beer in hand or a hate radio encouraging violence and trained by the elite members of the RGF; these men were the main tools under which the regime would conduct the slaughter of the Tutsi’s. It was not hard to encourage many of the young men who composed the Interhamwe and Impuzamugambi to join; idleness, unemployment, lack of opportunities or education and the continuum of poverty ensured that many were willing to find a new purpose in life. This would constitute violence through which wealth and land was obtained by plunder, wrested from the corpses of Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus.

The Presidential Guard were armed and trained by the French military and the akazu or the ‘Zero Network’ the real power behind Habyarimana’s throne, composed of Madame Agathe and a tight circle of family members and the military command including Bagasora (pictured above) ensured that the Western powers and particularly the United Nations mission in Rwanda under Dallaire remained on the periphery. They were also the key perpetrators and force behind the genocide. Dallaire was undermanned, poorly equipped, possessing an archaic Cold War peacekeeping policy, and fighting with the UN bureaucracy. Dallaire spent a good seventy per cent of his time fighting the organization he represented which was reeling in the wake of the disastrous U.N mission in Somalia (October 1993).

The timing of ‘Black Hawk Down’ could not have been more poorly timed for Rwanda in terms of U.N and U.S conduct in humanitarian affairs. The deaths of eighteen U.S servicemen and more U.N peacekeepers in Somalia meant that commitment to humanitarian missions was received coldly by U.S foreign policy makers. Effectively the U.N were made scapegoats by U.S policy failures. The shadow of Somalia severely strained relations between the U.N and the U.S and the latter decided that through the newly introduced ‘PPD-5’ document that humanitarian missions should involve zero risk and should only be of interest if the particularly country in question concerned U.S interests.

Effectively Dallaire had his hands tied on the ground and the very extremists he was fighting knew this. They knew that the death of U.N peacekeepers would force a withdrawal and that the likelihood of intervention in a country on the periphery of U.S interests was unlikely. Their targets were the missions’ best soldiers, the Belgians.

The introduction of a multi-party system, the assimilation of the RPF on the borders of Uganda into the political scene meant that men who were currently in power faced punishment and questions for their past crimes in the regime including Habyarimana. The latter’s signing of the Arusha Peace Accords were to be his death warrant as the men who had grown rich were not about to let go of their privileges gained under an abusive system of patronage and clientism.

The scene was set, the regime was armed, the U.N was hamstrung, and the economic and social conditions primed for mass-violence. Rwanda and the surrounding region was locked and loaded for self-destruction, all was needed was an incident to trigger a chain reaction. The assassination of Habyarimana, his aircraft shot down out of the sky by a rocket killing all on board, proved to be the catalyst for bloodshed.

With astonishing speed,  Bagasora and the Presidential Guard seized control and roadblocks were set up by the militia. Tutsi politicians and Hutu moderates were executed by death squads in the early hours of the 7th April and the extremist government seized power.

In the chaos of night, the presidential guard captured fifteen Blue Helmet troops from UNAMIR, who had been protecting Hutu moderate and  Prime Minister, Madame Uwilingiyimana (later executed). The ten Belgians were held hostage before being tortured, mutilated and hacked to death with machetes (the Ghanaians were released). Their gruesome deaths were the designed to cripple Western will for intervention and precipitate a U.N withdrawal and fatally weaken UNAMIR (the Belgians being the backbone of the armed forces of UNAMIR). France and Belgium proceeded to evacuate their civilians and eventually the U.N forces were reduced to a poultry token force of two-hundred and fifty men under the indignant Dallaire.

These evacuations were the cause of two very large controversies. The first is over whether the genocide could have been stopped at the outset by nearby Western troops. They abandoned the Rwandans begging for help on the roadsides and drove through the checkpoints at which Tutsi’s were being slaughtered. A soldier follows orders but  common sense that dictates military thinking should have halted the atrocities. Belgium and France disregarded a inherent value in war; saving lives and protecting civilians.  It was unforgivable conduct, unprofessional, and something you can still fail to comprehend to this day.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front under the command of Kagame warned that if the killings did not stop that war would resume, and on 8th April civil war restarted.

With 20,000 Tutsis already dead the violence escalated and engulfed the rest of Rwanda  as the agricultural genocide began. Those who were shot were the lucky ones and few and far between. The majority or deaths were down to the use of rudimentary crude methods such as machetes, axes, clubs, strangling, being buried alive and drownings. Neighbour murdered neighbour, wife murdered husband, husband murdered wife, child murdered parent, friends murdered each other, doctors killed patients and teachers killed students as the Hutu’s went to ‘work’ (their description for killing Tutsi’s). Many moderate Hutus were murdered as well even though the identity cards specified between who was Tutsi and Hutu.  After years and years of intermarriage, differentiation was vague at best. A paradise, supposedly where God went to sleep at night, had become the scene for genocidal carnage.

Opportunism to seize loot, land and belongings played in big role in the massacres in many parts of Rwanda. Nowhere was safe; schools and churches, ( particularly the latter were the main places were massacres occurred and so often it was the priests, whom the victims had placed their trust, that helped the Interahamwe conduct their bloody work under the eyes of God, bludgeoning and hacking their victims to death over several hours. It was a sickening, unimaginable betrayal of trust for those desperate for help.

Hunts over several weeks were conducted in the hills and swamps to find Tutsi’s in hiding and Hutu Power made good their promise that they send the Tutsi’s back to Ethiopia (their apparent ‘homeland’ before they inhabited Rwanda) as countless bodies clogged the rivers, the stench of rotting flesh all-around as corpses, if not thrown into the mass-graves, baked in the tropical sunshine. Mass-rape and sexual violence occurred, victims either being murdered, gang-raped by Hutu militia, kept as ‘comfort’ women, left with horrific injuries, pregnant, with psychological trauma or HIV and STIs. STIs and rape were used as a weapon of war to create divisions within the Tutsi community. Hundreds of thousands of children were slaughtered or maimed. They were seen as a key target by the militia to wipe our the future generation of Tutsi and as such were not exempt from the violent butchery.

All this occurred as the RPF slowly forced its way towards Kigali, the RGF spending too much time implementing the extermination of the Tutsi’s and eventually the RPF seized Kigali declaring the civil war at an end with hundreds of thousands of Hutu civilians, government officials, militia and the army fleeing across the border to Zaire (The Democratic Republic of Congo) where they would continue their genocidal violence against Tutsi’s across the border.

By June, in just about one-hundred days 800,000 – 1,000,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus were dead, millions more were refugees scattered across central Africa, Rwanda was the poorest country in the world, all infrastructure had been stripped, destroyed or pillaged, and Kigali and surrounding towns and countryside reeked of death. The world was finally stunned by the sheer barbarity that had consumed Rwanda. The descriptions by witnesses on all sides, journalists, U.N officials, politicians, soldiers, civilians, and the silence of the victims and the killers portray violence and brutality of a stomach turning level. These are two of hundreds of examples.

“A group of soldiers and Interahamwe attacked the church. They made holes in the back walls and threw grenades through the holes…..the Interahamwe then came in with their machetes and began massacring. At least one uniformed soldier continued to shoot into the church to protect the Interahamwe until they were right inside the church and had begun their ‘work’. The Interahamwe included women and young boys, about eleven to fourteen, carrying spears and sharpened sticks. They used these to beat a lot of children to death. When researchers from African Rights arrived at Ntarama two months later, the church was still full of decomposing corpses…every inch of the inside of the church was taken up by corpses…it was impossible to enter the church.” (Martin Meredith, State of Africa, p.514)

“When we arrived, I looked at the school across the street, and there were children, I don’t know how many, forty, sixty, eighty children stacked up outside who had all been chopped up by machetes….their mothers had heard them screaming and had come running, and the militia had killed them, too.  We entered the church. There we found 150 people, dead mostly. The Polish priests told us they had been incredibly well-organized. The Rwandan Army had cleared out the area, the gendarmerie had rounded up all the Tutsi, and the militia had hacked them to death.” Beardsley

What of the international community? Why did the world become bystanders and watch millions of people die in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo? Why did they blunder so badly when they did act upon the regional crisis produced by the Rwandan genocide? Why was the U.N mission a disaster, to the point that it left the commander Dallaire and many others suicidal, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and unable to comprehend the shocking behaviour of the international community? It was a combination of a basic lack of understanding of Africa, the bureaucracy within the United Nations, media focus upon the civil war in Bosnia, racism, the sheer lack of will across the Western spectrum and the usual assumption that the horrors that were unfolding in Rwanda were another African ‘mess’.

Strategically Rwanda held no particular significance economically or politically for the Western powers.  France’s involvement with the genocidal regime was controversial as seen by their role in ‘Operation Turquoise’. They have been accused of directly standing-up the genocidal regime before and after the genocide. They trained the Rwandan forces under Bagasora, the Presidential Guard, and directly assisted them in their fight against the RPF between 1990-1993, whether it be supplying weapons, training or direct combat. In the early days of the genocide they also provided transport for certain perpetrators of genocide to escape, for example the malevolent Madame Agathe. Washington fared no better in the debacle, refusing to use the term genocide under any circumstances as to avoid the need, under the U.N protocol, to intervene to halt the massacre. Belgium’s indifference to and eventual withdrawal from the mess it had created, courtesy of its legacy as colonial masters, was equally controversial. The Western world has to come under severe scrutiny, their inaction enough to suggest that morally they are certainly culpable as they so frequently claim to champion the halting of genocide, humanitarianism and moral righteousness.

Rwanda must be remembered, a warning for the ages that despite the horrors of the Holocaust, Cambodia, and more that man is still capable, even in the 1990s and 21st century, of astonishing cruelty and violence. Nearly one million Rwandans are testimony to this reality. Rest in Peace.

Matthew Williams

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust


Ethnic Cleansing: “The mass expulsion or killing of members of one ethnic or religious group in an area by those of another.”

Violence is nothing new in the Central African Republic (CAR). It is a country that is inherently unstable and has been since its independence in 1960 from France. What concerns me however and should concern onlookers is the evolution of the violence, the nature and purpose of the violence and the imprint it will leave on the country for future generations.

As of yet it would be difficult to argue for the case that it is genocidal slaughter a clear distinction must be drawn between physical destruction and mere dissolution of a group. The expulsion of a group or part of a group does not in itself suffice for genocide. However do not let this dampen the fact that what is occurring in CAR remains harrowing.

It is a socio-economic conflict as well as a sectarian religious conflict. The Muslim territories are being sliced into pieces by the anti-balaka and redistributed amongst the Christian population the latter of which are exploiting the civil war and the veiled ‘non-state’. It is a deliberate policy of not only massacre, but also by destruction and degradation committed by the anti-balaka units. The intent of such a purpose is to sever the bond between citizens, land and destroying their cultural heritage.

It can no longer be seen as a by-product of war, that the land has been emptied of Muslims, entire villages have been slaughtered, and both women and children are being killed and raped in the violent vacuum. Community memories are scarred and entire regions are emptied of the target minority.

In CAR 15% of Muslims have been systematically displaced and killed through a vile combination of slaughter, pillage and sexual violence. One and a half million are displaced and face the threat of starvation and malnutrition. The Christians endured during a short-lived, but violent regime led by the rebel coalition Seleka.

The ethnic cleansing is under way and the anti-balaka are seizing an opportunity. It was not hard to encourage many of the young men who compose anti-balaka to join; idleness, unemployment, lack of opportunities or education and the continued poverty ensure that many were willing to find a new purpose in life. This is constituted by violence through which wealth and land is obtained by plunder, rape and murder, wrested from the corpses of dead Muslims and moderate Christians.

Boda and the capital Bangui are the Central African Republic’s parallel to Sarejevo, a once-wealthy town of diamond, gold and coffee traders, irrevocably marred by ethnic cleansing. The Muslims are surrounded, as they were nearly two decades ago in Sarajevo, by a no-man’s land of rubble buildings, beyond which the Christian militia wait sharpening and cleaning their weapons. Under the watchful eye of French peacekeepers, the Christians are trying to starve out the Muslims. A repeat of Srebrenica would be a humiliation for the peacekeeping forces.

One of two-thousand French soldiers in the region.
One of two-thousand French soldiers in the region.

What of the international community? The reality is that the Ukraine crisis will take centre stage in mainstream media as will the brutal conflict in Syria and Boko Haram’s bloody insurgency in Nigeria. The Central African Republic plead to a desensitized public. What the general public sees is a predictable pattern; an invariably large body count, refugee camps, an almost incomprehensible ‘alien’ world to some even. The causes, the political, social and psychological factors that play a part in creating the madness are not given enough analysis. I don’t doubt that I used to be one of those people.

As Fergal Keane rightly quotes ‘the powerful images leave us momentarily horrified but largely ignorant…compassion without understanding‘. This is not a straight-forward a-typical African ‘tribal war’, nor is a straight-forward conflict typical of CAR’s bloody history. It has evolved into something more sinister.

CAR-MISCA-troops peacekeepers
CAR-MISCA-troops peacekeepers

What is important is that there is action on the ground, a reaction to the slaughter within the country as it self-implodes. Many peace-keepers have already been killed by extremists. Unquestionably restoring order was underestimated by those involved as the EU is now expanding the forces to 9,000 men to assist the 6,000 AU soldiers and 2,000 French soldiers.

Similarly the peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic appear to have been ineffective thus far, critics pointing out maintaining control of the capital, Bangui, does not necessarily a guarantee for control of the country (Mogadishu in Somalia, a prime example in 1993).

Members of the Anti-Balaka militia

Nevertheless an important question is how many would be dead if the French forces had not been deployed? Many Muslims have said that if the French had not been there they would all be dead. The fact of the matter is that the militia, like the Interahamwe in Rwanda, are cowards in face of military strength. They only target the defenceless and flee when peacekeepers come to inspect the massacre or atrocity and mere presence of soldiers with the orders to suppress violent elements is enough in areas to cow the militia. The question is how long can the French soldiers and peacekeepers remain in CAR and can they establish long lasting rather than superficial stability?

There is some progress namely that the peacekeepers are becoming increasingly hard-line  towards the militia, the AU forces also known as MISCA now openly targeting militia units after the twenty-first death of one of their peacekeepers. “Henceforth, MISCA considers anti-balakas as terrorists and enemy combatants, and they shall be treated accordingly,” the statement said.

Already Seleka fighters who fled the capital Bangui have regrouped in the northeast and begun attacks on civilians, and in the current circumstances it is unlikely they will lay down their weapons with the FACA (Armed Forces of Central African Republic) lynching ‘rebels’ and hardly seem to be convincing the international community that they are controlling the anti-balaka mutilating and immolating Muslims on a weekly basis. (contains graphic content)

Inter-communal violence and ethnic cleansing can leave a harrowing legacy for a population and a difficult task for government to deal with in trying to repair the damage inflicted upon communities. Alongside this long-term development funding has been neglected in CAR contributing to the country’s inability to build resilience against recurrent crises and civil conflict.

This makes CAR a volatile tinderbox as ethnic/quasi-religious violence has merged with poverty and underdevelopment which has produced militias like the ‘anti-balaka’ and ‘Seleka’ who with their rapacious acts are furthering widening the chasm between communities. These sorts of divisions can be whipped up by politicians and leaders to gain political support, target scapegoats, and alleviate political pressure in future conflict.

Will order be restored? Perhaps the violence will cease in time, the damage however could be irreparable for the communities currently at each other throats. What’s left of the country will not bode well for the future, the likelihood of violence in countries split by civil war more likely to reemerge than allowing the ascendancy of peace and stability.

Matthew Williams

For more on the current civil war in the Central African Republic click on the links below. I particularly advise reading the reports of both Amnesty International and War Child on the current predicament of the country.


Ethnic Cleansing in the Central African Republic

Mission to the Central African Republic - Summer 2013
Jovachi Mongonou had both legs amputated after he was injured by a shell. One of many casualties in CAR’s civil war.
© Amnesty International/Godfrey Byaruhanga October 2013

A nation burns upon itself, belching forth fire and vengeance, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, are dead. You cannot be sure how many have died, how many homes have been destroyed, how many have fled in the wake of vengeance and inhumanity. 8th January 2014: Boyali, a small town about 130 km northwest of Bangui (the capital of the Central African Republic) is in the line of sight of the anti-balaka. Seleka forces have departed, the killing begins. Thirty civilians are massacred and Dairu Soba loses twelve members of his family. Here is the description, one of many acts of sheer revulsion in the Central African Republic as reported by Amnesty International’s must read report.

“My father, Soba Tibati, could hardly walk because of bad rheumatism and could not run away when the anti-balaka attacked. They decapitated him in front of my eyes…twelve members of my family were also massacred in the same attack; among them were three of my father’s brothers, four sons of one of my uncles, my aunt, and three of my little cousins. The youngest was a baby girl who was just six months old.”

Ten days later over 100 Muslims were slaughtered in Bossemptele in similar fashion as the violence escalates and blood stains the ravaged country. Mutilation, a mass-grave, corpses left in the open, incineration, the disfigurement of survivors, execution at close range with axe, handgun, rifle, or noose. Simply put the physicality of the violence is appalling and spreading, the macheteonce again the favored weapon with clubs and knives used in equal measure to hack down innocent men, women and children.

Amnesty International‘s report on the ethnic cleansing and sectarian killings in the Central African Republic reveals and hits home the extent to the horror and violence that has engulfed the country. The international community’s must at the very least be aware of the intensity and scale of the violence as the anti-balaka fill the power vacuum left by their equally grotesque predecessors.

In my previous article it was noted that control of the capital did not guarantee the peacekeeping forces of France and the African Union’s International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) authority over the militia. Picture just about 5,000 – 6,000 troops attempting to control a country  about the size of Germany or France in a complete state of collapse. It is an ominous if not impossible task. The humanitarian assistance in parts is failing to put down the militia, disarm them, and provide protection to both Muslims and Christians in the path of vengeful militia and civilians on both sides in the countryside as ethnic cleansing is perpetrated.

Definition: Ethnic Cleansing: “The mass expulsion or killing of members of one ethnic or religious group in an area by those of another.”×302/public/2013/12/07/central_african_republic_xjd103_39699485.jpg?itok=Hp6PvsdT

Entire Muslim communities have been forced to flee, and hundreds of Muslims who have not managed to escape have been butchered by the Christian anti-balaka with hundreds of thousands displaced.  The anti-Seleka bitterness and hatred has expanded to the wider Muslim community. Not to mention the non-community is similarly exposed to Seleka (the former government under Michel Djotodia abuses. A Christian community is massacred or burned to the ground, the Seleka retreat which is then followed by the anti-balaka launching a gruesome killing spree on the Muslim’s who have no time to flee or are halted at roadblocks unmanned or unprotected by peacekeeping troops. Ambushes on convoys are frequent and ruthless.

The anti-balaka!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_620/par7760906.jpg
The anti-balaka!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_620/par7760906.jpg

It is routine, everyday work for disenchanted, unemployed young men with no prospects of education or future, in a country staggering under the weight of absolute poverty and economic stagnation. The opportunity for loot and financial gain is obvious for many of the anti-balaka as thousands of Muslims leave behind their cultural heritage, their homes, their agricultural land behind to be exploited by the militia and civilians in the anarchy.

While politicians are currently engaged by the serious crisis in Syria and Iraq, the Ukrainian civil war, Nigeria and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria focus must remain on the problems in the Central African Republic to contain a national tragedy from becoming a regional catastrophe. Nonetheless change must be affected within the country’s government as they reconstitute the basic government structures and institutions. Only then can the FACA (Armed Forces of Central African Republic), French forces, and the overwhelmed and outnumbered MISCA restore order and supersede the existing power of the milita, de-mobilize them and restore order to the Central African Republic. The British government and European powers must to more to facilitate a peace transition of power, the return of refugees to their homes, and deescalating tensions between Muslim and Christian.

This is not the Rwandan genocide, nor are the events of CAR and Rwanda comparable, nevertheless on both sides of perspective of African and Western onlookers the lessons are, frustratingly, never being learned.

Will order be restored? Perhaps the violence will cease in time, the damage however could be irreparable for the communities currently at each other throats. What’s left of the country will not bode well for the future, the likelihood of violence in countries split by civil war more likely to reemerge.  Nor is it aided by, as Chatham House’s Ben Shepherd summarizes, ‘a desensitized Western public merely shrugging at what is presented to them as yet another display of atavistic ‘African’ violence.’ 

Matthew Williams

Central African Republic Conflict: Short-Term and Long-Term Solutions Required

The title may suggest a fairytale, however the stories emerging from the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui (and the rest of the country) suggest that an inferno, long ignited, is consuming the country in a whirlwind of blood, despair, and appalling violence.

The mass-violence is well-known, the question is where next for a country being torn apart? The history of the Central African Republic is riddled with coups, dictators, and civil war. However what must be considered is even if the violence is halted for now, is that in the long-term divisions between the religious communities will remain, not to be forgotten nor forgiven by the hard-liners in the near future. The difference between this war and the previous one is the sectarian violence, and religious violent is often the most potent in conflict, the horrifying nature of individual deaths and injuries have stirred the passion of not only militia, but the civilians turning them against one another.

As seen in South Sudan (though ultimately an entirely different scenario) and on a more horrific scale, the masses can be plunged into religious, political, and ethnic violence all too easily and with alarming speed in the Third World. The scars often deep-seated can irrevocably changing the fabric of a society.  In November 2013, the UN warned the country was at risk of spiralling into genocide and said it was “descending into complete chaos”, while France described the country as “…on the verge of genocide.” The increasing violence was largely from reprisal attacks on civilians from Séléka’s mainly Muslim fighters and Christian militias called “anti-balaka”.

How do the African peacekeepers, French forces, and U.N peacekeepers approach this? France deployed 1,600 troops there in December to try to stem violence between Christian militias and largely Muslim Seleka rebels who ousted President Francois Bozize last March. French troops intervened alone for the second time last year after ousting Islamist rebels in Mali, another former African colony. Certainly they are overstretched, with ‘French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian suggesting on Thursday the United Nations would probably have to renew a French mandate for their troops to restore order in Central African Republic when it expires in May.’ 

This suggests the challenge of restoring order was underestimated by those involved. Similarly the peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic appear to have been ineffective thus far, critics pointing out maintaining control of the capital, Bangui, does not necessarily a guarantee for control of the country (Mogadishu in Somalia, a prime example).

Already Seleka fighters who fled the capital Bangui have regrouped in the northeast and begun attacks on civilians, and in the current circumstances it is unlikely they will lay down their machetes with the FACA (Armed Forces of Central African Republic) lynching ‘rebels’ and hardly seem to be convincing the international community that they are controlling the anti-balaka mutilating and immolating Muslims on a weekly basis. (contains graphic content)

It is a very precarious situation, how do the peace-keepers approach the deteriorating situation? Ultimately they have the ability (particularly the French) to put down the radical segments including the militia, and in some circumstances have done so at the cost of casualties to the peacekeepers (including two French soldiers) in December 2013. The extension of France’s mandate is welcome, however the extension suggests they haven’t dealt with the violence, particularly in countryside, effectively.

For example, the very public lynching and mutilation of a young man accused of being a rebel by FACA soldiers was not halted by present peacekeepers from the tiny African nation of Burundi who surrounded the wounded man to protect him from the growing crowd. He lay wounded on his back and still alive for about five minutes. But as the crowd moved closer, the peacekeepers withdrew, not even firing warning shots.

Such a lack of backbone illustrates the lack of resolution to act in the face of extreme violence by peacekeepers and harks back to a day when violence was merely watched by U.N forces from a distance (the best example in Rwanda in 1994). This exemplifies how important France is to enforcing order and that they remain even if it costs them more men and ensure that the U.N has effective punch on a military level until the peacekeeping forces are increased to a higher number.

However if they were to withdraw the ability of the remaining peacekeepers to control the violence would come under scrutiny, the African peacekeepers, in comparison to Somalia’s peacekeepers, have appeared thus far ineffective. The priority is to protect the Muslim communities (the minority religious community) from the wrath of the Christian militia and civilians thirst for vengeance after the ruthless, but so far short-lived, rule of the Seleka’s  Michel Djotodia.

The 2013 coup ushered in months of turmoil and bitter hatred toward the mostly Muslim rebels and has left anyone accused of collaboration vulnerable to reprisals. The rebels’ 10-month rule was marked by human rights abuses and from this the the anti-Balaka was spawned, which also has been accused of atrocities, most recently witnessed in the early months of 2014.

Should the situation escalate, the best solution would be the deployment of troops against rebel units, and militia refusing ceasefire and damaging the civilian population. It has proved effective thus far in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the U.N intervention force freedom to go on the offensive against clear threats to the peace. This initiative has paved open a unique window of opportunity to salvage peace in the war-torn land. The problems remain deeply complex, but a similar approach in the Central African Republic could prove decisive to preventing the country collapsing as the Democratic Republic of Congo has done.

Direct engagement will be difficult though and must be done very tactfully, as seen by the disaster of Somalia in 1993, working with the regional leaders and understanding the issues and functions of the communities of the country are more crucial than ever.

The last thing the French and U.N would need is a dent to its prestige if the rebels or militia slaughter many of their troops and force a withdrawal if they fight with disregard and naivety to the needs of the country. Unilateral action by France could undermine the U.N mission.

More importantly the civil war in CAR must as an important security threat with the existence of cross-border refugee camps, a spill-over of violence into inherently unstable countries (such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, war-torn South Sudan, Chad which is plagued by political violence) and the pressure refugees will inevitably place on fragile socio-economic structures on such countries could potential ignite regional instability. Refugee camps are sources of potential chaos and if mishandled can remain for an extended period of time. This can lead to tensions between locals and refugees, who are often desperate for both revenge and right of return.

With the rise of Islamic extremism across parts of Africa, a displaced and ethnically cleansed Muslim population can be exploited by extremists and militias such as Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and others who might want to exploit the short-term and long-term discontent to recruit followers. A failed state can also be a potential haven for terrorists and militia groups to wreak havoc, seize power and harness resources (of which the Central African Republic has plenty in the form of mineral wealth).

Even when peace is restored the problems of re-housing hundreds of thousands of refugees, re-establishing order, healing the wounds inflicted on both communities, not to mention the destitute poverty and development problems that have gripped the Central African Republic before and most certainly more severely after the conflict will be the bigger challenge for the new government. Economic collapse, a mass exodus of the foreigners, and the inability of the any government to control their militia are particularly ominous short-term challenges for the politicians should peace descend. This will not be helped if the newly elected government proves to be as corrupt or as violent as the previous governments.

This is Africa though so necessarily victory for any side promising change has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The Central African Republic is already a mess, should it go wrong, should the international community not continue to commit attention to its short-term and long-term problems, it is likely a religious community could face displacement and annihilation. The ingredients are there for a failed state, and in the unimaginable extremes, the mass-slaughter of the Muslim or Christian population. Deep-seated wounds are not forgotten easily. 

Matthew Williams