JUBA, South Sudan -- The day was supposed to be a rousing moment of hope in a country convulsed by horrific sectarian violence: the Central African Republic, where children have been beheaded, mothers carrying babies on their backs have been gunned down and rampaging mobs have descended on their targets in a storm of machetes and knives.
The Central African Republic’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, addressed 4,000 soldiers at a ceremony to launch a renewed national army Wednesday, an event meant to symbolize the military’s role as a professional force that protects all civilians. She told the soldiers gathered in Bangui, the capital, that she was proud of the armed forces, calling on them to report for duty and to support her actions.
But moments after the president and dignitaries left, violence exploded. Witnesses said a group of soldiers accused a man of belonging to a mainly Muslim group, the former Seleka rebels, who took over the country last year.
What happened next was swift and brutal. The soldiers seized the man and repeatedly stabbed him.
“He was dead within two minutes,” said Peter Bouckaert of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who observed the killing.
A policeman who tried to stop the soldiers narrowly escaped being killed himself as they screamed that he was a traitor, the Associated Press reported.
Bouckaert documented the violence in a shocking series of tweeted photographs. The victim’s leg was severed.
“A man just walked up with the severed leg of the lynching victim, just walking around,” tweeted a shocked Bouckaert.
The soldiers piled tires on the body and set it alight. One leg protruded awkwardly from the ashes. Soldiers celebrated as the flames rose.
A crowd stood in a circle photographing the incident. A soldier threw a grenade at a truck that he thought might have been a Seleka rebel vehicle.
Bouckaert said in a telephone interview that he and his team had witnessed two lynchings and three attempted ones in the last five days.
“We’ve had to personally intervene to stop people being killed,” he said. “In one case, as we drove past a mob trying to kill someone, we used our car to shield him from the mob and bring him to safety.”
Bouckaert said the killings were evidence that the crisis had not been stabilized by the arrival of 6,600 African and French troops, stretched thin in a country nearly the size of Texas, about half of which is affected by violence. Looting continues in many neighborhoods of the capital, where terrified Muslims are packing up and leaving to escape Christian mobs. In other parts of the country, Christian civilians are fleeing Muslim militia attacks.
Bouckaert said the government, United Nations and other international organizations were not doing enough to halt the bloodshed and reassure communities that have endured horrendous suffering for months that those responsible would be arrested and punished.
Samba-Panza did warn in her speech Wednesday that perpetrators would be held accountable. “At a certain point, everyone will be held responsible for their acts, I am warning troublemakers who continue to sow disorder in the country,” she said in her address.
But Bouckaert said her message was not delivered firmly or often enough.
“This is where I think international parties are falling short. It’s really important that people who have suffered atrocities hear on the radio that those responsible will be brought to account. That can help calm down the situation. That’s what people want to hear. But those messages are not being heard,” he said.
“The government is not really being heard. The French keep saying the situation in calming down, when it’s not.”
The boiling undercurrent of sectarian hatred – a recent phenomenon in a country where until last year Christians and Muslims mostly lived peacefully – has seen savage attacks in the capital and in remote areas.
The crisis blew up after a loose alliance of mainly Muslim rebels, the Seleka, boosted by fighters from Chad and Sudan, swept across the country last year, burning villages, unleashing atrocities and installing their leader, Michel Djotodia, as president.
Djotodia disbanded the rebels and folded many into the army, but couldn’t control the former Seleka who continued to rampage. Local Christian vigilante groups sprang up to hunt down Muslims, and a dangerous cycle of tit-for-tat attacks began.
Djodotia stepped down last month after intense pressure from African leaders, and many former Seleka left the army.
Further complicating the situation, Bouckaert said, international peacekeepers have allowed former Seleka fighters to flee in recent days to the northeast of the country, where they have unleashed more killings and other atrocities.
He noted that the African peacekeeping force known as MISCA includes Chadian soldiers, which he said compromises the force’s neutrality, given the prominent role of Chadian fighters in Seleka.
“If you allow Seleka to escape, as MISCA and the [French] Sangaris did a few days ago, they continue to kill,” he said.
At the same time, the national army includes many former members of the largely Christian vigilante groups known as the anti-balaka, whose driving motivation is hunting down and killing Muslims, making it difficult for communities to trust that the military is willing to protect everyone.
“In the areas [outside Bangui] where Seleka have left, the anti-balaka are attacking Muslim communities and either massacring them or forcing them to leave,” Bouckaert said. “Their message is clear: ‘We don’t want Muslims in our community. This country is for Central Africans.’ They don’t see Muslims as Central Africans, even though they’ve lived there for generations.”
The brief moment of hope flickered swiftly Wednesday and died.
“It was a beautiful moment of hope,” said Bouckaert. “Catherine Samba-Panza gave a beautiful speech. Then it just switched into a scene of horror once more in Bangui."