The crisis in CAR deserves our attention [Commentary]

Chances are, unless you have a particular interest in the continent of Africa, you may have never heard of the Central African Republic. Even now you would have to be paying attention to international news for this landlocked country of 4.5 million to make a blip on your personal radar screen.

But you should be paying attention because there is a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions occurring in the Central African Republic. Like too many countries on its continent, CAR — most refer to it by its initials — has been plagued by bad governance since gaining independence from France in 1958. It has often suffered from the spillover of the instability of its neighbors: Congo and Sudan. But it has never seen anything like what has occurred since a coup in March.

Since then, CAR has descended into near anarchy. A terrible situation has been made worse by the introduction of religious tensions that had not been present in the country before. About half the population of CAR is Christian — divided equally between Catholic and Protestant — and about 20 percent is Muslim. The emergence of this fault line has attracted radical Islamist fighters to the country, adding a volatile element that is the last thing the people of CAR need.

There has been a response. The French, CAR's former colonial rulers, have sent troops. African peacekeeping forces, some ferried by the United States military, have also arrived. The Senate Foreign Relation Committee's Subcommittee on African Affairs held a hearing on the situation last week. Many humanitarian groups, including the one I work for — Catholic Relief Services — are active on the ground.

Too many in America have a tendency to write off a country like CAR, thinking it's just another place of hopeless despair and violence. But that is not the case. The CRS staff who work there love the place and its people. We love their resilience, their hope for the future, their tenacity and their endurance in the face of obstacles that would defeat most of us.

Understand that it does not take a large percentage of the population to wreak havoc on a country. When the rule of law disintegrates — as it did following the March coup — a handful of well-armed thugs can become de facto dictators — an AK-47 is all that's needed to become the local power. That's what has happened in CAR; a relatively small group of bad actors, many of them coming from outside the country, has made the place look chaotic.

The result is hundreds of thousands of people, Christians and Muslims, fleeing their homes seeking safety. They have left their villages, which have often been burned to the ground. They have left their fields where they grew the crops that would feed their families.

These are innocent victims of a horrible catastrophe as surely as if their village had been struck by a typhoon or their homes leveled by an earthquake. They need our help now and will in the future as they seek to rebuild their homes and their lives, to replant their crops.

As important, they will need help in reknitting the fabric of their society. There are many responsible Christian pastors and Muslim Imams who are calling for peace and reconciliation, who are working together to remind their followers that this division need not be permanent, that it can be bridged, the tear repaired. Those voices need our support.

Even if order is restored in CAR, that will only be the first step in a long journey to making this country whole again. Let us pledge to stay with the citizens of the Central African Republic every step of the way.

Scott Campbell is based in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the regional director for Central Africa for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian organization of the Catholic community in the United States. His email is

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