Africa
3:33 am
Fri December 20, 2013

U.N. Ambassador Laments Misery In Central African Republic

Originally published on Fri December 20, 2013 11:13 am

You don't have to venture far to see the misery caused by the latest crisis in the Central African Republic.

On the edge of the airport in the capital Bangui, tens of thousands of people are sleeping out in the open with no basic services. It's here that Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, meets Martine Kutungai with her husband, a pastor, and their eight children.

Kutungai says she's terrified to go home because of the Seleka — Muslim rebels who toppled the government in March.

"We saw them moving door after door, killing people with knives and shooting at some of them," says Kutungai.

She tells Power that the only way she'll feel safe to return home is if the militias are disarmed.

While Power and the U.S. delegation leave to meet the country's leaders, journalists speak with Lindis Hurum, who runs a Doctors Without Borders clinic.

"It's been a long time since I've seen a camp like this," says Hurum. "They have nothing; they are sleeping on the ground; they don't have blankets, and it's quite cold at night. They don't have mosquito nets. They don't have toilets. They don't have enough water. They don't have food."

Dozens of people are lining up to have their machete and gunshot wounds dressed, or to get basic health care.

"We see a lot of malaria, skin diseases, infections linked to the bad hygiene in the camp," says Hurum. "We see an increase in malnutrition. And we have a lot of pregnant women — we have on average eight births every day."

Power, the highest-ranking U.S. official ever to visit the country, announced another $15 million in humanitarian aid. But her main focus on Thursday's trip was to try to tamp down the violence in a country where Muslims and Christians once co-existed, but which has been in chaos since a coup in March.

Now, Muslim fighters and Christian militias both are carrying out atrocities.

"We met with one woman whose husband had been stabbed to death in front of her, his body doused in gasoline and then set fire in front of her very eyes," Power says.

She is urging religious leaders to help promote reconciliation, and says the government must hold all militias to account.

"There is a tyranny of the mob that has taken hold here, and that is both horrific in its own right but also something that can be hard to stop once it's unleashed," Power says.

A former journalist and activist, Power wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about genocide prevention, and she has clearly played a lead role in getting the Obama administration to focus on this remote country in Africa, where the U.S. is offering $100 million to support French-led African Union peacekeepers.

"Lots of people in our own government lived through Rwanda, lived through the crimes in the Balkans, are living now through the crimes in Syria," Power says. "Every day we are thinking about which tools can we employ in order to prevent atrocities in the first instance."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, is wrapping up her swing through Africa today. Her trip has focused on Central African Republic - a country that has descended into sectarian violence since a coup in March. On a one-day stop in the troubled nation yesterday, Power urged Muslims and Christians to end the violence that has forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the ambassador and she sent this report.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: You don't have to venture very far to see the misery caused by the latest crisis in Central African Republic. On the edge of the airport, tens of thousands of people are sleeping out in the open with no basic services. It was there Samantha Power met Martine Kutungai with her husband, a pastor, and their eight children.

AMBASSADOR SUSAN POWER: So when did she come here?

MARTINE KUTUNGAI: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She has spent ten days here.

POWER: And why did she come here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KUTUNGAI: (Speaking foreign language)

KELEMEN: Kutungai says she's terrified to go home because of the Seleka, the Muslim rebels who toppled the government in March.

KUTUNGAI: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We saw them moving door after door, killing people with knives and shooting at some of them.

KELEMEN: She told Ambassador Power that the only way she'll feel safe to return home is if the militias are disarmed. While the U.S. delegation went off to meet the country's current leaders, journalists spoke with Lindis Hurum, who runs a Doctors Without Borders clinic. She's frustrated that there's been such little aid here.

LINDIS HURUM: It's been a long time since I've seen a camp like this. They have nothing. They are sleeping on the ground and they don't have blankets and it's quite cold at night. They don't have mosquito nets and they don't have toilets and they don't have enough water and they don't have food.

KELEMEN: Dozens of people are lining up to have their machete and gunshot wounds dressed or get basic healthcare.

HURUM: We see a lot of malaria, skin diseases, infections linked to the bad hygiene in the camp. We see an increase in malnutrition, and we have a lot of pregnant women, we have on average eight births every day.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Power announced another $15 million dollars in humanitarian aid, but her main focus was to try to tamp down the violence in a country where Muslims and Christians once coexisted. Now Muslim fighters, including mercenaries from abroad, are carrying out atrocities, and so too are Christian militias, as the ambassador heard from Adjasila Aissatou of the Central African Muslim Women's Association.

ADJASILA AISSATOU: (Speaking foreign language)

KELEMEN: I don't know how we are going to through this. On top of this we have such poverty, she said, breaking down in tears. Ambassador Power came away with plenty of such stories.

POWER: We met with one woman whose husband had been stabbed to death in front of her, his body doused in gasoline, and then set fire in front of her very eyes.

KELEMEN: She's urging religious leaders to help promote reconciliation and says the government must hold all militias to account.

POWER: There is a tyranny of the mob that has taken hold here and that is both horrific in its own right but also something that can be hard to stop once it's unleashed.

KELEMEN: Samantha Power, a former journalist and activist, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about genocide prevention, and she's clearly played a leading role in getting the Obama administration to focus on this remote country in Africa.

POWER: But lots of people in our own government lived through Rwanda, lived through the crimes in the Balkans, are living now through the crimes in Syria. Every day we are thinking about which tools can we employ in order to try to prevent atrocities in the first instance and then again these cycles of violence that very quickly can take hold.

KELEMEN: That's why, she says, the U.S. is offering $100 million dollars to support the French-led African Union peacekeepers. She was there on the tarmac in Bangui when an American C17 arrived, carrying troops from Burundi. Michele Kelemen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.