As South Africans cheered President Barack Obama’s speech at the funeral of Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, a nation of 4.6 million people 2,500 miles north was being torn apart by religious hatred.
Muslim civilians in the Central African Republic, clutching machetes and crude, homemade weapons, prepared to fight off marauding Christians. Christians were forming self-defense militias in other parts of a country the size of Texas, to prevent Muslims from slitting their throats.
“We drove through some villages where every single person has picked up arms,” Peter Bouckaert, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told me in a telephone interview from the republic on Tuesday. “Children as young as 11 have picked up daggers or have knives or even hunting rifles.”
As world leaders praised Mandela’s legacy of tolerance and reconciliation, the international community was still struggling with how to respond to one of humanity’s most depraved acts — mass killings. Chaos and sectarian killings have steadily spread throughout the Central African Republic since predominantly Muslim Seleka — “Alliance” — rebels ousted the Christian president, Francois Bozize, in March.
Rebel leader Michel Djotodia lost control of his forces, which have carried out atrocities against Christians across the resource-rich, but unstable former French colony. Over time, Christian militias retaliated. Last week shootings, stabbings and lynchings spiraled across the country.