BANGUI, Central African Republic – The American ambassador to the United Nations delivered a stern message on Thursday to the leaders of the strife-torn Central African Republic to stop the cycle of violence.
On her first official overseas trip, Samantha Power finds herself in an uncomfortable position: Before becoming a diplomat, she made her name as a vocal critic of Washington’s response to past atrocities. Now, she is trying to spotlight the horror here, at the same time that she represents a government which has declined to join France in sending troops to quell the conflict.
Instead, the U.S. will spend $100 million to equip and train the African troops sent in to stabilize the country, including providing trucks to get them into villages in the countryside where rival Christian and Muslim militias have been attacking civilians and each other.
“The choice of the U.S. is never between doing nothing and sending in the Marines. How do we use a host of tools at our disposable?” she said, commending the French and African troops for stepping in to stop the cycle of violence so that the difficult process of reconciliation could begin. “They are putting their troops on the line here on the ground and it is very much in our interest to support them as they try to bring about stabilization and democracy.”
The ambassador met with President Michel Djotodia, who swept to power with his mainly Muslim Seleka rebels in March and is now battling Christian militias around the country, some made up of soldiers from the former regime. All sides are accused of attacking civilians, at least 500 of which died in violence in Bangui itself over the past week.
“Every day we are thinking about which tools to employ in order to try to prevent atrocities in the first instance and these cycles of violence that can very quickly take hold –very quickly kerosene can be poured on a situation and a match can be lit,” she said at Bangui’s airport with the air thick from the smoke of the cooking fires from the tens of thousands of people seeking refuge from the violence in camps next to the runway.
The president, who arrived for and left the meeting in an armored personnel carrier belonging to the Chadian peacekeeping contingent, has agreed to organize new elections, as early as the end of next year according to Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangay, and then he is expected to step down – a promise Power said the U.S. would hold him to.
“Powerful people sometimes don’t like to give up power,” she said after her meeting with him. “It is extremely important that the president, the prime minister and the head of the council have all agreed to relinquish power as soon as elections occur.”
As Power’s delegation go ready to leave, a pair of SUVs roared up to the airport surrounded by armed guards and disgorged the Central African first lady and her family as they prepared to leave the country — a possible sign of uneasiness at the highest levels of power.
That night, the air around Bangui rang with small arms fire and heavy machine guns, reportedly between Chadian soldiers of the African Union peacekeeping forces and Christian militias that have been attacking Muslims and even other Christians.
French soldiers at the airport said that five soldiers from the African Union mission were injured in clashes.
The visit is particularly resonant for Power, who began her career as a journalist and activist, and became one of the most vocal critics of Washington’s response to past atrocities. In her acclaimed book on the subject, Power asked the question: Why do American leaders who vow “never again” repeatedly fail to stop genocide?
As she arrived in the violence-wracked capital, Bangui, Power finds herself on the other end of that question.
Power went to a local hospital where about 400 victims of gunshots and machete attacks languished in makeshift tents put up by Doctors’ Without Borders after the regular beds were quickly filled by the violence. Cradling an injured leg, Lucy Mandazu told the ambassador she was still too afraid to return home — a message echoed by some of the 40,000 refugees Power talked to at the airport.
On Dec. 5, civilians banded together with former regime soldiers to attack the president’s troops and Muslim civilians that convulsed the capital in a cycle of revenge killings.
With the arrival of French troops and now 3,500 African troops, the violence has subsided and life has returned to the city’s bustling marketplaces, though a dawn to dusk curfew is still in place.
At the United Nations, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters “It’s a very fluid, very fragile situation,” adding that “we hope very much that everybody will do what they can to prevent the atrocities that already are occurring from becoming mass atrocities.”
While the U.S. will not be adding to the foreign troops desperately needed to restore stability in a country without central authority, Power said American money would go to transporting and equipping these soldiers, as well as aid for the displaced.
Before joining government service, Power was a professor at Harvard and a journalist, covering the Balkan war. Her Pulitzer-prize winning book, “A Problem from Hell,” is a tour through the atrocities of the past half-century, including Cambodia, Rwanda and Kosovo. Drawing on her own interviews and declassified documents, she tells the stories of Americans who risked their careers to get the U.S. to act.
Speaking to journalists before her visit, Power initially cautioned against comparing Central African Republic to other African tragedies, but she also didn’t hesitate to draw parallels.
“Somalia showed us what can happen in a failed state and Rwanda showed us what can occur in a deeply divided nation,” she said. “The population of the Central Africa Republic is in danger.”
Human Rights Watch’s U.N. director, Phillipe Bolopion, said Power’s early work on genocide makes her a significant choice for the first high-level U.S. mission.
“She used to be an observer on the sidelines and now she is at the very center of it, so she’s fully aware of what is at stake there and with her background I think she is doing everything in her power to push the U.S. government to react the way it should,” he said.