BANGUI, Central African Republic -- The American ambassador to the United Nations arrived Thursday in Central African Republic in the highest profile American effort to date to spotlight the violence in this impoverished nation, which has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced at least 10 percent of the population.
Samantha Power said on the eve of her visit that she was "deeply disturbed" by the killings which have wracked the country since the government was overthrown in March.
The visit, her first overseas trip since being named ambassador to the world body, is particularly resonant for Power, who began her career as a journalist and activist, and became one of the most vocal critics of America'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?
On Thursday, as she arrived in the violence-wracked capital, Bangui, Power finds herself on the other end of that question. As the top U.S. diplomat to the U.N. she is here to raise awareness about the unfolding tragedy. At the same time, she represents a government that has so far sent only C-17 transport planes. Unlike France which deployed hundreds of soldiers to stem the bloodshed, America has remained detached, helping at arms' length.
"Obviously urgent action is required to save lives," she told reporters in a conference call on the eve of her arrival. "The violence has been vicious and primarily directed toward civilians and is increasingly sectarian."
Power landed at the country's international airport, which has been turned into a refugee camp housing 40,000 people. In recent days, international flights have been delayed, as airport employees struggled to keep people off the runway, and ahead of Power's visit, rolls of barbed wire were laid out alongside the tarmac, to keep the population at bay. The bloody clothes of people killed in the latest spasm of violence can still be seen lying on the ground, including in front of the nation's parliament, where bodies were piled up. Videos of mob lynchings are being passed from cellphone to cellphone.
Soon after she landed, Power sped away in a convoy of armored SUVs guarded by U.S. contractors in trucks. She visited a hospital where 400 people are being treated for both bullet wounds and injuries sustained from machete blows, a doctor said. She then headed to the capital's cathedral, where she met the archbishop as well as an imam. Later, she visited a mosque, this time accompanied by a priest, in an effort to address the Muslim-Christian violence that has plagued the country.
By midafternoon she had returned to the airport, where she was meeting privately with President Michel Djotodia, whose forces are accused of taking part in the atrocities.
While Power initially cautioned against comparing Central African Republic to other African tragedies, 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."
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," opens with a 9-year-old girl in Sarajevo who went outside over her mother's objections to skip rope. Power shows up soon after a shell crashes into the playground. She describes the shallow pool of blood, and lying next to it, a jump rope with handles made to look like ice cream-cones. The book published in 1992 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 United States to act.
In the Central African Republic, it's France, not the United States, that has taken bold action to try to thwart what French officials have said is a potential genocide. Earlier this month, France sent in 1,600 troops, who join 3,500 African Union soldiers. The U.S. has limited its involvement to providing C-17 transport planes to carry the troops into Bangui. Analysts say that France has been abandoned by its normal allies, left to act alone in its former colony.
"We seem to be entering a new geostrategic era here where it's people like French who are standing up and taking the hits. And the U.S. is very much in a support capacity, support mode," said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This must inevitably cause tensions in the U.S.-French relationship because this is the key external security partnership in Africa and yet, you know the events of the last couple of years, it seems to suggest France is expected to take the lead in all of these operations."
Muslim rebels overthrew the Christian president of the Central African Republic in March, and a cycle of sectarian violence followed, pitting Muslims against Christians. Earlier this month, Christian militias attacked the capital at dawn, setting off the worst killings to date, with at least 500 killed in less than a week in Bangui alone.
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.