BANGUI, Central African Republic -- The tents of displaced people reach nearly up to the runway at the airport -- the first impression of a nation in flight and in fear. Befitting the sectarian cast of the violence in this country, there are two camps, one Christian and one Muslim. The Muslim camp has shrunken in size, as Chadian planes and truck convoys have taken some people out of danger. It is both a move to safety and the victory of religious cleansing.
The Central African Republic (CAR) has never been a model of good government, but now it effectively lacks one. A little more than a year ago, Muslim Seleka rebels (including some Chadian rebels and mercenaries) seized power. They constituted a state that purposely demolished the structures of the state -- looting, destroying public records and attacking Christians. Christian militias called anti-balaka organized and armed, at first in self-defense. Soon they were attacking Chadians, then all Muslims as supposed accomplices of the Seleka.
It is a sad commentary on CAR's state of security that its eastern provinces, where the brutal Lord's Resistance Army operates, are currently the most peaceful parts of the country. Other places are a chaos of militias, roadblocks and violence, in which Muslims are targeted for murder. The leader of a local organization that tries to demobilize militias showed me pictures he had recently taken of the anti-balaka. Teenage boys pose with machetes they have decorated as other teens might decorate their skateboards. Some wear fetishes around their necks for protection in battle. Then he pulled up the photo of an older anti-balaka commander dressed in fatigues. "This one could not be killed with a thousand bullets," he explained, clearly believing that mystical forces are involved.
Whatever its spiritual causes, the terror is very real. There have been thousands of murders (all numbers in CAR are sketchy), often involving torture and mutilation. About 150,000 Muslims (out of a population of about half a million) have fled to Chad, Cameroon or the northern regions of CAR. Muslim communities in places such as Boda are besieged.
And all this in a country with little history of religious conflict. It seems to be another case (as in Syria) in which political leaders fed religious divisions, which then took on a monstrous life of their own. CAR is a nation in which marriages between Muslims and Christians are not unknown. Now, one aid official told me, some the children of those mixed marriages are being evacuated so they aren't killed.
From one perspective, it is encouraging that the suffering in CAR has not been as invisible as, say, the lead-up to Rwanda's genocide in 1994. The post-Rwanda world is not as blind or as silent as it once was. In fairly short order, the United Nations Security Council authorized African Union peacekeepers. The United States spent $100 million airlifting effective Rwandan and Burundian forces to join the effort. The French government (God bless French fortitude) sent 2,000 troops, doing good work in a messy operation that is politically unpopular at home. America's tireless ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has visited CAR twice, lighting signal flares of publicity to attract attention in a world of competing crises. Now the Security Council has approved a U.N. peacekeeping force of 12,000 troops and police. (American support for U.N. peacekeeping is an exceptionally cost-effective instrument of power -- encouraging order without providing it ourselves.)
These efforts have probably reduced the scale of atrocities in CAR -- better than some of the historical precedents but far short of the need. Even with an expanded force of peacekeepers, much of CAR will remain ungoverned. The interim government headed by Catherine Samba-Panza is well intentioned and completely incapable. The civil service has gone unpaid for months at a time. It will be necessary to construct the rule of law -- a system of effective police and working courts -- from scratch. And a locally led process of religious reconciliation between Muslims and Christians will be the basis of any progress.
The mass exodus of Muslims is destroying the social fabric and the economy of CAR (the Muslim community is known for trade and entrepreneurship). It is also creating groups of refugees -- dispossessed and humiliated -- that could be a recruiting ground for extremist groups (such as Boko Haram or radicalized local movements) for decades to come.
Some global threats come from leaders intoxicated by sovereignty. But other threats and suffering emerge in the voids and gaps of sovereignty, which require our sustained attention as well.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.
© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group