The Risks and Rewards of Reporting On the Central African Republic's Civil War

Peter Gwin, National Geographic's senior editor for expeditions, reported on a rebel-held gold mine while on assignment in the war-torn Central African Republic. Credit: Peter Gwin

Last week, NationalGeographic.com published Peter Gwin’s account of the aftermath of the Central African Republic’s civil war. The story, which was also featured in the magazine’s May issue, details how a large, stable country with a small population and plenty of natural resources fell apart.

Gwin is senior editor, expeditions, for National Geographic. We talked with him about the country’s current crisis, its possible path to peace, and why investigating the aftermath was crucial.

When did you first hear about the Central African Republic?

I first learned about the CAR in 2003. As a young staff writer for National Geographic, one of my jobs was to write the captions on those fold-out wall maps that sometimes come with the magazine. I was assigned a map that showed the human footprint in Africa, which was represented by four datasets: agriculture, transportation networks, the electric grid, and population. The blank spots were the last wild places, and a little green pocket in the dead center of the continent caught my eye — green meant wilderness — and much of it was situated in the Central African Republic. That map has hung in my office for years, and I’ve spent hours looking at what might be in the green heart of Africa. Now when I look at it, I think about the people I’ve met there.

Most war correspondents leave when the conflict winds down. Why write about a civil war’s aftermath?

Marcus Bleasdale, the photographer I worked with, was there for the heavy fighting when the Seleka took over in 2013, and so we had his photos and video of that part of the conflict. But most reporters left. We felt like in many ways what happens next is the bigger story: How does a country put itself back together? In many ways, that’s a far more difficult endeavor than tearing it apart. So we traveled across much of the country to get a sense of how people were trying to rebuild, not just their physical country but also how they were addressing the psychological question of “What is the CAR now?”

What’s unique about the conflict in the Central African Republic?

There are a lot of reasons why the Central African Republic should be successful. It’s a country the size of France with only five million people, most of whom have a history of getting along reasonably well. There are tons of natural resources — gold, uranium, timber, and diamonds — and plenty of land for everyone.

So why is the state failing?

The legacy of French colonialism has been a big, big factor. France took control of the region in 1912 and never built much infrastructure or seriously invested in educating the native population or creating a class of local bureaucrats to run the country when they left. So when the CAR became independent in 1960 there was a very small number of educated people available to implement and run a government. Part of that legacy is that today the CAR has the fewest paved roads per square kilometer in the world.

Its geography is another major factor. The CAR is landlocked, so all trade passes through its neighbors and is mostly conducted over narrow dirt roads that are often impassable during the rainy season. Over the years some of those neighbors have stirred up issues among the CAR’s ethnic groups.

How did those factors spark the CAR’s civil war?

They caused a lot of frustration. The capital, Bangui, is in the southwest and is dominated by Christian politicians. The people who live in the far northeast of the country are mainly Muslim. There are no paved roads in that region, few schools and medical clinics, and during the rainy season they are isolated from the rest of the country. The people up there felt that the government ignored their needs, but at the same time, they still tax them and try to control them in other ways.

In 2013 a coalition of rebel groups there formed the Seleka, fought their way across the country to the capital, and overthrew the government, which was seen by many in the CAR to be corrupt. In response, predominantly Christian militias, called Anti-Balaka, were formed to fight the Seleka. Both sides committed atrocities. The UN finally sent in peacekeepers, and the Seleka returned north where they split into factions, some of which are now fighting against each other.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that the conflict began because of religion. The war was about frustration and underdevelopment, not religious doctrine. The CAR’s then-president, Francois Bozize, played on the Christian majority’s fears, but the Seleka weren’t all Muslims, and part of their success was because lots of people — both Christians and Muslims — hated Bozize’s government.

I didn’t meet anybody in the CAR who quoted Mohammed, Jesus, the Koran, or the Bible, but I found several heroic examples of Christians and Muslims who were helping each other.

Do you see a path to peace?

Until people across the country feel that the government is fair and can guarantee security, I think peace will remain elusive.

The founder of the CAR coined the country’s motto “unity, dignity, and work” as a reminder of the country’s core values, and the country’s 40-odd different ethnic groups bought into that when the country was created in 1960. Right now it’s difficult to see much unity or dignity or opportunities to earn a living. Until the CAR’s people really believe that these unifying principles are more than just words, it’s hard for me to see how there will be peace.

The presence of peacekeepers and aid workers is another a huge challenge. When United Nations and NGO workers flood into distressed countries to help, they bring a lot of money with them, which is sorely needed but can also shock the economy. Vendors start charging more for food, gas, and everything else. This can cause inflation and sometimes shortages for the locals, which has happened in Bangui. There have also been some cases of peacekeepers sexually abusing locals, including children, which has created a lot of anger and distrust. The question is whether the peacekeepers can stabilize the CAR without creating an even bigger problem.

Was traveling in the CAR dangerous?

It was unpredictable and still is. In 2015 Marcus and I were traveling on the road to a gold mine near Bambari that was lined with burned out houses and churches. We came across a small group of farmers who told us that the Seleka had burned their villages on their rampage through the country. They killed several people, and everyone had to flee deep into the bush to escape. These men were the advance team sent by their communities to see if it was safe to return home. I went through that area again last summer, and things seemed to be settling down. Their families were all back living there. They seemed to think things were safe. But soon after that, violence broke out again around Bambari, and I heard that those farmers had to flee again.

Right now, violence can flare up at almost any time. Last summer I tried for the second time to interview Ali Darassa, a warlord who leads one of the predominantly Muslim militias that controls the region around Bambari. The morning of the interview a gunfight broke out between two of the factions within Darassa’s group. These were people who were supposed to be allies.

What’s the importance of these types of stories in the current political climate?

Think about all the misunderstandings between the West and the Muslim world. When you take readers on a journey to look closely at some of these places and examine the underlying issues, it can help them see the world in a new way. Hopefully it makes them reconsider some misinformed notions. Honest, in-depth journalism adds to the positive conversation we all need to have. For me, it’s something worth getting up for in the morning.