Batangafo is a small, nondescript town of about 20 000 people in north-west Central African Republic (CAR). It’s only a few hundred kilometres away from the capital Bangui, but the perilous roads and the danger posed by the armed groups that patrol them mean the town is almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country.
There is no government presence in Batangafo. Since late 2013, when the conflict in the CAR first erupted, local authorities evacuated en masse. They have yet to return. Batangafo too is plagued by armed groups – both the ex-Seleka rebels and the anti-balaka civil defence movement have links there – and most of its population has been forced from their homes. They now live in makeshift camps for the internally displaced, or fend for themselves in the bush.
In this context, it is difficult to overstate the significance of the 100-odd peacekeepers stationed in Batangafo as part of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). ‘MINUSCA is far from perfect, but I can’t imagine what the situation would be like if they were not there,’ says one senior aid worker who has worked in the region.
The peacekeepers, from MINUSCA’s Pakistani contingent, patrol the town in pick-up trucks and man key intersections. They are unmistakable in their full armour and blue helmets. They try to respond to reports of disturbances, and protect the dusty runway when humanitarian supplies are flown in. From conversations with civilians affected by the ongoing conflict, as well as with leaders of armed groups, it is clear that the presence of these peacekeepers helps prevent the worst excesses of the armed groups.
The job is far from easy. In fact, the CAR may just be the most challenging environment in the world for peacekeepers. It is certainly among the most fatal: 13 peacekeepers have lost their lives this year. The latest fatality was an Egyptian soldier killed in an ambush on Sunday.
‘If you compare with other UN missions in other countries, no country is on a par with CAR. The security dynamics are one thing, and there is no government infrastructure. That is absent. Then there is the presence of the armed groups. No one has taken any sincere effort to disarm them,’ says Lieutenant-Colonel Salman Hassan, commander of Batangafo’s MINUSCA contingent.
Here MINUSCA has commandeered the old court building on a hill overlooking Batangafo – a tidy metaphor for their role in upholding the slender remnants of law and order in the town. The compound is now protected with rolls of barbed wire, and by sentries with automatics and machine-gun nests.
Hassan, in charge for just two months, is proud of what his men have achieved. ‘We have kept things calm without using force. To do this with talks and reconciliation, that is the real achievement. I can see the armed groups are starting to understand. Ultimately, who is affected by their actions? The civilians. If you create trouble, you are not putting yourself on a good basis with the civilians.’
Hassan insists that his men are ‘doing things differently’ – an allusion, one suspects, to the criticisms that have dogged this peacekeeping mission and its African Union-mandated predecessor, the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA). Peacekeepers from both MINUSCA and MISCA have been repeatedly accused of sexual exploitation and abuse, assault and even murder. In one particularly damning episode, Congolese peacekeepers allegedly killed 18 people in Boali between December 2013 and June 2015. The remains of the deceased were only last week returned to their families.
These failings were acknowledged and condemned in a recent United Nations Security Council resolution, which also approved the addition of 900 extra troops to MINUSCA to help prevent a resurgence in violence.
In Bangui, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, MINUSCA head and the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative to the CAR, welcomed the extra men – but remained frank about the scale of the challenges faced by his peacekeepers.
Speaking from his air-conditioned office in the middle of the sprawling MINUSCA base – what some observers cynically describe as the real seat of power in the CAR – Onanga-Anyanga says it is impossible to operate effectively in a country that is the size of Afghanistan with just over 10 000 troops. Afghanistan, he says, had more than 10 times that number of foreign troops involved at the height of the conflict.
‘Indeed the spike of violence since May this year has exposed the limits of the force ... We have a duty to ensure that we can establish temporary operating bases wherever populations are at risk, so it is a fact that the troops are thinly spread,’ he says. ‘We face huge challenges to ensure that we are able to proactively respond to the many demands for assistance, to prevent the occurrence of this violence, and wherever possible to push back and limit the threat that armed groups are posing to populations. It is a huge task.’
The current conflict in the CAR began in 2013, when rebels under the banner of the Seleka movement toppled the government of François Bozizé. That movement has now fractured, as has the loose coalition of anti-balaka groups (civil defence militias) that sprang up to combat them. The result is widespread instability driven largely by local concerns.
Onanga-Anyanga argues that the CAR is fundamentally different from other contexts in which peacekeepers operate, in part because of the historic lack of national governance and in part because of the splintering of armed groups which makes it difficult to know who to begin negotiations with.
‘In some places we have a peace to keep. Here we have no peace to keep. Groups are not only fighting each other, but they are fighting us. This place has become the most dangerous for peacekeepers – we lost  just this year. It’s also the most dangerous place for humanitarian workers ... It’s just a brutal war ... It’s just inhumane,’ he says.
‘Some of our soldiers were killed in a way that is so awful, cut in pieces, savagely. There’s no safe haven any more. These groups are violating hospitals, violating humanitarian space, going into schools and hospitals to kill people, it’s very brutal.’
Brutal or not, Onanga-Anyanga insists that MINUSCA is committed to restoring order in the Central African Republic – even if, as he suspects, it takes more than a decade of consistent international intervention.
‘We are only hoping to help the country walk back on its own feet ... that’s why we remain committed to doing this job – because it is clear that we cannot leave the CAR as the weak link in a region that is already so fragile,’ he says. ‘You will leave huge territories totally unguarded and -protected, ungoverned space that will be just an invitation for all kinds of criminals to just flock in ... this will be a risk for an already fragile neighbourhood.’
Written by Simon Allison, ISS Consultant