October 1, 2006

Op-Ed Columnist


PAOUA, Central African Republic

My aim in bringing Casey Parks, the winner of my contest for university students, to this war-torn land wasn't to have her held at gunpoint. That was quite an accident - both times.

My purpose was actually to emphasize the urgency of ending the genocide in Darfur before it destabilizes even more of Africa. The malignancy has already spread to Chad, and now it is beginning to destroy the Central African Republic as well.

Sudan has in effect invaded the Central African Republic with a proxy force of Chadians whom it armed and transported to a remote airstrip in Sudanese Antonov aircraft. Now those troops are living in caves in the northeast part of this country and recruiting local people to fight. When the dry season comes in another month or so, that force of 500 troops will presumably join a larger force of Sudanese puppets in trying to overthrow the government of Chad and perhaps of this country as well.

The north of the Central African Republic is now a war zone, with rival armed bands (some from the government) burning villages, kidnapping children, robbing travelers and killing people with impunity.

The country is already unstable for its own reasons, and its own government has much to answer for, but the Sudanese incursion and the small arms rippling out from Darfur have left this region in complete chaos. The violence has driven 100,000 villagers from their homes, and the U.N. calls it "the world's most neglected crisis."

Casey and I traveled here in a five-vehicle U.N. convoy, including two pickups full of well-armed soldiers. But the presence of soldiers discourages frank interviews with peasants who have been attacked by soldiers, so we twice left the escorts behind and drove through hard-hit villages.

After we had stopped at the eerily empty village of Bottolna and explored a bit, a man named Dominique Dondjoube crept out of a hiding place and told us that most of the villagers were hiding in the bush - where they were dying from bad water, malaria and malnutrition. "Just yesterday, three children died of malnutrition," he said. They were a 6-year-old boy, a 5-year-old girl, and a 3-month-old girl whose mother had no milk because of the lack of food.

In a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, a French doctor was treating Arthur Demongoy, a 2-year-old suffering from severe malnutrition. Children like Arthur are heartbreakingly impassive; they are so starved that they never cry, for every calorie goes to keeping them alive.

"Everything was burned in our village, and all our money was taken, and that's why we have no food," explained his mother, Sylvie.

But while a handful of brave aid workers and Catholic missionaries, Europeans and Africans alike, work in this region, they have been shot at and robbed. At some point the danger could force them to pull out.

Indeed, as Casey and I drove on one isolated, rutted road that forced us to drive slowly, we encountered just the kind of menace that has terrorized local people and aid workers: Two men stepped out from the brush on the side of the road, waved rifles and ordered us to stop.

The bandits eventually let us go on, and we continued down the road to interview local people. But since there was only one road into the area, we had to go back the same way - and then were held up again, by the same two men.

That kind of random violence is incredibly infectious, and the legacy of Darfur may be that all of Chad and the Central African Republic will collapse into Somalia-style anarchy. In an interview with Casey and me, President Francois Bozize of the Central African Republic offered an excellent suggestion: With the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers to Darfur delayed indefinitely because of Sudan's defiance, post them in the meantime in Chad and the Central African Republic - while still pushing to get them into Darfur itself.

When President Bozize traveled to the U.S. this month for the U.N. General Assembly, the Bush administration made available a mere deputy assistant secretary of state to talk to him. That's ridiculous, sending a signal that we're not engaged in Darfur's regional crisis and don't care what Sudan does to this country.

If President Bush is serious about genocide, an immediate priority is to stop the cancer of Darfur from spreading further - which means working with France to shore up both Chad and the Central African Republic. (France has troops in both countries.) It also means putting U.N. peacekeepers in both places. Right now.