African agony: AFP story and photos keep our eyes on Muslim-Christian strife

So virulent are outbreaks of violence like the shootings at Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the Middle Eastern plague known as ISIS, it's easy to forget or overlook slow-burning fevers like the religio-Civil War in the Central African Republic.  But Agence France-Presse has not forgotten.

AFP's Miguel Medina spent three weeks in the battle-scarred land, coming back with a story and photos that are at once gripping, insightful and despairing.

In 10 photos and 1,000 words, Medina paints a picture of battling factions in towns like Bangui. There are the Seleka, a Muslim rebel force, and the "anti-balaka," the Christian militia organized against them. And there are the French and African soldiers brought in as peacekeepers, who themselves often do killings of their own.

One paragraph especially illustrates the randomness of the violence. Medina describes a massive explosion in a neighborhood, then:

Some Burundi soldiers had hurriedly evacuated two women, Christians who’d been hit by shrapnel, toward a neighboring shack. The attack had injured three other people - a Muslim, a Burundi troop and a young man I didn't know anything about. This is how it is at the moment in Bangui. Christians and Muslims recognise each other and randomly attack one another. It's an infernal cycle of attacks and counterattacks. No one is safe.

He photographs a Chadian Muslim family cowering against a wall, saying that only French parachutists kept an angry crowd of Christians at bay. "Tensions are so high that taxi drivers -- whether Christian or Muslim -- risk being killed by people of their own faith if they dare take a client from the other community," Medina says.

The article is unsparing in reporting violence by all sides. Yet it doesn't shrink from laying ultimate blame on the Seleka, who got their  leader Michel Djotodia as the republic's first Muslim president.

"He was unable to control the fighters, who went on killing, raping and pillaging, prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response," the article says, in one of its few puzzling comments. Puzzling, because it assumes that Djotodia didn't approve or even direct the violence.

Sometimes the "peacekeepers" seem nearly as violent as the militias. Medina reports seeing a Congolese armored personnel carrier speeding through barricades and into a group of demonstrators, "some of whom were lucky not to get crushed."

He also saw some Christians stoning Chadian soldiers, accusing them of siding with the Muslims. "The soldiers responded with gunfire and a man in the crowd fell down dead," he says. "I stopped and took this picture of a traumatised little boy in tears. Passersby and soldiers tried to calm him and help him. I later learned that the victim was his brother."

Do yourself a favor and look through those pictures. We don’t have permission to run them on GetReligion, but you'll find them powerful, evocative, even disturbing.

Medina spends four paragraphs on his "fixer," which he calls a companion who can guide, interpret and act as a diplomat for a reporter. Bienvenu, aptly named for the French word for "welcome," was a Christian -- but even more importantly for Medina, the man was a national hero as a veteran basketball player.

Finally, the AFP article tells of the exodus of a million people from the constant violence. Medina shows a photo of six people hanging onto a car and four squeezing into the trunk, desperate to escape Bangui:

Everyone, regardless of religion, is afraid of the reprisal violence carried out by militiamen in Bangui once night has fallen. The town is in the grips of looting and revenge attacks, often by machete.

Curiously, the article then peters out, in a rigid inverted-paragraph style more typical of hard news than a newsfeature. Medina tells of local associations trying to care for children, some of them orphaned. His final photo shows a sea of upturned faces, one of the children surprisingly wearing an American flag shirt.

I guess Medina and AFP wanted to end on some note of hope. But if nothing else, they help keep our eyes on the bloodied nation. Sometimes, we can become jaded or weary at continual violence -- witness the fading attention on the many Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. We should never get used to plagues, either of germs or killers.

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