STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Here's a scene that journalist Graeme Wood witnessed recently in the Central African Republic. He'd gone to a cell phone shop in the capital, Bangui. Out front a guy in a motorcycle was holding up an AK-47, screaming angrily about his cell phone.
GRAEME WOOD: As I turned the corner I saw a crowd of people running away because he essentially had a customer service complaint and he wanted that cell phone to be fixed or something, and he was ready to spray the machine gun fire at the cell phone shop if he didn't get his way. And luckily at that particular point no one actually got shot. But it's exactly that kind of terrifying scene that really causes trouble for the people of Bangui on a daily basis.
MONTAGNE: That young guy was a member of a Christian militia and those militias have been on a revenge mission. Last year, Muslim rebels overthrew the president of the country and once in power committed atrocities against Christian communities. After the Islamist president was pressured by the international community to step down, Christian militias began carrying out wave after wave of attacks on Muslims.
Now thousands are dead and hundreds of thousands of Muslims have fled the country. Graeme Wood writes about the chaos he saw in capital of the Central African Republic in the current issue of the New Republic.
WOOD: There are parts of the city that are completely controlled by this Christian militia called the Anti-balaka, which is a very, very loose-knit group that consists largely of children, child soldiers, young adolescents. And I tried to go at one point with my photographer to an area where the Anti-balaka are in pretty complete control, and we foolishly got out of our taxi.
And we were immediately intercepted by a pretty large group of armed children and one adult leader who began screaming at us. And we had no idea whether we were going to be killed at that very moment.
MONTAGNE: You write: As soon as he appeared - the leader, the boss - and screamed, the kids reacted like a string of lit firecrackers, yelling and raising their weapons.
WOOD: Yeah. It's very frightening. I mean, when you show up at a checkpoint, the Anti-balaka from different areas have different amounts of discipline, but you don't really know which group you're going to find if you don't know the streets of Bangui in a really fine grain level of detail. There is one street that separates two districts that were once mixed Christian and Muslim.
And because it's the border now, it's where the dead are taken and they're picked up by a Red Cross van. And if a Christian strays into the Muslim side or a Muslim into the Christian side, there's a very good chance that he's going to be killed - executed on the spot.
MONTAGNE: As this has all been going on, there has been international intervention which has not been entirely successful. There's some French forces, others from neighboring Chad, also Rwanda, another neighbor. The French forces say they're there to keep the peace and yet they're blamed for not stepping in when some terrible atrocity is being committed. Do you think that is an accurate picture of what's going on?
WOOD: My time there was spent mostly with the Rwandans and so I saw the conflict very much through Rwandan eyes. The Rwandans, of course, have their experience of genocide in 1994, and with the French, they perhaps don't have quite the same direct experience. And so the Rwandans definitely had the perception that the French will stand by when atrocities happen that the Rwandans just can't abide.
MONTAGNE: The French have given a French name to their intervention, the name of an African butterfly.
WOOD: Yes. The French peacekeeping operation is named for C. Sangaris, which is a type of African butterfly and it's so named because they want to have a very light touch. And they want it also to be a very short-lived intervention.
MONTAGNE: And there's another aspect to that butterfly that you point out, which is that it's not a butterfly that works well with others.
WOOD: No. It doesn't work well with others or with itself. The males of that species spend a lot of time fighting with each other and the different factions of peacekeepers don't trust each other enough to share plans with each other and they don't want each other to know about their operations.
MONTAGNE: Would seem like they could be a lot more effective if they worked together.
WOOD: And we have already in plans right now for September a peacekeeping force from the United Nations which will have a more unified mandate, but September is a long way away and already in the last few days there have been hundreds killed in the Central African Republic. So it's really too long a wait for a lot of people.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for sharing all of this with us.
WOOD: Thanks for having me.
MONTAGNE: Graeme Wood traveled to the Central African Republic with support from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He wrote about the experience in the current of the New Republic magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.