In 2014, I was visiting a hospital in Bambari, a northern city in the Central African Republic, just after a night of heavy fighting. Young men began filing in with gaping, puss-filled wounds from machete attacks, wounds that left perfectly smooth, straight slices in their skin.One man had been hit by a bow and arrow. An elderly woman had her lower right leg burned to the bone by a grenade. The head doctor attending to the patients told me he could no longer eat meat. I immediately understood why. Nearly five years later, the conflict continues with thousands killed and over one million displaced.
Dispatches over the years have called CAR a failed state and point to a Muslim and Christian divide to account for the atrocities. But as I returned to CAR throughout the years, I began to situate the violence as a social practice, a norm established in the absence of strong state security laws or protections. Violent, popular punishment has long existed as a way for communities to defend themselves from perceived threats. I began to document the role vigilantism plays in maintaining social cohesion and order, illustrating its causes and effects.
The origins of these norms are multi-faceted and complex but a political history of CAR tells one part of the story. A focus on resource extraction defined much of the period of French colonial rule, and this influence extended post-independence through the funding of coups and propping up dictators like the notorious Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Foreign presence in CAR has almost always coincided with chronic underdevelopment of government institutions. As the international community presence expands through UN humanitarian and EU training missions, and most recently the shadowy arms-dealing and military operations of Russia, it is unclear what kind of change they will bring to the country. How does a non-centralized conflict that reflects long standing social tensions end and how does foreign military presence affect the role of vigilantism and vengeance in social culture?