The Mobile State of Exception in the Central African Republic: Keeping the Peace through Violence 

Decades of peace operations in the Central African Republic have done little to attenuate violence.The persistent failure of the state (and its external agents, like peacekeepers) has embedded a culture of impunity in CAR, in which carrying a weapon necessarily emboldens subjects and constitutes sovereigns.

In CAR, the fluidity between the protection of civilians and violence against them by peacekeepers transforms local insecurity into an internationalized and mobile state of exception. The concomitant political teleology is, simply put, terror. Violence perpetrated by peacekeepers—as subjects of legitimized violence in armed conflict—is mobilized as a relational construct in the context of civil war in CAR.

The embedded praxis of terror perpetrated by non-state sovereignties and its implications for reconciling the lived experience of violence by Central Africans suggest a central question: why doesn’t the international community consider crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by peacekeepers to be terrorism?

Civil War and the MISCA Massacre

Séléka CPSK-CPJP-UFDR—a coalition comprised of political parties and armed militias—successfully deposed former CAR President Bozizé in a brief, but bloody coup in March of 2012. He was replaced by President Djotodia, who was seated in office after he led Séléka during its campaign for political control.

Facing significant international pressure, Djotodia dissolved the alliance. But Ex-Séléka militants soon mobilized outside Bangui, targeting civilians, particularly those suspected of supporting Bozizé, with brutal violence. In self-defense, civilians armed themselves and formed anti-Balaka militias targeting suspected Séléka supporters. This act was a necessity driven by the virtually non-existent state apparatus left behind from decades of violent politics at the center reverberating through peripheral communities in crisis.

Reacting to the ethnic and religious tensions underlying worsening violence in December 2013, the UN Security Council authorized the African Union’s Mission Internationale de Soutien à la Centrafrique sous Conduite Africaine (MISCA). While MISCA peacekeepers were enforcing peace between 2013 and 2014, Central Africans reported massive violations of human rights, including sexual violence and the forced conscription of children.

On 24 March 2014, anti-Balaka militias—at the direction of commander Maurice Konomo, who told his troops to “go to war”—attacked MISCA soldiers in Boali (a town 100 kilometers north of the capital, Bangui), resulting in the death of one MISCA peacekeeper. Afterwards, 20 MISCA peacekeepers, all from Congo-Brazzaville, marched to Konomo’s home where they killed a young boy. With the knowledge of MISCA Captain Abena, they detained and executed 12 other civilians, including 4 women and 2 children, before burying their bodies only 500 meters away from the MISCA base.

The AU publicly condemned the murder of their peacekeeper, and claimed that MISCA troops had “returned fire” against anti-Balaka militias who had identified themselves as “spoilers and enemies of peace.” The MISCA massacre was a profound violation of their mandate to protect the basic human rights of Central Africans. The choice to blame MISCA victims exposes a much deeper problem in how peacekeepers use violence to keep the peace, though ultimately undermine it.

The State of Exception

The interaction between identity and agency is a critical analytic tool to explore the legibility of exceptional violence. Charles Tilly provides two analytic modalities in which to situate terrorizing in the larger project of waging war. First, terror is defined as acts of violence used in a “recurrent strategy of intimidation” that are perceived as terrorizing. Second, terror is measured by the presence of coercive specialists who “deploy terror under certain political circumstances, usually with far more devastating effects than the terror operations of nonspecialists” (2004, 9).

Terror is thus a fluid asymmetry of power, in which to be subject is to perform violence, either in fact or in effect. Deploying identity, indeed weaponizing it through terror, blurs the line between what (who) is subject and what (who) is sovereign. Described by Achille Mbembé as an internalized constituency, the subject becomes sovereign in the exercise of public violence, embedded in the “state of injury” (2003, 21). Notions of the enemy, and an intervenor, weaponize innocence against guilt such that the inherently innocent peacekeeper intervenes on behalf of the only circumstantially innocent civilian. Acts of terror thus become constitutive instruments producing a state of exception. Such exception (re)produces identities trapped at the intersection of violence and vulnerability, no longer dependent upon clearly delineated time or space, but in the ephemera of insecurity.

Evidence of the MISCA massacre—and proof of an act of terror—was literally uncovered when the mass grave was exhumed in February 2016. Abena was temporarily suspended in 2014 after accusations of the murders were publicized, but was later reassigned to another part of the CAR. The resulting logic—that peacekeepers are entitled with the privilege to treat a massive violation as a professional indiscretion—illuminates the role of silence and erasure in the making of civilians into objects, or instruments, of violence.

The brutal and cruel response to an aberrant act of violence reoriented the performance of dominating the periphery; in a sovereign and subject performance of retaliation, trained and militarized subjects deployed violence for the purpose of intimidation. Terror permeated the politics of everyday life, firmly establishing the peacekeeper as the sovereign subject with a legitimated monopoly of violence. When the United Nation’s Mission Multidimensionnelle Intégrée des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Centrafrique (MINUSCA) formally subsumed MISCA in 2015, the UN launched investigations concluding that MISCA was in fact responsible for perpetrating crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Peacekeepers are entitled to protections as international agents of peace, but simultaneously enjoy the privileges of a traditionally armed military force. Obliged to the consent of the state in which parties are warring, rather than the warring parties themselves, peacekeepers are thus simultaneously combatants, who eschew international humanitarian laws regarding rules and responsibilities to civilians, and as civilians, intermittently engaging in hostilities, who deploy terror in discrete political circumstances. This effectively produces a state of exception which becomes a mobile instrument of sovereignty, a superstructure of peacekeeping through terror and governing through violence. The terror of being targeted by forces present in a community for the purpose of protecting that community is compounded by the impunity when those crimes are investigated and unpunished.[1]

Rethinking the Role of Violence in Keeping the Peace

Subjectivity and sovereignty are reinforcing logics: the state needs a subject over which it can exert authority. Such moments of violence as the MISCA massacre, expose a key paradox in the CAR: the structural durability of exception in categorizing all violence by non-state actors as legitimate and necessary. As peacekeepers define what peace means, they also claim ownership of exception to act violently in the name of peace. These acts of violence embed a framework of terror as a mechanism of creating a subject who might be blamed. Inevitably escalating violence, events like the MISCA massacre create a singular social structure in which violence, brutal and spectacular in form, is the most effective and efficient way that civilians might reclaim their agency and identity.

Terror, as an act and as an embodied experience, sits at the intersection of exception and injury: it causes irreparable damage to the relationship between the peacekeeper and civilian and in doing so, produces conditions of fear and insecurity which necessitate exceptional acts of violence. Thus, terror saturates social politics so completely that exception and injury become mobile. Where peacekeepers inhabit a malleable and transient state of exception, they are both the makers and the arbiters of the rule of law, to police and enforce a power arrangement dependent upon their flexibility in wielding and articulating their own powers.

As the dynamic of violence shifts, so too does the articulation of exception, isolating culpability for an act of violence from is victim, who remains static. As a result, civilians inhabit a similarly mobile state of injury, where they must accept victimization as a demonstration of their status as civilians and be resilience in response to terror.

The MISCA massacre further illuminates the interstitiality of the Central African civilian constrained by the politics of terror in which they are the vilified subject of an act of terror as much as the victimized object of it. By situating peacekeepers outside a good/evil binary, this analysis exposes the lacunae of terror. Such external agents of the Central African government in Bangui instrumentalize the existence and destruction of civilian bodies as proof of someone else’s wrongdoing. Persistent social and political insecurity at the periphery, which produces conditions that allow peacekeepers to claim a state of exception, also allows them to disjoin it from those same civilians. Blame is necessarily redirected to local actors, including civilians, for the conditions of insecurity and violence which require the suspension of the ordinary protections and privileges of being a civilian.

It is therefore in the asymmetric superstructure of blame that exception becomes a portable performance of legitimacy. The MISCA massacre is terror precisely because MISCA reacted so violently that they deployed a state of exception, yet peacekeepers’ sovereignty and performative subjectivity persist through their mobility.

[1]  Three of the peacekeepers involved in this incident, Abena, Ngouala, and Ntalani Bantsimba, were convicted of war crimes in the DRC and sentenced to three years in prison in July 2018. The Congolese chamber did not seek testimony from any Central African witnesses during the judicial process, neither the victims’ families nor witnesses were included in the proceedings. All three men were released in 2018 having served a portion of the sentence before being convicted. See coverage by Human Rights Watch for additional analysis.

Photo Credit: US Air Force

What do you do when your faith in the U.N. is shattered?

I arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for a Humanity in Action Fellowship in 2017 properly jaded. I had just completed a year-long stint with the U.N. office of PAX, where I worked on a series of reports outlining the particular cruelty and inhumanity of the sieges in Syria at the height of media coverage of the siege of Aleppo. It’s safe to say that I had a lot of feelings about spending the next month somewhere that had been kept under the longest siege in Europe since WWII.

Scrap of paper in front of government building which reads 1 March 1992: "do you vote for a sovereign and independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, a state of equal citizens and peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina - Muslims, Serbs, Croats, and of other people living in it?" 
5 April 1992: First victims are killed at a peace rally
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

A frequent theme my cohort returned to—as is often (justifiably) the case in these conversations—was the failure and inadequacy of organizations such as the U.N. or USAID, and the Western states that frequently dominate them, to deliver on their promise to protect civilians and maintain international peace and security. And this is a fair point, the U.N. is one of the most powerful international institutions, but still is unable to effectively prevent, end, or resolve violent conflict—and if the UN is unable (or unwilling) to stir up political will to prevent or end conflicts, then what hope is there?

Scrap of paper in front of monument of canned beef, which reads the UN has trouble sending humanitarian aid to Sarajevo. The average civilian lives on 159g of food a day. When aid does arrive, citizens find biscuits and canned mean that had expired 50 years ago. Meanwhile, the UNSC "strongly condemns these acts of unspeakable brutality." UNSC Resolution 798, 18 Dec. 1992
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

During one incredibly poignant moment of my month in BiH, I was sitting at the back of the bus with a member of my fellowship who had lived through the war. He told me that as a child he hated the U.S. because of its inaction and resented having to suffer through trauma that no one should have to, while the U.S. stood by waiting, watching, pretending to care. But that wasn’t what stuck with me—it was that he shrugged, rather casually, and said, “but look at what is happening in Syria, and here I am, I’m doing nothing. So, who am I to judge?”

Scrap of paper in front of yellow high rise building which reads, Sniper Alley. Roughly 5-15 people were wounded each day by snipers, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019
Scrap of paper in front of apartment complex, which reads 15 Jan 1993
8 civilians killed, 20 wounded by mortar shell while waiting for water. Azra & Asim Lačević were among the victims, leaving behind their children, Berin & Delila, who were among the severely wounded.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

But isn’t that the whole point of an international community? Aren’t we exactly who is to judge? If not each of us, then who will judge the massive failure of the West and its international institutions?

Scrap of paper in front of marketplace which reads UNSC resolution 816 "deploring the failure of some parties concerned to cooperate dully with United Nations Protection Froce (UNPROFOR)" 
31 March 1993
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

It is in the spirit of these questions that I compiled this photo essay during my time in Sarajevo. I wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of what the U.N. presents in official documents versus the lived experience of conflict. I was inspired by my colleagues—as well as the speakers who addressed us over the month we were there—to explore a Sarajevo that feels quite distant from the city you’ll find today. It is actually there, right below the surface, which in many ways feels like it is begging to be shown, not to be forgotten. I spent several days reading through UNSC resolutions about Bosnia, especially any that were around key dates and times. I explored the few resources online about the siege, and compiled enough information to create my own “walking tour” of the city.

Scrap of paper in front of broken concrete painted red to evoke blood spatter which reads of the 11,541 people killed during the siege, 1,601 of them were children. 
UNSC Resolution 820: "Deeply alarmed and concerned about the magnitude of the plight of innocent victims of the conflict" 
-17 April 1993-
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

I wanted to explore things that felt important to me personally, but also call attention to sites that—specifically tourists—might walk past without a second glance. Because of this, all of the sites photographed are easily accessible, notable, and are frequently seen or visited locations. The project is organized more or less chronologically, in order to give the viewer a visual timeline of the siege. The third photo in the series is irony meeting irony, as the canned beef monument—a literal larger than life rendering of a can of beef much like the ones dropped by ICAR, which Sarajevans would “rather die than eat”—is itself a jab at western aid agencies’ complete failure to provide humanitarian assistance.

Scrap of paper in front of state of a man yelling in a park which reads UNSC Resolution 819 "Demands that all parties and others concerned treat Srebrenica and its surrounding areas as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act." 
17 April 1993
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

In the background of the fourth photo, you can see the Hotel Holiday—the infamous yellow hotel that was notoriously inhabited by journalists bravely covering the siege—sitting along what was once one of the most dangerous streets to navigate, but is now one of the main thoroughfares and trolley lines in the city. The photo of the brewery was taken only one block from my apartment in Sarajevo, which felt exceptionally moving, to learn that there had been, within my lifetime, a massacre at a place I had just gotten drinks.

Scrap of paper in front of church which reads on average, 329 missiles were fired at Sarajevo daily. On 22 July 1993,  3,777 missiles hit the city in a single day.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

The photo after this one is taken at the Markale Market in the center of the city, where some of the largest massacres once took place at the height of the siege. Today there is little more than a memorial wall, mostly hidden by the vendors. The Sarajevo Rose depicted is not one of particular note, as these memorials span the city, serving as their own unassuming reminder that we are never too far from history. I wanted to remind both myself and others, through the juxtaposition of the official documents about the conflict with the current state of the city, that the consequences of our actions are not theoretical—as they can sometimes feel as we sit in our comfortable London classrooms—but are in fact painfully real.

scrap of paper in front of dilapidated buildings which reads 10,000 buildings were completely destroyed. 100,000 buildings were heavily damaged. 
UNSC: "Decides to remain actively seized of the matter"
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

It’s something I have come back to a lot during my time at SOAS. As students at a highly critical university, learning about international institutions, norms, transitional justice, and peacebuilding through decolonial and feminist perspectives can make the world seem disheartening—but at the same time it helps prepare you for the realities of how the world functions. That being said, it’s natural to feel burnt out every so often, to wonder why we’re even bothering or if we should have just gone into banking or marketing. Or worse, to feel like you’ll have to end up working for and perpetuating the very systems about which you’ve spent an entire post-graduate degree learning. Because I very much want to continue working in the field of advocacy and transitional justice, this is something I have to reconcile on a daily basis.

scrap of paper in front of view of large village which reads UNSC resolution 900 "emphasizing the crucial importance of achieving complete freedom of movement for the civilian population and humanitarian goods and of the restoration of normal life in Sarajevo, determined to restore essential public services in Sarajevo" 
4 March 1994
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

This was as maddening to navigate in BiH as it is today. Once you become aware of just how deeply broken everything is, it is incredibly daunting—and to be frank, depressing—to feel like one day it will be up to you to fix it all. I wish I could tell you that I’ve come to the solution, but I think we’ll have to keep on working through it together. I desperately want to do something right in a world that makes it feel nearly impossible, I hope that exploring what you can do when your faith is shattered can be one small thing to help us understand our positionality a bit better.

Remembering Mass Violence

The 27th of January marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and around the world people paid respect to the victims of the the Holocaust. In December, managing editor Megan Manion and senior editor Rachel Salcedo traveled to Poland and here offer some reflections on their visit to sites of Holocaust remembrance:

Poland in December likely wouldn’t strike most people as a desirable travel destination, but for us the dark, cold, and snow felt somehow fitting for what we had planned to be a decidedly sombre experience. We visited a number of memorials throughout the country—most notably, Auschwitz-Birkenau—as we sought to think through the vastly complex and layered histories of multiple occupations, mass atrocity, and the building of a national collective memory. As scholars of transitional justice, we were interested in understanding the praxis and politics of memorializing violence that occurs at such a large scale.

After suffering under the profound violence of German occupation, Poland was given little respite before Soviet occupation began, so remembering the damage of the Holocaust became caught up in the unfolding trauma of totalitarian repression. Thus, we considered the politics of identity in conflict settings and the narration of those identities in post-conflict reconstruction. We also contemplated what it means to memorialize certain instances of violence in lieu or at the expense of others. Below, we consider the politics of memorialization and the challenges of narrating a cohesive national memory that conflicts with the complexity of survivors’ realities.

What does it mean to be a memorial?

A memorial takes many forms, and largely depends upon who is doing the memorializing as much as what they are attempting to remember. A critical feature of memorials is that they engage the spectator in the experience of their subjects. Memorializing should be understood as an active process narrating an experience of violence; thus a site of that experience must be understood, at least in part, to be about evoking a response.

One of the key ways Auschwitz-Birkenau is effective in this regard derives from allowing visitors to live its history, standing where victims stood and imagining themselves amongst the prisoners. It is so difficult to fully understand how quickly and how brutally people lost their lives in extermination camps, particularly when today we are inundated with images of the Second World War and partly-fictionalized imaginings of what it was like for those who suffered in concentration camps. In reality, however, these images pale in comparison to what one is able to imagine when standing along the tracks leading to Birkenau’s gas chambers or in cells where prisoners were made to sleep eight to a bed, stacked on top of one another three bunks high.

Walking along these tracks toward the ruins of gas chambers that Nazi authorities destroyed before the camps were liberated, we imagined the racing thoughts that might have crossed a young mother’s mind as she made the same short walk seventy years ago: would she have been relieved by her decision not to be separated from her child? Would she realize that this decision sealed her fate, and that if she’d let an elderly woman take the baby she might have been allowed to live? Or would she be too tired and worn down and disoriented to have these thoughts, to be fearful anymore?

As the memorial stands, it demonstrates the damage of the Nazi regime and the evil contained in the camps by clearly showing the harm done to all groups targeted. In functioning as a museum, however, the site literally narrates the experience of a victim as they moved through the camp and the overall experience of those targeted by the Nazis. In this way, the amount of information presented to guests means that at times Auschwitz-Birkenau struggles as a site of memory: space for memorializing the victims is often truncated by the memory of what was done to them.

We felt this conflict through much of the camp, most palpably in the buildings that once housed prisoners at Auschwitz and which today display victims’ possessions. Walking along halls that contain thousands and thousands of shoes, stacked haphazardly on top of one another, looking almost as if they had been thrown into the display, our attention was drawn to the few dainty heels and sandals that lie alone toward the front. Another room offers the same organization of eyeglasses, another contains pots and pans, another suitcases—all labeled as though they might be reunited with their owners.

Another room contains orphaned prosthetics and crutches, another still is filled with hairbrushes and shaving materials. But none of these displays compare to the dimly lit room filled with a mountain of actual human hair, matted and tangled together so you can’t quite tell the hair color or type; in fact you don’t immediately identify the mountain as hair at all, in part because it is difficult to accept the reality that you are looking at. This literal dehumanization of victims in order to illustrate the dehumanization that occured at the hands of the Nazis acts at some points to overpower the individuals that were there.

Why is remembering different than memorializing?

Personal and public memory play different roles in post-conflict communities, and with those roles come particular politics. Remembering is a personal process of naming what someone has survived. To remember, one must engage in a performance of that trauma in order to take ownership of one’s narrative, body and agency. Engaging personally reimagines what it means to be a victim, and indeed, a survivor.

In the words of French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, jailed by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, “The duty of memory is the duty to do justice, through memories to an other than the self” (89). Personal memory—a survivor remembering what was done to them, or a perpetrator remembering what they did—establishes a socially liminal site at which healing is presumed to begin. Remembering then can be understood as distinct from memorializing, in that remembering atrocity allows someone to grieve and mourn harm done to them, while memorializing serves to create a publicly meaningful truth of what happened to others.

It is of note, then, that Auschwitz-Birkenau attempts to narrate the objective truth of WWII by identifying the victims who exist outside of public meaning. As the text throughout the camp and our guide articulated, though Jews were targeted most in number and were most prevalent in Nazi documentation, others also lost their lives and their freedom. Persons with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, people of color, political dissidents, ethnic minorities, religious communities, and prisoners of war were targeted alongside Jews: Nazis stole their property, their dignity, and their humanity before murdering them. In a way that seems to controvert public narratives, Auschwitz-Birkenau made explicit reference to these victims who also lost their lives, but are pushed to the margins of memory and memorial.

Where do we locate a person’s humanity?

This question is a central one that drew us to work in human rights and transitional justice in the first place. A critical factor of understanding atrocity and conflict is unpacking profound questions of what gives someone the right not to be brutalized, what is right and just in war and politics, and ultimately, what makes us human and why. But the politics of identity are a very real framework through which we individually and collectively identify who has the right to be; however, this approach risks being reductive and may distract from the lived reality of mass atrocity for victims and perpetrators.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, we struggled to comprehend what it must have felt like for victims who lived and died there. But we also considered the experience on the other side of the fence. What must it have been like for the Nazis, what makes someone comfortable with such cruelty? It should be noted that, according to our guide at the camp, Nazi officers stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps throughout Poland had to request placement there; thus, we must argue against common narratives of complicity—camp authorities and operators perpetrated atrocity with measured intent and even enthusiasm. How was cruelty and hatred so effectively and efficiently weaponized?

At least one explanation is derived from the politics of establishing the ideal enemy. The millions of people who counted as the enemy were subjected to unbelievable cruelty and violence because they were treated as if they were not human. Where the enemy is not even human, violence against them is allowed and, more importantly, just.

Reflecting on the memorialization of these events, as well as the events themselves, feels especially urgent at this moment in history. As we see a surge of right wing leadership globally, as well as a rise in nationalism and xenophobia overall, it is important for us to consider the narratives we have constructed through memorials of the Holocaust in order to prevent us from going down a similar path. If we really mean it when we say “never again”, then we must begin to have more open conversations about our histories, and our performance of public and private memory surrounding atrocities—we hope that this can be a starting point.

Photo Credits: Rachel Salcedo