The United Nations peacekeepers stationed in Guy-Amour Bockoumou’s neighborhood are there to protect him; but, he doesn’t trust them.
The Fatima district of the Central African Republic's capital, Bangui, has been the scene of repeated clashes between Christian militias and fighters from PK5, the capital’s besieged Muslim neighborhood.
Bockoumou, however, says the Burundian peacekeepers deployed in the neighborhood as part of the United Nations’ MINUSCA peacekeeping force haven’t done enough to stop fighters from burning houses. And he’s heard rumors that the U.N. soldiers have even transported in Muslim fighters to attack Fatima — although he stresses he’s never seen that personally.
“If MINUSCA was with the population, we’d trust them; but, people are always asking: why hasn’t MINUSCA improved anything?” said Bockoumou, who works for a charity. “If we hear the same rumor again and again and it’s saying the same thing, then it must be based in truth.”
A United Nations peacekeeper watches over crowds that have assembled to greet Pope Francis in Bangui, Central African Republic on, November 29, 2015 (VOA/C. Stein).
MINUSCA deployed to the Central African Republic in September 2014 with a mandate that includes protecting civilians and improving the security situation. The mission, however, has been dogged by allegations of sexual abuse, as well as the deaths of at least 17 of its troops in fighting.
Central African leaders cited the security situation last month when they called on the U.N. Security Council to strengthen MINUSCA.
The mission has also had to contend with Bangui’s rumor mill, which has weakened the confidence of many residents in the blue-helmeted peacekeepers spread around the city.
“These negative perceptions are shared by the population, but also by some armed groups,” which could then turn their guns on international troops, said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Central Africa researcher for Amnesty International.
Often the rumors being spread around Bangui have to do with U.N. or French troops – which are also deployed in the country - giving weapons to one side or the other.
Allegrozzi said one way to combat the gossip would be for MINUSCA to better educate the public about what it can and cannot do.
“MINUSCA cannot fix everything, and I think that it should be clear that the mission has done a lot so far, and it’s facing a very challenging situation,” Allegrozzi said.
The commissioner of the U.N. police force in the country, Luis Carrilho, did not directly answer questions about rumors in an interview with VOA; however, he said the U.N. has a mandate to support the government as it tries to establish the rule of law across the country.
“There is always the possibility to do better,” Carrilho said, adding that communities must work with the U.N. and government to stop the fighting.
“There are always events that it’s impossible to prevent, even if you have one police officer in every house or in each street. It’s the community that needs to be balanced,” Carrilho said.
The peacekeeping mission scored a major success at the end of November when Pope Francis paid a two-day visit to the capital without any major security incidents.
MINUSCA’s next test will be the December 13 constitutional referendum, and the presidential election scheduled for December 27. The U.N. has already deployed 300 troops from Senegal to help protect the polls.