In 2013 my wife and I had plans to return to Vermont from our home in Rwanda so she could give birth to our first child. As a human rights researcher and investigator, I had one more trip to conduct in the Central African Republic. The country was reeling from a coup, rebels had just taken the capital, Bangui, and I was part of a team documenting war crimes that were continuing in the countryside. As I walked amidst the ruins of the courthouse destroyed by rebel fighters, an old teacher friend, Jean-Daniel, explained, “They wanted to break everything they could, they don’t want to build, they just want to destroy.”
The rebel coalition that took over the Central African Republic were called the Seleka, and almost eight years on, it is still hard to know what they were for. What is much easier is to define them based on what they were against: basic human rights, stability, development and religious tolerance. They ruled by fiat, destroying at will, and it took a UN peacekeeping force (who are still on the ground) to bring a modicum of stability to the capital.
We had set out from the capital with an aim to document serious crimes: the deliberate killing of civilians and cases of rape used as a weapon of war. But we did not expect such levels of destruction. In town after town, we saw the Seleka dismantling the image of the Central African state: buildings were ransacked, documents were burned. In Kaga Bandoro I watched as Seleka fighters stormed the town hall, pulling the building apart. The town court was ransacked by troops. The primary school was pillaged. The Seleka fighters occasionally approached and yelled in mixed French and Sango, “This is our country! We are in charge here!”
I could have never imagined my time in the Central African Republic could have prepared me for seeing the same hatred and destruction in our own country. Like many Charlotters, I watched in dismay last week as a mob, incited and encouraged by our president, attacked the Capitol. I stared in disbelief as the news commentators talked of casualties, congresspeople in hiding, and offices occupied. But I also had reference points from a profession that does not seem so distant anymore.
The mob that attacked the Capitol pulled pages straight from an autocratic playbook: make those who refuse to bend do so and enforce your will. They employed tactics of warlords, authoritarians and dictators. They had as much disregard for democratic institutions as they do for the democratic process. They are only a few steps removed from the Seleka’s foot soldiers, two of whose leaders go on trial next month at the International Criminal Court.
As I watch the mob at the Capitol scream, “This is our house, let’s take it back,” I felt a pit in my stomach. For those of us who have witnessed or lived through societal breakdowns, days like January 6 are a warning. Central African Republic is one example where I watched firsthand how norms are cast aside, one by one, and red lines are crossed. First a rebel smashed a window at the town hall in Kaga Bandoro. Facing no recrimination, he broke down a door. Moments later, he entered and started to tear the building apart. I saw the same action at play in Washington. For those heady moments, when the pro-Trump mob in Washington thought they had achieved a victory, they tried to break down our society.
For many of us in Charlotte, that the horror of events last week in Washington seems far off. In the aftermath of the mob’s wrath my wife and I had homeschooling to deal with. The kids made a desperate plea to go sledding as last Wednesday wrapped up, and we relented. Most of us continue to strive to be good Vermonters amid COVID, which means to mask up, social distance, be considerate about going out and wait patiently for a vaccine. The pandemic continues to define our life. But let us not get complacent about what we saw last week. Strong-men and their foot soldiers thrive in an atmosphere of terror. And the one thing they fear, above all else, is accountability.
We must demand that our state-wide representatives continue to call for all those who planned and incited this riot to be held accountable. If some of those Vermonters who floated state regulations by cramming themselves into a bus to drive down to the melee are found to have participated, they must face consequences too.
Back in Central African Republic in 2013, as my friend and I left the courthouse, now occupied by Seleka troops, we were stopped at a rebel roadblock. A young fighter with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder demanded money and cigarettes. He waved the gun in our faces and insisted that we pay because this was “his town” and “he was in charge.” He only let us pass when he recognized my friend as his former teacher. Jean-Daniel explained: “I was teaching him six months ago. Now he drives around on a stolen motorcycle and lives off the money he extorts at this roadblock.” I asked how it could be possible, that someone could so quickly resort to banditry. “He started to believe his own rhetoric,” my friend said. “He really believes this country was for him and his cohorts alone. And nobody stood up to him.”
Lewis Mudge is the Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch. He lives on Greenbush Road.