15 Dec

Under-Fire UN Peacekeepers Struggle in African Nation at War

Scanning the road from a police armored vehicle, Martine Epopa says she isn’t fazed when people make throat-slitting gestures at her United Nations convoy patrolling the capital of the Central African Republic.

Sometimes men jump in the road brandishing machetes, while others just stand and scowl, said Epopa, a 29-year-old Cameroonian police officer and the sole woman in a six-vehicle UN patrol that included Portuguese special forces and Mauritanian troops.

“We just wait until they give up and leave,” she said, clutching her rifle as her vehicle bounced over potholes. “We’re here to make people understand that the UN is here to protect them and their country. It can be challenging.”

Yet the threat is real. Fourteen peacekeepers have died this year in the Central African Republic, and public hostility is increasing toward what’s already one of the UN’s most difficult peacekeeping operations. A series of sexual-abuse scandals hasn’t helped, nor has the perception that the “blue helmets” favor the minority Muslim population over their Christian countrymen. Hidden from sight behind huge blast walls in central Bangui, the capital, the UN headquarters are often a target of violent protests.

In what the UN ranks as the world’s poorest nation where most state institutions crumbled after a 2013 coup, the peacekeepers face a near impossible task of shielding civilians from armed groups roaming the countryside.

Emergency Aid

The 13,750-member force, known by its acronym Minusca, also does everything from helping ship emergency food supplies across a territory as large as Afghanistan to providing logistical support to aid agencies whose workers themselves are under attack.

The UN force has little choice. Fighting rages on in parts of the country and state authority barely extends beyond Bangui. While a few hundred men have been trained for the new army, a UN arms embargo means the government can’t import weapons.

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