Bearing witness in the Central African Republic

If we needed another example of the power of the social media during protests and conflicts, the current conflict in the Central African Republic is yet another proof. Violence was particularly dramatic over the weekend, leading to the death of at 400 people.

We have seen social media being used during the Arab Spring and other anti-government protests around the world. This time, reporters and humanitarians working on the ground used Twitter to inform the world about on-going human rights violations, the impact on civilians and the arrival of the French troops to Bangui and Bossangoa. Among them are Alex Thompson and Stuart Web (Channel 4), Laura Jepson (IMC), Peter Bouckaert (Human Rights Watch), Tristan Redman (Al Jazeera English), Marcus Bleasdale (National Geographic Photographer), Mark Kaye and Justin Forsyth (Save the Children). They took pictures of Bangui airport filled with fleeing civilians, recorded videos of abuses, and reported live from discussions with Seleka. Here are a few examples:

Peter Bouckaert: @bouckap: At #Seleka base we found a Peuhl boy no older than 14 among soldiers, told us whole family had been murdered by anti-balaka, no place 2 go.

@bouckap Just finished briefing French captain in #Bossangoa on our research and recommendations for action. Very attentive and proactive audience.

Alex Thompson: @alextomo: #c4news #CARcrisis. Man with wheelbarrow with coffins of 2 brothers beaten to death by Seleka militia says F soldiers not in hotspots

@alextomo: #c4news #CARcrisis Quartier Combatants, Bangui – gangs with daggers and machetes looking for Muslims to kill. Finding them.

Marcus Bleasdale: @marcusbleasdale We met a 14 year old boy in the #Seleka military camp today. All his family was killed so he wants to be a soldier. Wrong.  #CARcrisis @hrw

Stuart Webb : ‪@Worldwidewebb1 #CARcrisis an all to common sight on the streets of Bangui this week-no doubt they’ll be more tomorrow…



Justin Forsyth: ‪@justinforsyth Hard to tell how many people sheltering in grounds of Catholic mission – over 7000 #CAR


Without these testimonies, how much would we really known? This is exactly what we mean by the “power of witness.”

In 2009, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said about the power of social media: “You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.”

While the international community continues to tip toe and hesitate on when, how, if they should intervene, journalists and humanitarian workers on the ground can, with a cellphone only, put pressure on world leaders by bearing witness. As pictures are taken and real-time events reported, perpetrators can be held accountable for their crimes and bystanders for their inaction. They can’t say they didn’t know?



Image by Marcus Bleasdale


One thought on “Bearing witness in the Central African Republic

  1. Very nice observations. I’d like to share a few of my thoughts with those on the ground and in the midst of a massive crisis using the internet to convey the immediacy. And also with those who are following and supporting online.

    To begin, I’d like to suggest that we adopt the use of more precise words when discussing mass atrocities. For instance: the use of genocide, religiocide, politicide (all mass killings with different incitement) will quickly help define what is happening.

    Second, history requires a true witness. Document what you are seeing/hearing and experiencing with restrained bias. The person who wrote the above failed to note those who fled to the airport were Christians and (perhaps unintentionally) tainted his witness.

    Third, those who are actively engaging in the promotion of their personal cause during a crisis should be shamed. During a time of crisis, time is essential and to be spent feeding and sheltering the displaced, treating the wounded and burying the dead. Whatever your personal worldview and whatever your passion: there is plenty of time after civility is restored to speak of your views and concerns.

    Last, expect chaos and strive to bring order . .

    I suppose that is enough said.

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