Early one morning in December 2013, in the town of Bossangoa, less than 200 miles northwest of Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, photographer Marcus Bleasdale was documenting the plight of nomadic Muslim herders who had recently been attacked by predominantly Christian fighters.
One of them had been struck by a bullet and needed immediate medical attention. Bleasdale assisted in taking him to the hospital for treatment, but rather than stay there, the man wanted to rejoin his family. When they returned to drop him off, the town had completely changed.
"I’ve been in a couple of attacks in these small towns over the years in Central Africa, and it’s very easy to see that the population is acutely aware of what’s about to happen,” Bleasdale told TIME in a recent interview. “The houses have been closed up, the businesses have been closed up, there wasn’t a single person on the road," he continued. "As we were driving away, the attack started. We could hear the guns starting just to our left and right.”
The group immediately went to a nearby African Union base to find shelter. “We saw thousands of people from the city running towards this compound,” Bleasdale recalled. “It was a matter of 30 minutes before we realized this was a countrywide, coordinated attack.”
The scenes that day, which Bleasdale called “desperately sad,” played out across Central African Republic, the landlocked former French colony of some 4.5 million people in the heart of the continent. Two days of unprecedented bloodshed between the largely Muslim Séléka fighters and anti-balaka militias—comprised of Christians, animists and ex-soldiers—would leave hundreds dead in the capital and many more across the country, rocketing the conflict into the international spotlight and prompting an influx of foreign troops to try and tamp down the violence.
In January 2014, after the country's self-installed Muslim leader stepped down and Séléka went into retreat, what Bleasdale called an “uneasy peace” that lasted just a few weeks gave way to an “all-out attack" on the largely Muslim population that was remaining. An unstable security situation since then has kept the country and its people in limbo.
“This is not a religious war,” he said. “This is a war about corruption, it’s a war about poverty, it’s a war about misrule, mismanagement, bad governance."
For his work, commissioned by Human Rights Watch, Foreign Policy and National Geographic, Bleasdale has been named the latest recipient of the Robert Capa Gold Medal by the Overseas Press Club of America. It’s the first time the Medal has been bestowed on a photographer for work produced, in part, for a non-governmental organization.
The award, named after famed war photographer Robert Capa, who died after stepping on a land mine in Indochina in 1954, is among the industry’s most prestigious and honors the “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.”
Previous recipients have included Larry Burrows of LIFE and Horst Faas of the Associated Press for their coverage during the Vietnam War; James Nachtwey for stories in Lebanon, El Salvador and South Africa; Getty Images photographer John Moore after the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan; and Carolyn Cole of the Los Angeles Times for work on Iraq and Liberia.
For his part, Bleasdale recognizes the company he’s in. “That’s really what went through my mind a little bit when I found out that I’d been honored,” he said. But he quickly noted that his work would not have been possible without his team, including loyal fixers and drivers, and especially Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
Bleasdale’s career in photojournalism began in the late 1990s, documenting the war fueled by diamonds in Sierra Leone. From there, he pivoted to Central Africa and specifically began to focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo and how natural resources were being used to finance the conflict there.
Documenting the shift and struggle over money and natural resources in developing nations is a natural fit for Bleasdale. He studied business during his university years, focusing on economics and finance, and then spent nearly a decade as an investment banker.
“I tend to still kind of have this economic training in my mind when I work as a photographer and specifically when I work covering conflict,” he says. “When I document conflict, I don’t necessarily document the conflict itself but I try to look at the economics behind the war, and what is financing it."
Bleasdale hopes to return to Central African Republic within the next few months, with an aim to focus on real life beyond the horror. “I have a lot more work to do there.”
William Daniels—Panos for TIME