TIME Iraq

What You Should Know About What’s Happening in Iraq Right Now

6 key things to help you understand the crisis unfolding in Iraq

The recent offensive launched by the Sunni insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the most significant threat to Iraq’s security since the American withdrawal in 2011. The al-Qaeda offshoot has united thousands of foreign fighters under its black flag and a desire to redraw Middle East borders in order to create an Islamic state—or Caliphate—governed by an extremist interpretation of Islamic law.

Militants seized a number of cities and small towns in a lightning assault south toward Baghdad over the past week, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and igniting a global debate about how to respond. They boasted of executing 1,700 soldiers, but the authenticity of that claim is in question. As concerns ramp up that one of the world’s top oil producers is again teetering on the brink of a sectarian civil war, here are the main things you need to know about the regional crisis:

1. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the new public enemy No. 1

Little is known about the man shepherding thousands of radicals between Syria and Iraq. Also called Abu Dua, he was aligned with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri before the two broke ties over ISIS’ brutal tactics. Baghdadi is arguably the most successful Islamist terrorist since Osama bin Laden—not even bin Laden managed to control a large stretch of territory in Arab lands—and the State Department is offering a $10 million reward for his capture.

2. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Prime Minister, has made sectarian tensions worse

Two main reasons why ISIS tore through Iraq’s Sunni heartland so quickly—soldiers ran away when ISIS converged on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city—can be traced to Maliki. Iraq’s security forces are weak, despite billions of American dollars spent on training, and the absence of national unity has deeply polarized the political landscape. Maliki and his Shi’ite-dominated government are resented by many Sunnis and Kurds for what they see as sectarian rhetoric and policies that have denied them representation and support.

“Maliki has intimidated and driven key Sunni figures out of his government, ignored agreements to create a national unity government, alienated the Kurds and tried to repress legitimate Sunni opposition in ways that have contributed to steadily rising violence and civilian deaths,” write Anthony H. Cordesman and Sam Khazai of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Maliki’s undermining of the judicial system, police and army for his own advantage, they say, have kept the country vulnerable to power grabs. “With nowhere else to go,” writes Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker, “Iraq’s Sunnis are turning, once again, to the extremists to protect them.”

3. The Kurds may inadvertently gain from the ISIS offensive

Iraq’s Kurdish minority enjoys a semi-autonomous enclave in the northeast that has largely been spared the attacks that plague Iraq. But the new strife could heighten friction between the Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites since the Peshmerga—the Kurdish security forces—filled the power void in Kirkuk after Iraqi soldiers retreated. The Kurds have long sought control of the oil city, which they call its historical capital.

That development could contribute to Iraq splitting along sectarian lines. “This would be a further prelude for the division of Iraq,” Brig. Halgord Hikmat, spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga Ministry, told the Wall Street Journal. “A united Iraq is not the solution at this moment.” Partition would breed a host of other issues, but with Shi’ite clerics encouraging thousands of followers to pick up arms and counter the Sunni insurgents, the Kurds—left off the map after World War I and seeking their own state—could win out.

4. Any crackdown on ISIS could help Syrian President Bashar Assad

The region has been irreversibly impacted by Syria’s civil war. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are grappling with humanitarian crises as millions of Syrians have sought refuge in those countries. But Iraq has fared the worst: Parts of its border with Syria have been erased by ISIS, which took the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in January and controls swaths of several provinces, and Baghdad is rocked by regular bombings.

The ultra-extremists have flourished in Syria by seizing territories that were poorly run by opposition factions. Brutal takeovers have been followed by what Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, describes as “soft-power outreach.” ISIS holds anti-regime forums in neighborhood squares and fun activities for children to gain early support, and also hands out charity while promoting its mandate. Zelin adds: “ISIS is attempting to lay the groundwork for a future Islamic state by gradually socializing Syrians to the concept.”

A stronger ISIS bodes ill for Assad. Facing two battles, one to keep or reclaim territory and the other to win back hearts and minds, he could benefit from outside help to beat the insurgency. One idea proposed by a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation is a deal between Damascus and the West to bring peace to vulnerable areas and allow Assad to focus on regaining land: “Assad could help NATO and other willing partners focus time and resources on ISIS, which poses the greatest threat to the Middle East, the United States, and Europe.”

5. Iran wants ISIS stopped

The Islamic Republic has played a major role in propping up the Assad regime. But that assistance has not proven a deal-breaker as Tehran and Western powers work to resolve the nuclear standoff. Political leaders on both sides of those negotiations see ISIS as a growing threat and speculation is rampant they may work alongside each other to quell it.

“We will fight against terrorism, factionalism and violence,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on June 12. Days after a report emerged that units of Iran’s elite Quds Force were dispatched to protect allies in Baghdad and the sacred Shi’ite sites of Najaf and Karbala, Rouhani clarified that Iran is ready to help Iraq—if asked—and would consider “cooperation” with any American efforts. (Military decisions rest with its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.)

6. The U.S. is likely to tread softly

The White House has so far resisted committing serious aid to helping Iraq fight the insurgents. It was criticized for not doing enough to ensure security before its withdrawal, which came after Washington and Baghdad failed to agree on conditions for leaving a residual contingent to, among other priorities, keep training security forces and supporting intelligence efforts against Sunni extremists. Obama wanted America’s bravest back home, but it was an overly stubborn Maliki who ultimately doomed the sensitive negotiations.

What’s happening now is direct fallout, as Iraq couldn’t stand on its own. Obama understands this, saying last week that he wouldn’t “rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria.” Defense officials are now mulling options that don’t include boots on the ground. But if there is any takeaway from Obama’s address on June 13, during which he asserted “we will do our part” while casting blame on Maliki for authoritarian policies that fueled division among the sects, it’s that what is happening in Iraq is no longer America’s problem. That doesn’t mean he won’t work with an adversary or two to solve it.

TIME central african republic

‘A Question of Humanity': Witness to the Turning Point In Central African Republic

Almost six months after thousands of foreign peacekeepers waded into Central African Republic in a bid to control the fallout from street fighting that left hundreds dead in the capital of Bangui, they remain unable to stem the killing and population shift that has begun to redefine its makeup.

Their arrival under a United Nations mandate forced a retreat by the disbanded militants of Séléka, the mainly Muslim rebel coalition that seized control earlier that year and began a campaign of looting and killing largely against non-Muslims. But that power void, exacerbated by a lax justice system, was quickly filled by anti-balaka. The groups of armed vigilantes, initially organized to combat local crime and whose ranks of Christians and animists includes ex-soldiers, have fought back against the militants and furiously targeted the Muslim minority, which they view as complicit in Séléka’s unpunished abuses.

Anti-balaka now stand accused of crimes worse than what prompted their retaliation as the burning of whole villages and gruesome mutilations, among other threats and attacks, have killed an untold number of people and pushed hundreds of thousands of others from their homes. Amid tales of ethnic cleansing in the west and as reports of crude attacks surface in the east, where Séléka remains in control and is regrouping, the country continues to slide into perhaps the bloodiest and most unstable crossroads of its independence.

Italian photojournalist Ugo Lucio Borga, of the Echo Photo Agency, witnessed this turning point first-hand when he arrived in January. He took advantage of a connection with an army sergeant-turned-commander of a Bangui-based anti-balaka militia, who he met years ago in the remote southeast while covering the hunt for Joseph Kony, the elusive leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. With prime access to their day-to-day happenings, he could document the conflict as anti-balaka became more brazen and learn more about the fighters beyond the amulets they wear as “protection.”

“They are really young people without education, without culture, but they needed to do something to stop the violence from the Séléka,” he told TIME. With most schools out of operation and seemingly few families who hadn’t seen bloodshed, he could see why they so easily took up arms. “Now the problem is that they know what war really means and they have become another people. They are now fighters.”

Throughout his trip, during which he also shadowed French troops and peacekeepers from Rwanda and Burundi, Borga saw the effect on children—“after one year of violence, continued violence, they consider the situation normal”—and became more aware of the roots of the conflict. The fighting, after decades of corruption and meddling by external influencers, appeared to take on a more religious undertone and sparked concerns of a partition in a country where Christians and Muslims have historically lived in peace, despite instances of marginalization. But Borga found that not all anti-balaka wanted to outright rid the country of its Muslims. This specific militia told him they targeted foreigners because, among other reasons, Séléka included militants from Chad and Sudan.

Borga left in February having captured a series of raw, intense scenes that stand out for their intimacy. He plans to return ahead of the elections, scheduled for February 2015, but knows that making a big influence is a tall order when the conflict is so neglected on the international stage. Still, it’s the ability to inform that drives him, as well as an innate curiosity as to how it will end: “I think it’s a question of humanity, if it exists somewhere.”

TIME Africa

Migrants Storm Border Fence to Hop From Africa to Europe

Sub-Saharan migrants scale a metallic fence that divides Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla, early on May 28, 2014.
Sub-Saharan migrants scale a metallic fence that divides Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla, early on May 28, 2014. Santi Palacios—AP

Some 400 African migrants are estimated to have successfully scaled a border fence between Morocco and the Spanish territory of Melilla on Wednesday, crossing from Africa to Europe

A thousand migrants stormed and attempted to scale a 20-foot-high border fence between Morocco and the Spanish territory of Melilla before dawn on Wednesday, its mayor said, with about 400 estimated to have successfully hopped from Africa into Europe.

Melilla is one of Spain’s guarded but vulnerable enclaves on Morocco’s northern coast that has become a hub for sub-Saharan migrants, many from Somalia and Eritrea, who want to seek asylum or work in Europe.

Wednesday’s incident is the latest in a tide of dangerous and sometimes deadly attempts by large groups of African migrants to enter Melilla and Ceuta, another Spanish enclave nearby, the European Union’s only land borders with Africa.

About 140 of the approximately 700 migrants who charged the barbed-wire fence in Melilla on May 1 slipped past security officers, resulting in some injuries. And clashes erupted in February when more than 300 migrants stormed it—a third of them successfully—leading to some 96 arrests.

The BBC reports that some of the migrants who crossed over on Wednesday are likely to spend months or years at a temporary immigration center in Melilla, which now houses five times the amount of people it was meant to hold. Others are expected to be transferred to additional centers in Spain or returned to their home countries.

TIME Infectious Disease

Officials Confirm Second U.S. Case of MERS

This undated file electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows novel coronavirus particles, also known as the MERS virus, colorized in yellow.
This undated file electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows novel coronavirus particles, also known as the MERS virus, colorized in yellow. AP

Health officials have confirmed a second case of the MERS in an Orange County hospital less than two weeks after the first appeared in Indiana. They told reporters the newly infected patient is a health care provider who lives and works in Saudi Arabia

Updated 3 p.m. ET

Federal and state health officials confirmed a second U.S. case of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome on Monday, less than two weeks after the country’s first case appeared in an Indiana hospital.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health told reporters the newly infected patient is a health care provider who lives and works in Saudi Arabia. The person flew from Jeddah to London, and then to Boston. From there, the patient traveled to Atlanta and then Orlando to visit family members, officials said.

The person began feeling unwell during the flight from Jeddah to London—suffering from symptoms like a fever, chills and a slight cough—and then continued to feel ill on subsequent flights, officials said. The person went to the emergency room of a hospital in Orange County on May 8 and was admitted the same day. The patient was then placed in isolation, and remains in stable condition.

John Armstrong, Florida’s state surgeon general and secretary of health, said the patient’s family was “staying home” at the moment and that the hospital would release more information later Monday.

Officials said they are reaching out to anyone who may have had close contact with the patient before the person entered the hospital. That includes more than 500 people who were on the patient’s last few flights in the U.S.

On desktop, roll over this graphic to get a closer look; on mobile, click to zoom.

Heather Jones

The first U.S. case of MERS appeared in Indiana in late April after having popped up in more than a dozen countries around the world. That patient is currently in good condition at Community Hospital in northern Munster and is expected to be released in the near future. The unnamed victim is a hospital worker in Saudi Arabia, home to about 450 lab-confirmed cases and 118 deaths.

The patient in Indiana, who was on a planned visit to see family, was placed in full isolation and all staff members who had contact with him previously have tested negative for the disease. Health officials have been contacting people who might have come into contact with the patient on public transport.

MERS is in the same virus family as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed more than 700 people about a decade ago. It has no vaccine or treatment, but researchers believe it may have originated from bats or camels. Human transmission has so far largely occurred between people with close contact with those infected, especially in health care settings. To date, there have been at least 538 confirmed cases and 145 deaths.

TIME Infectious Disease

Deadly Middle East Virus in U.S. For First Time

Officials have confirmed a case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in Indiana, the first known incident of the virus in the U.S. There have been more than 400 cases worldwide, a third of which have been fatal, since the virus was first discovered in 2012

Update: May 3, 10:18 p.m.

A hospital in northern Indiana is treating a patient infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, marking the first time a case of the deadly virus has appeared in the U.S., state and federal health officials confirmed.

The Indiana State Department of Health said the patient at Community Hospital in Munster is a male health care provider who had recently returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia, where cases of the virus have been most prevalent since it was first identified in 2012.

Researchers have been largely stumped by the origin and transmission patterns of the virus, which looks like the flu, as it has gradually spread around the Middle East. It has been linked to both bats and, increasingly, camels but the reservoir remains elusive.

There have been more than 400 cases of the SARS-like virus scattered among a dozen countries, nearly a third of which have been fatal. Saudi Arabia has seen the bulk of the cases—more than 320 with some 94 deaths—but others have also appeared in Jordan, Britain, France and Italy.

Representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Indiana’s state health department released details about the case in a briefing with reporters on Friday after a positive laboratory result was confirmed.

The man had arrived in Chicago from Saudi Arabia and then took a bus to Indiana. (Public Health England later said it was advised of a passenger, now confirmed to have MERS, who was on British Airways Flight 262 when it arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport on April 24. The man then boarded American Airlines Flight 99 to Chicago.)

On April 27, the man began experiencing respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing and a fever. He went to the emergency room the next day and was admitted as a patient to Community Hospital, where he received immediate care and was placed in isolation.

Hospital officials said in a statement on May 3 the patient remained hospitalized “in good condition” and is improving each day. “The swift diagnosis and precautionary measures taken have undoubtedly greatly helped reduce the risk of this potentially serious virus spreading,” said State Health Commissioner William VanNess II.

Staff at the hospital who had direct contact with the man before he was isolated were taken off duty and placed in temporary home isolation, the statement added. They will be allowed to return to work once the incubation period is over—it could take up to two weeks for symptoms of MERS to appear—and their laboratory results are negative. No additional cases of MERS have been identified.

It remains unclear how the man became infected, how many people he was in close contact with and whether those people became ill. British and U.S. health officials said they had contacted other passengers on the flights but asserted the risk of infection between them appears low.

(MORE: A Deep Look Inside the Battle Against MERS)

Public health experts have warned for months that it could be only a matter of time before a case appeared in the states. “It’s something we’ve predicted and expected,” said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organization that patrols the animal-human health border and has worked closely with researchers looking for MERS’ origin.

Daszak said he remains concerned the virus is widespread in camels in Saudi Arabia and that it’s likely more rampant across the region where camels are common. While the virus doesn’t pose a “high risk” to the public yet, he said, “people continue to get infected and travel with this virus. That’s the concern for something that may have the ability to evolve into a pandemic risk.”

Dr. Ian Lipkin, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University and a leading researcher in the hunt for the virus’ origin and pattern of transmission, said he wasn’t surprised either that a case has appeared in the U.S. and originated in Saudi Arabia.

Officials in Egypt just diagnosed their first case and other infected people have recently traveled from either Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates to the Philippines, Malaysia and Greece. But the caseload in the Kingdom jumped 89 percent in April, highlighting whether its Ministry of Health is doing enough to find the reservoir and warn the public about any threat.

In a rare move in late April, King Abdullah dismissed the health minister without an official explanation. The position was quickly filled by Labor Minister Adel Faqih, who immediately promised “transparency and to promptly provide the media and society with the information needed.”

Saudi Arabia has come under fire for its handling of MERS, as months pass with little or no progress made on nabbing its origin or how it spreads to people. “It’s a difficult place in which to work,” Lipkin said, “but there’s optimism that the change in leadership may be productive.”

TIME North Korea

North Korea Marathon Opens to Foreign Amateurs

The annual marathon in Pyongyang opened to recreational foreign runners for the first time on April 13, allowing another brief look into the Hermit Kingdom that typically remains off-limits to those born outside the country

Organizers of the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, recognized as a bronze-label event by the International Association of Athletics Federations and held for the past 27 years, told the Associated Press they opted to allow the new recreational runners in an effort to more boldly celebrate the birthday of their nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15. Officials said the race, which typically has featured elite foreigners, included 225 amateurs and runners from 27 countries. The course, a largely flat path of four loops around the center of the city, had to be completed within four hours so roads could be reopened. A half marathon and a 10-kilometer run were also held as thousands of North Koreans lined the streets to cheer the participants.

TIME

Groups Seize Police Stations in Eastern Ukraine

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-POLITICS-SLAVYANSK
Armed pro-Russian activists guard a police station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk after it was seized by a few dozen gunmen on April 12, 2014. Anatoliy Stepanov—AFP/Getty Images

At least two police stations in Ukraine's eastern region were taken as tensions continues to rise following Russia's annexation of Crimea

Hours after dozens of armed men seized a police station in a small town in eastern Ukraine, men dressed in the uniforms of Ukraine’s disbanded riot police reportedly began an occupation Saturday of another police headquarters in nearby Donetsk.

The first takeover occurred in Slovyansk, the Associated Press reports, just south of Donetsk. In Slovyansk, approximately 20 men sporting automatic rifles, balaclavas and ribbons that symbolize the Soviet Union’s victory in WWII were seen guarding the station’s entrance as another group of men was believed to be inside.

One of the masked men there, who identified himself to the AP only as “Sergei,” said the group has “only one demand: a referendum and joining Russia.”

Slovyansk’s police station was seized, he added, so the group could protect it from the radical nationalists in the western part of Ukraine. Pro-Russia protesters blame those groups for fomenting the unrest that has plagued the country since November, when President Viktor Yanukovych snubbed an E.U. association and trade deal in favor of closer ties with Russia. “We don’t want to be slaves of America and the West,” he said. “We want to live with Russia.”

The move comes nearly a week after protesters overran an administration building in Donetsk. They called for a secession referendum similar to Crimea, at first, but later reduced their wish to a vote on autonomy within Ukraine and the potential for a vote later on regarding whether to join Russia.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned Ukraine on Friday not to use force against the protesters, saying it would complicate the crisis-settling talks between the E.U., U.S., Russia and Ukraine that are set for next week.

Pro-Russia Ukrainians in parts of the country’s eastern region have been emboldened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea after residents there approved a referendum in March to cut ties with Kiev. The West labeled that vote illegitimate, imposing economic sanctions on Russia and the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin. But Russia hasn’t backed down. Instead, it has threatened to cut off Ukraine from energy supplies such as natural gas and nuclear fuel over price disputes.

[AP]

MORE: Is Moscow Behind Ukraine’s Unrest?

TIME Africa

U.N. Authorizes Peacekeeping Mission to Central African Republic

African peacekeeping mission troops known as MISCA,  listen to U.S Ambassador to the U.N Samantha Power in Bangui, Central African Republic.
African peacekeeping-mission troops listen to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power in Bangui, Central African Republic, April 9, 2014. Jerome Delay—AP

The Security Council has unanimously authorized a proposal to send nearly 12,000 peacekeepers and police officers to the dangerously destabilized country in mid-September, an effort to aid foreign forces already working to cap daily violence and restore order

The U.N. Security Council voted on Thursday to send thousands of peacekeepers and police into the Central African Republic, where a year of unprecedented violence has destabilized the chronically poor country to perhaps the worst point in its modern history.

The 15-member council unanimously authorized an almost 12,000-member force that will include 1,800 police officers, fold in about 5,200 African Union peacekeepers and support the 2,000 French troops already on the ground. Aid groups and human-rights organizations have warned for months that the increasingly grim situation would not improve without more security personnel.

Thousands of people have been killed since March 2013, when the predominantly Muslim rebel coalition Séléka toppled the government, installed its commander as President and began a campaign of looting, torture and killing that largely targeted Christians. Bands of self-defense vigilantes called anti-balaka, comprising mostly Christians and animists as well as former soldiers loyal to the ousted President, gradually rose up and have grown more violent in response.

In early December, attacks between the two sides in the capital, Bangui, left hundreds dead and resulted in rapid troop deployments by France and the African Union. But in the months afterward, following Séléka’s retreat and the President’s step-down, anti-balaka have retaliated so fiercely that a significant portion of the country’s Muslim population has fled or been killed.

Those who remain are located in the eastern region, where Séléka still holds clout, or are unable to leave several towns in the north or west without harm. The U.N. is now looking into how to safeguard them and may take part in the evacuation or relocation of some 19,000 people who it says desire a way out.

Thursday’s vote comes just days after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Bangui for the first time since the December flare-up. While he used the opportunity to acknowledge that foreign forces there are “under-resourced and overwhelmed,” he urged the Security Council to approve his proposal for more troops and detailed a laundry list of abuses committed over the past few months.

“Muslims and Christians have been placed in mortal danger simply because of who they are or what they believe. The security of the state has been replaced by a state of anarchy,” Ban said. “People have been lynched and decapitated. Sexual violence is on the rise. Gruesome acts have been committed while others cheered on the perpetrators. There has been total impunity — zero accountability. This must change.”

Ban’s trip coincided with the two-decade anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and preceded the few-hours stopover by Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., on Wednesday. Power’s visit, her second since December, occurred as Chad had already begun to pull its 850 troops out of the African Union’s peacekeeping force over accusations they were responsible for the recent civilian deaths, leaving a security gap that French and Cameroonian forces were aiming to fill.

Power took to Twitter after the resolution passed on Thursday, calling the authorization a “critical step to help end horrific atrocities.”

TIME Africa

U.N. Chief Visits the Central African Republic

CAFRICA-UN-FORCE
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waves as he visits a camp for internally displaced persons in the Central African Republic on April 5, 2014 Miguel Medina—AFP/Getty Images

The quick visit on Saturday by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, during which he detailed atrocities that have divided the conflict-torn Central African Republic for months, came one day before he planned to mark two decades since the genocide in Rwanda

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the Central African Republic on Saturday amid an uptick in deadly street violence in the capital, Bangui, pledging to focus global attention on the conflict that has killed untold thousands and pushed much of the country’s Muslims into neighboring countries.

The visit, which lasted just a few hours, was Ban’s first since street attacks in December left about a thousand dead, many at the hands of the mainly Muslim rebel coalition Séléka that seized power in a coup in early 2013. Thousands of foreign peacekeepers were sent to stabilize the chronically poor state, wracked by decades of corrupt governance, but the retreat of Séléka and step-down of the President resulted in a power grab by largely Christian militias called anti-balaka, who have heavily targeted the Muslim minority. Hundreds of thousands have since fled to Cameroon, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ban traveled outside the secure area of the main airport, which is guarded by French troops and adjacent to a mass-displacement camp, to meet with interim President Catherine Samba-Panza and visit one of the capital’s last operational mosques. He also spoke to the transitional council tasked with preparing the country for elections by next February.

“There is a hole in the heart of Africa. Every day, I wake up thinking about your trials and troubles,” he said. “Everywhere, I have called on leaders to step up their efforts. Some say this is a forgotten crisis. I am here to help make sure the world does not forget.”

The U.N. chief forcefully spoke of hearing “horror stories” from those who have been uprooted, warned of food insecurity and the risk of malaria ahead of the rainy season and detailed atrocities that have gripped the landlocked, mineral-rich country for more than a year. “The security of the state has been replaced by a state of anarchy,” he said, mentioning a rise in sexual violence and instances of lynchings and decapitations. “There has been total impunity — zero accountability. This must change.”

Aid groups that frequently criticize the U.N. for not doing enough to stem the violence say words have little impact and more troops are needed to both restore order and help the government implement the rule of law. Former colonial power France has 2,000 soldiers on the ground, and the African Union has contributed 6,000 peacekeepers, but regional power broker Chad began pulling its contingent of 850 troops after being scolded for recent clashes that left about 30 civilians dead.

Ban commended foreign troops for their work but said they’re “underresourced and overwhelmed” given the enormity of their daily challenges. He applauded the E.U. for its impending deployment of the hundreds of peacekeepers it promised months ago and said he hopes the U.N. Security Council approves the 12,000-member peacekeeping and police force he recently proposed.

His visit came one day before he marks two decades since the genocide in Rwanda. “The international community failed the people of Rwanda 20 years ago, and we are at risk of not doing enough for the people of CAR today,” he told lawmakers. “It is your responsibility as leaders to ensure that there are no such anniversaries in this country.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser