TIME Africa

U.N. Highlights Plight of Muslims in Central African Republic

People displaced by violence attempt to create a semblance of daily life, in a sprawling camp at Mpoko Airport, in Bangui, Jan. 2, 2014.
People displaced by violence attempt to create a semblance of daily life in a sprawling camp at M'Poko International Airport in Bangui on Jan. 2, 2014. Rebecca Blackwell—AP

The U.N. Security Council hears of the "cleansing" of Muslims in the west as it considers a proposal to send thousands more peacekeepers to protect civilians

Months of widespread violence has pushed tens of thousands of Muslims out of the Central African Republic and led to a “cleansing” in its western region, a United Nations official said Thursday as the Security Council mulled a proposal to send 12,000 additional peacekeepers into the spiraling conflict.

The mineral-rich, landlocked country has been in a constant state of upheaval since last March, when the predominantly Muslim rebel coalition Séléka toppled the government. In December, two days of carnage in the capital city of Bangui left almost 1,000 people dead and paved the way for the largely Christian militias called anti-balaka to exact a revenge that has included mass looting and public executions.

(MORE: The Muslims of the Central African Republic Face a Deadly Purge)

“Tens of thousands of them have left the country, the second refugee outflow of the current crisis, and most of those remaining are under permanent threat,” said Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Reuters reports. “The demon of religious cleansing must be stopped—now.”

Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief, said more than 650,000 people remain internally displaced and that 300,000 others have fled to neighboring countries like Chad and Cameroon. At least 2,000 people have been killed since December.

Two thousand French troops and 6,000 peacekeepers from the African Union are currently on the ground; 1,000 more from the European Union will also be deployed. The force being considered by the Security Council was recently recommended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and, if approved, would not ship out within six months.

TIME animals

Report: Camels Play Key Role in Spread of Deadly Virus in Middle East

A man rides his camel as he waits for tourists at the Giza pyramids area, south of Cairo, Feb. 20, 2014.
A man rides his camel as he waits for tourists at the Giza pyramids area, south of Cairo, Feb. 20, 2014. Asmaa Waguih—Reuters

Researchers remain stumped about the origin of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome but now say the virus (or a close relative) has been circulating in camels for more than two decades

A new study released on Feb. 25 provides the strongest evidence yet that camels are a major player in Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a viral disease that has killed dozens of people in the Middle East since it was first detected in 2012 and whose origin remains elusive.

The report in mBio finds that those sickened with MERS appear to have contracted the disease from dromedary camels, which are prevalent across North Africa and the Middle East and whose sole hump give it an ability to travel far without water. This is the first big study of camels in the Kingdom, which has seen the most cases—at least 147 of 180 total, leading so far to 61 of 79 deaths—and the animal’s potential link to the virus. What’s more, the study finds that camels have been host to the virus, or one very similar, for over two decades.

Researchers obtained samples (blood as well as rectal and nasal swabs) from 203 dromedary camels around Saudi Arabia last fall and used mobile laboratory equipment to test for antibodies that reacted to MERS, which would indicate prior exposure. They also analyzed archived blood samples that were drawn between 1992 and 2010 to gauge whether the virus was new or had just never been detected. The researchers found that nearly 75 percent of the newly tested camels had antibodies; some of the swabs, more so from younger camels, also showed that the MERS virus was circulating through the Saudi camel population.

“This tells the community right away that we’ve got to be very concerned about who has contact with camels in Saudi Arabia,” said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organization that studies the animal-human health border, and a co-author of the paper. “Especially those who have come into contact with young camels.” The animals are frequently raced, traded, eaten or kept as pets, all of which raises the chance that viruses could jump from the animals to human beings.

European investigators first posited the camel’s role as at least a middleman between an unknown host and humans in a Lancet study last August, after blood tests of retired racing dromedaries in Oman and ones used for tourism in the Canary Islands found antibodies. Weeks later, another report in Eurosurveillance stoked that suspicion, since most of the dromedaries in Egypt that were sampled had similar results.

Efforts to identify the origin has largely focused on bats. Last year, some of the scientists who co-authored this study designated the Egyptian tomb bat as a possible reservoir after they matched viral RNA from a fecal pellet in Bisha, Saudi Arabia, to a sample from the first person known to contract MERS in the country. That man also owned four dromedary camels.

“I still think that bats are the reservoir—the natural, original reservoir—and somewhere along the way the virus has spilled over into camels and has begun to circulate,” said Daszak. “If we can find out more about the risk for humans from camels, we may be able to reduce the chance of spillover events, and that’s an area where we really need to get active.”

Scientists are still unclear whether other livestock are involved, how the virus is transmitted between camels, what the role is for bats and how humans aren’t just picking up the disease but also spreading it amongst themselves. The researchers stopped short of proving that camels are certain reservoirs for human transmission and insist that additional research must be done.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said a camel vaccine could be answer. “Don’t let the camels get infected. If the camels do get infected, make sure they don’t transmit to humans. If humans do get infected, make sure they don’t transmit to other humans,” he told TIME. “So for each link in the chain of transmission, you’re trying to break it, and ideally the best way to break it is to keep camels from getting infected.”

Daszak thinks the current state of research is largely on par with how similar threats have been treated in the past. “Most new diseases are very inefficiently studied in the early stages,” he said. Low funding and a lack of oversight, among other factors, has hindered progress against emerging diseases. “There’s no one world organization that goes into a place and sorts out an emerging disease. There are political issues. There are national boundaries at stake.” Point taken, but as the world has found out over the years, especially with SARS and H1N1 in the last decade, infectious disease knows no boundaries.

TIME Afghanistan

New Report Reveals Woeful State of Afghanistan’s Health Care

A new report by Médecins Sans Frontières details gaping holes in Afghanistan's public health system as the country's occupation by foreign troops draws to an end

As the almost 13-year-occupation of Afghanistan by foreign troops draws to an end, a new report by Médecins Sans Frontières highlights jarring shortcomings in the public health system they’ll be leaving behind. These pictures, by documentary photographers Andrea Bruce and Mikhail Galustov, both of whom have spent years covering the war’s toll on the innocent, are paired with the aid group’s findings.

The report released Tuesday concludes that access to basic or emergency medical care remains hard to reach—or beyond grasp—for many Afghans despite years of Western involvement and billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance. Aid workers interviewed hundreds of hospital patients over the course of six months in Helmand, Kabul, Khost and Kunduz provinces. The results of their survey strike a blow to “prevailing narratives of progress,” says MSF, as battles with the Taliban rage and international aid dries up.

Some clinics lack qualified staff, specific medicines and even electricity, MSF was told. One-fifth of patients interviewed said a family member or close friend had died in the past year due to a lack of access to proper care. Among the main barriers for reaching treatment were high costs and lack of money, long distances and the armed conflict. “The fighting doesn’t stop when there are injured people, so we can’t get them to a doctor. So we wait, and then they die, and the fighting continues,” said one man, a 25-year-old principal in the northern Baghlan Province. “Even if you are able to move with your wounded, you still have to get through roadblocks, checkpoints, questioning and harassment before you can reach the hospital.” Forty percent of interviewees who reached the hospitals said they encountered those hardships, among others.

MSF does note that the number of health facilities has risen “considerably” over the past decade and that national statistics claim more than 57 percent of people now live within an hour’s walk of a public health facility—up from nine percent in 2001—but that’s just about all the good news that there is. With this report and accompanying photographs, the organization calls on international donors, other aid groups and the Afghan government to begin filling in the gaps and meeting the needs of a population wracked by decades of war before the situation gets any worse. —Andrew Katz

TIME Ukraine

Battleground Kiev: ‘Halfway Between a War and A Protest’

The latest unrest has left the center of Kiev aflame and hundreds injured as they count the dead

Bulent Kilic, an Istanbul-based photojournalist with Agence France-Presse, is hunkered down in Kiev as clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces intensify for a third day. At least 22 people have been killed Thursday, bringing this week’s total to at least 45. Kilic spoke with AFP on Thursday morning after photographing this sequence of three men who were set ablaze—and quickly extinguished. “It seems like protesters are used to dealing with this type of situation—no one seemed at all shocked. The guy in the background of the photo who is burning the most ran to the back of the barricade where some people took care of him.” Kilic said the gunfire across Independence Square reminded him of the sounds from when he covered Syria’s civil war in Aleppo: “It now feels like halfway between a war and a protest.”

TIME

The Muslims of the Central African Republic Face a Deadly Purge

Chadian civilians climb on a military chadian truck to go back to Chad on Jan. 15, 2014 in the PK12 district of Bangui.
Chadian civilians climb on a military chadian truck to go back to Chad on Jan. 15, 2014, in the PK12 district of Bangui. Eric Feferberg—AFP/Getty Images

This fragile African nation is witnessing unprecedented sectarian strife. Here's why.

The anti-balaka have outgrown their name. These militias in the Central African Republic, once united under a moniker meaning “anti-machete” in the local Sango language, are exacting their own vicious revenge upon the mainly Muslim rebels who overthrew the government last March and waged months of terror against the Christian population. They are now accused of atrocities far worse than what first prompted them to take up arms.

An Amnesty International report on Feb. 12 said attacks on Muslims in January by anti-balaka militias, made up of Christians and animists, had amounted to “ethnic cleansing.” Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, has already opened a preliminary investigation into crimes against humanity, saying some “victims appeared to have been deliberately targeted on religious grounds.” A top U.N. official issued similar warnings during a recent visit to the ravaged capital, Bangui, telling reporters: “There is an ethnic-religious cleansing taking place. It must be stopped.”

The campaign of looting and murder in recent weeks has led to an alarming demographic crisis in the Central African Republic. About 1 million of its 4.6 million people have been displaced and at least 2,000 have been killed. Muslims account for 15 percent of the population, or about 690,000 people; Médecins Sans Frontières said in a conference call with reporters on Feb. 18 that at least 80,000 had already left.

Entire neighborhoods in Bangui and towns in the northwest have emptied as a mass exodus pours into neighboring countries Cameroon and Chad. Aid groups fear the fleeing of Muslim traders and cattle herders, who are crucial to the country’s food production and distribution, may spark a famine.

The scene today vastly differs from last year. “If you drove across the country in November, you would have been impressed by the power of the Séléka,” says Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis adviser with Amnesty in Bangui, referring to the impact of the rebels’ offensive that began in late 2012. “Now if you drive across the country, you find anti-balaka everywhere. They are the people who are in control of the roads and the majority of the towns.”

William Lacy Swing, director-general of the International Organization for Migration and a young U.S. envoy to Bangui in the mid-1970s, was “shocked” by the scenes there during a trip in early February. “The Central African Republic that I knew at the time, this element now of inter-religious conflict was absent,” he told TIME, “and now it is at the heart of some of the problems.”

How political payback turned into a sectarian purge isn’t entirely understood. Experts gesture to spillover from conflicts throughout the region as well as the legacy of decades of poor governance in the former French colony.

But the country has no such precedent of religious strife. Louisa Lombard, a post-doctoral fellow and Central Africa expert at the University of California-Berkeley, said a main cause was the systemic marginalization of Muslims that ramped up after former President François Bozizé won power in 2003. Muslims, many of whom live in the isolated and underdeveloped northeast, were largely neglected and treated like “foreigners.”

This dispossession eventually led to Séléka’s formation. The rebels, supported by Chadian and Sudanese fighters, overran the state’s decayed army in late 2012 and quickly gained control of much of the country. Bozizé appointed a prime minister from the opposition and signed several peace deals with Séléka in Libreville, Gabon, the following January. But when he failed to honor the agreements, Séléka toppled his government and installed Michel Djotodia as the country’s first Muslim president.

The rebels favored Muslim civilians and bands of fighters terrorized Christian communities; mistrust grew as Muslims were viewed as complicit in Séléka’s rampages. Djotodia dissolved Séléka in September but the rebels continued their attacks, prompting the formation of the anti-balaka squads and an uptick in tit-for-tat violence. In early December, two days of carnage left hundreds dead.

Amadou Sy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative, said the immediate arrival of French and African Union peacekeepers was a turning point. Anti-balaka saw the wind changing and went underground. By early January, with Séléka in retreat and Djotodia forced out by regional powers, anti-balaka had reemerged with uncontrollable fury. After weeks of killing, Lombard said, “whatever social fabric that was once there has been torn to shreds.”

The turnaround led interim President Catherine Samba-Panza to declare war on anti-balaka and France to commit more troops. Even after the security situation is resolved, easing the humanitarian crisis and maintaining global attention on this ignored nation will be difficult. As thousands more Muslims look to flee their own country, it may already be too late.

TIME tribute

Remembrance: Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain

The famed folk artist died on Feb. 12.

Folk artist Leonard Knight, creator of Salvation Mountain, died on Monday afternoon in San Diego. He was 82.

It took Knight about three decades to paint and personalize the famed art installation in the desert of Niland, Calif., near the Salton Sea. Knight used adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of paint to personalize it with religious murals and technicolor Bible verses.

The site, which draws thousands of spectators every year, was Knight’s life project. Volunteers have been working to protect and maintain it since he was placed in a long-term care facility in late 2011.

Seattle-based photographer Aaron Huey met Knight seven years ago and returned to Salvation Mountain several times since then. He remembers the artist:

Leonard’s single mission in life was to spread the message that “God is Love” and though it references the Abrahamic “God,” his mountain truly transcended any individual faiths. He brought countless people together to marvel at both the mountain and his message. Living at the mountain full-time in the back of an old painted firetruck with no belongings beyond his clothes and a few coolers, he could be found surrounded by visitors every day of the week spreading his message of “Universal Love.” Though Leonard shrugged off the title of “artist,” his work—his single masterpiece—will surely be counted among the greatest pieces of folk art ever created.

I met Leonard seven years ago and his impact on my life has been immense. Leonard made me want to throw away all of my things. My computers, my phone, my career, my ego—and to help him build his mountain of mud and paint. Instead, I helped him carry a dozen hay bales up the mountain and promised to come back again. I returned a dozen times over six years to help him build, to photograph his work, and to try to better understand his humble genius. I had never met a man of such singular, unflinching vision and to this day I can say he is one of the most incredible people I have ever met in all the world.

Your message lives on, Leonard. Travel well my friend.

—Aaron Huey

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