- - Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Central African Republic is about to explode, threatening a wide swath of northern Africa, but why should we care, especially as South Sudan teeters on the brink of ethnic warfare?

Unless that nation can be quickly brought back from the verge of civil war, Islamic fundamentalists will wipe out or marginalize the Christian population in another ghastly civil war, such as in Syria, though along different religious fault lines. Already, in the Central African Republic, thousands of Christians displaced by the killing sprees have fled their villages and are spread out around the airport in the capital city of Bangui, with little or no support.

From the Central African Republic, al Qaeda will metastasize across the Sahel region — the band of nations just below Tunisia and Egypt where the so-called Arab Spring has morphed into a free fall.

Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. representative at the United Nations and a superb humanitarian expert in her own right, made a quick trip to the Central African Republic to demonstrate the deep concern of the U.S. government and provided an initial modest financial contribution.

However, the pivotal U.S. contribution could be heard, roaring in the background at the Bangui airport, bringing in the only realistic hope of reversing the tide. Only the U.S. Air Force has the lift capacity to quickly deploy combat troops and their gear — weapons, ammunition and rugged military vehicles to almost any destination in the world, so that the peacekeepers can be on the ground, ready to fight in time to try to turn the tide of the impending civil war.

Emerging from the U.S. transports were some of the toughest troops in Africa — peace enforcers from Burundi.

Many in the professional world of peace-building have been astonished to learn that troops from Burundi are at the cutting edge of the French-led effort to bring some measure of stability to the Central African Republic before it implodes completely.

I was last in Burundi in 1994 in an effort to keep the lid on the same Hutu-Tutsi ethnic mix that touched off the genocide in Rwanda, killing upwards of 1 million, mostly Tutsi. Burundi has had several rounds of its own civil wars along the same ethnic fault lines.

A generous board member of Refugees International agreed to fund us on a long-shot mission to try to jam the “hate radio” stations in Burundi before they touched off what had just happened in Rwanda. With me was our indomitable European representative, Yvette Pierpaoli, a peerless activist of worldwide renown. Pierpaoli died in a 1999 mission to reach refugees from Kosovo. “The Constant Gardener,” a novel by John le Carre, is dedicated to her.

Pierpaoli and I met up in a hotel in Brussels, waiting for the Sabena airlines connecting flight from there to Burundi.

Two other formidable actors joined us there, John Marks and Susan Colin Marks of Search for Common Ground. I challenged John, a friend from college days, to take his organization to Africa; his wife, Susan, from South Africa brought passion and experience in Nelson Mandela-style reconciliation to our quartet.

We used the 12-hour transit time to try to conceptualize what we might be able to achieve. Accompanied by Pierpaoli, whose native French-language skills and bearing commanded instant respect, we could gain access to the senior diplomatic and U.N. officials. The U.N. boss in Burundi, Ambassador Ould Abdallah, was very skillfully trying to keep the lines of communication open between the Tutsi-led government and the Hutu in Burundi.

Search for Common Ground focused on the feasibility of neutralizing “hate radio” with “peace radio.” My initial reaction was skeptical, but Search quickly started a peace radio program and several other reconciliation measures that played a key role in keeping Burundi from plunging over the edge into all-out ethnic violence. We jointly followed up with a Washington, D.C.-based forum spotlighting the perilous situation in Burundi and the surrounding countries, which proved to be very useful to diplomats of all stripes, international officials and nongovernmental organizations working on humanitarian and health crises.

Experts are somewhat astonished, but very satisfied, to see that Burundian troops are the leading edge of French efforts to help prevent genocide in the Central African Republic.

Burundi, which itself barely held together in 1994, now less than 20 years later, has the key job in the struggle for the Central African Republic and the Sahel region.

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