Central African Republic (CAR) is a small, landlocked nation of roughly 4.7 million people that knew suffering all too well even before its most recent crisis. Few people knew the country, however. To this day, its troubles and its people garner little attention or support from the outside world, despite a number of very evident needs. There aren’t many roads. There isn’t much health care available. There is a great deal of mineral wealth buried in the land, but what’s extracted benefits a small group of people, while the bulk of the population remains deeply impoverished.
Hampered by its own isolation and the indifference of others, the country, was wholly unprepared to respond to the violence that began in late 2012, when a predominantly Muslim militia coalition called the Séléka marched down from north and began taking territory. The following March, they captured Bangui, the capital, deposing the President and enforcing their own brutal rule.
Tensions festered and then codified along religious fault lines. Much of the non-Muslim population resented what they perceived as support for the Séléka in Muslim communities, and in response, so-called self defense militias — the “anti-Balaka” — were formed. In late 2013, they attacked the Séléka forces in Bangui, unleashing a wave of intercommunal fighting marked by sectarian killings, rapes, and pillaging. Thousands died. More than a quarter of the population was displaced. Already fragile, the nation seemed on the verge of completely unravelling.
I first came to Bangui in February 2014, to lead training programs for local journalists. William Daniels had already been there for a few months, roaming throughout the country to document a conflict that few others even knew was underway. When I left CAR in January 2016, he was still there, still searching for the stories and images that might bring some attention to this complex, evolving, extraordinary land.
It is not easy work. The country has been shattered by the recent crisis, but it was already on the shakiest of ground. CAR was — and is — one of the least developed nations on the planet. Some 70 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Life expectancy was just 49 years. Few people had jobs or could read or write. Few outside aid groups were active in the country, and even fewer foreign journalists were trying to tell CAR’s story to the rest of the world. William put in the time, though, devoting himself to CAR like few others have and publishing his images in a host of high-profile publications the world over.
It makes perfect sense that so many of William’s images feature the work of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF. The organization first started working in CAR in 1997 and has remained a consistent, steadfast presence ever since. It is far and away the country’s primary health care provider; it’s also the nation’s third-largest employer.
MSF’s staff — most of whom were born and raised in CAR — treat malaria, war-wounds, malnutrition, and other diseases, saving countless lives in the process. Its teams run whole hospitals, provide maternal care, and conduct vaccination campaigns — not only in the capital city, but in some of the country’s most isolated regions. And when the fighting broke out, MSF did not abandon its work; its field teams expanded their programs, trying to reach even more people, despite the risks.
This exhibition is therefore a partnership between two entities that have shown an uncommon commitment to Central African Republic and have worked for years to shine a brighter light on the country and its people. Misery spreads easily when aided by indifference. Thankfully, there are ways to challenge apathy and there are some — William and MSF, but also many, many people inside CAR itself — who are unwilling to accept the notion that this is how it has to be.
Although the worst of the violence seems to have abated and a new President has been elected, CAR’s future is anything but guaranteed. Should there be better days ahead, however, both William and MSF will have been part of making it so.
The exhibition in the Archway Under the Manhattan Bridge is presented as part of the NYC Department of Transportation’s Artervention Program, in partnership with the DUMBO Improvement District (BID). Space for the 60 Water Street exhibition was graciously provided by Two Trees Management.