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2017 Feature, Large Newsroom finalist

Central African Republic

About the Project

On the surface, the Central African Republic would seem to be a country that has all the ingredients for prosperity and stability. Its relatively small population of 4.5 million shares a nation the size of Texas, which is filled with bountiful resources including timber, diamonds, gold, and uranium. For much of the 57 years since its independence from France, its numerous ethnic groups have avoided major conflicts and enjoyed peace. So why has it suddenly collapsed?

Many news organizations covered the peak of the violent conflict that destroyed much of the nation and left nearly a million people homeless. But few journalists remained once the shooting stopped.

National Geographic sought to take a longer view. Beginning in 2013, photographer Marcus Bleasdale and writer Peter Gwin covered the Muslim rebels that toppled the government, the Christian militias that arose to fight them and the UN peacekeepers who arrived to restore order. Over the course of three years, they returned several times.

Bleasdale’s harrowing photos depict the violence and challenges faced by the people trying to rebuild their smoldering communities, now devoid of courts, schools and health clinics. Gwin’s nuanced essay delves into the layers of history, politics and culture that set the stage for the violence. In particular he notes that the lack of paved roads — the fewest in the world by the UN’s count — has created deep frustration as the landlocked nation’s trade routes are literally mired in mud during the lengthy rainy season.

As an online-only companion to the story, we published a 10-minute film comprising video Bleasdale shot over the course of his assignments, titled “Inside a Civil War Most People Have Never Heard Of.” The film, shared in full on Instagram, reached nearly 2 million viewers.

Edited by Kathryn Carlson and written by Gwin, the film takes viewers through the chaos and gunfire of roiling street fights, into a rebel-held goldmine and through the refugee camps that now shelter much of the population. This is what civil war looks and sounds like: dead, bloodied men slumped over on benches, wheelbarrows with bodies being wheeled down the street.

“We think of civil war as two armies facing off,” Bleasdale says in his narration. “But what it really looks like is everyday moments of terror in the streets. And as the conflict trickled down into communities, it sparked tit for tat murders fueled by revenge.”