Central African Republic: Hidden Heart of Africa

If you were to shoot an arrow into the dead center of the African continent, it would land in the Central African Republic (CAR), a place few Americans—at least until recently—are likely to have heard of. But those who have traveled there know that in many ways CAR represents the wild heart of Africa, a nation the size of Texas with thousands of square miles of dense tropical forests and fertile, rolling savannahs.

Today, CAR has the fewest miles of paved roads on the continent, no rail lines, and one of the planet’s smallest electric grids. The UN ranks it as the world’s third-most impoverished country, where the expected lifespan of a baby born today is 50 years. And yet, it is a place filled with treasure, including deep reserves of diamonds and gold, forests thick with timber, and rich deposits of uranium and petroleum. It is also teeming with game, which supports a thriving bush meat trade. (Though in recent years poachers have practically eliminated its once boundless elephant herds.) As one CAR academic described it, “We are a poor nation but not because of a lack of resources. No one is starving to death here."

Until recently, the country’s six million people (85 percent of whom are Christian or animist and 15 percent Muslim) had peacefully coexisted with few exceptions. Last year the nation descended into a brutal civil war that has seen Christian and Muslim militias rampaging through much of the country, displacing tens of thousands of CAR’s population and effectively dividing the nation into de facto Muslim and Christian zones.

Meanwhile, in the remote far eastern part of the country, the notorious Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony has taken advantage of the security vacuum. In recent months, his embattled Lord’s Resistance Army has set up bases in the region and kidnapped several young men and women to serve in his guerrilla army.

The goal of this project is to look comprehensively at CAR and the roots of its current conflict, which remain poorly understood, and to describe the broader impact of the violence on the people, the land, and its resources.

Meet the Journalist: Peter Gwin

How does a country fail? Peter Gwin spent three years traveling to the Central African Republic to look at how a rebellion destroyed the nation and what's happened to its wealth of resources.