I have had many unforgettable welcome receptions at airports around the world. But nothing could have prepared me for my arrival last week in Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic.
More than 70,000 people are crammed in horrendous conditions on the airport grounds. The lucky ones are living under weather-beaten tarps just yards from the runway. Others sleep in the open.
While they may have the protection of international troops, they are exposed to disease, malnutrition and untold horrors beyond the gates. Food is scarce. Malaria could spread. The rainy season will only multiply the problems.
Women and men shared horrific accounts of gang rapes, extortion and brutality. One mother told me how young children have suddenly begun imitating adults with weapons.
“What will happen to our kids,” she asked, “if they don’t know how to play?”
Like its stranded airport refugees, the country is in dire need of a ticket out of its misery.
The past year has brought, in quick succession, the violent overthrow of the government, the total collapse of state institutions and a descent into lawlessness and sectarian brutality.
The implosion of the state has created a set of challenges that is undermining stability and security across an already-fragile region.
Most of the country’s minority Muslims have fled. This ethno-religious cleansing is changing the landscape of the Central African Republic.
In a few scattered places, vulnerable communities have gathered in camps and protected zones, but they are in danger of attack and seized with one objective above all: escape.
I met hundreds outside the Central Mosque in the devastated PK5 neighborhood of Bangui. The road outside was lined with trucks laden with their last possessions.
“On veut la partition,” the signs read. We want partition.
“We want to live here,” one young man explained, “but we won’t stay simply to die here.”
People should not have to beg for partition in order to feel safe.
In a country the size of Texas, about 8,000 African Union (AU) and French troops are all that stand between order and anarchy.
They need help.
The UN Security Council has just approved my proposal to deploy 10,000 troops and almost 2,000 police for a new United Nations peacekeeping mission for the CAR.
This is a welcome step – and highly anticipated by all those I met in the country – but the mission will not fully deploy until September, and time is not on the side of the vulnerable.
Until then, support for the AU and French forces is crucial. I have urged the European Union to provide reinforcements – and I am glad troops are moving in. But even more security assistance is needed during this vital intervening period before the peacekeeping mission is fully operational.
Action must come on two other fronts as well.
The transitional government needs immediate help at ground zero of governance, including support for getting police, judges and prison guards back to work. At the same time, the country needs an inclusive political process to find the path to peace.
Accountability for atrocious human rights violations is central. The United Nations has sent a commission of inquiry to help advance the process. Religious leaders are also crucial to advancing dialogue and ensuring that evacuated people can return home.
With the support of the international community, the people of the Central African Republic can build a future of reconciliation and peace.
I travelled to the country on my way to Rwanda for the 20th anniversary of the genocide. Before leaving, I told the leaders of the CAR that they must heed the lessons of that epic tragedy, not repeat its mistakes.
One religious leader I met spoke of the many difficulties facing the country and concluded, “We are afraid of tomorrow.”
As I saw in Rwanda, communities that have gone through massive national trauma can learn to live together once more in relative harmony.
That is the spirit that the leaders and people of the CAR must rekindle. The international community has an opportunity to help – and an obligation to act.
Not tomorrow – today.
Ban Ki-moon is secretary-general of the United Nations. He wrote this piece for the Washington Post.