By Bate Felix and Pascal Fletcher
BANGUI/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Neighbour turning on neighbour, villages razed to the ground, hundreds of victims shot or hacked to death with machetes.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, visited violence-racked Central African Republic on Thursday, where she will feel the shadow of Rwanda's 1994 genocide looming over this latest challenge to the world's conscience and capacity to stop slaughter.
Central African Republic, a former French colony with a population of only around 5 million and a turbulent history, has long been ignored as a remote African backwater on the global policy agenda, watched mostly by its former colonial master, human rights rapporteurs and development experts.
But waves of massacres and reprisals by Muslim and Christian militias have killed hundreds there since rebels seized power in March, waking the world up to the fact that it might be witnessing the prelude to another Rwanda, where 800,000 were hacked, shot or clubbed to death in 100 days.
"We have come here to hear how you, the people of Central African Republic, are doing, and how we can help," Power told victims of the violence at a hospital in the capital Bangui.
Speaking in Nigeria a day earlier on Wednesday, Power said that while the world had seen great atrocities before, each situation was unique, and direct comparisons between Central African Republic and past crises were "inevitably flawed."
"But it is worth noting that Somalia taught us what can happen in a failed state, and Rwanda showed us what can occur in a deeply divided one," she said. "The people in Central African Republic are in profound danger and we all have a responsibility ... to help them move away from the abyss."
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, described how the fighting between mainly Muslim Seleka rebels and "anti-balaka" Christian defence groups has spiralled into a murderous vortex of tit-for-tat killings that is tearing apart the nation's towns and countryside.
"When neighbours are killing neighbours, it becomes almost impossible to stop," said Bouckaert, who recently visited Central African Republic.
Power, who was named U.N. ambassador by President Barack Obama in June and is a member of his Cabinet, knows better than most what happens when the world hesitates to act decisively, or even looks the other way, when faced with indiscriminate bloodletting.
Before becoming a diplomat, the former journalist, rights activist and Yale and Harvard scholar gained global fame by dissecting the U.S. failure to stop 20th-century genocides in Rwanda and elsewhere with her Pulitzer Prize-winning book "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide".
Power's trip to Bangui is a high-profile diplomatic initiative to ensure that the same kind of "system silence, system failure" she has said led to the world standing by as Rwanda's genocide unfolded is not repeated in Central African Republic.
"It's something very close to her heart obviously because of her history," said one senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
WHEN IS IT GENOCIDE?
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned on November 21 that Central African Republic was "on the verge of genocide", and there are those who believe the international community is again, as in Rwanda, arriving with too little, and already too late, in the traumatised country.
The roughly 1,600 French troops hurriedly deployed in recent weeks to help a largely ineffective force of 3,200 African peacekeepers are too thinly spread to prevent tit-for-tat attacks that have killed over 500 people since December 5 alone.
Fabius said on Tuesday some European countries will send troops to support the French-African mission.
The United States has pledged $40 million to help pay for the African Union peacekeepers - a mission which is also being funded by the European Union - and $60 million more in defence support, which includes airlifting African troops into Central African Republic and helping train and equip those troops.
But even characterising the slaughter in Central African Republic is a diplomatically touchy topic, as it was in the case of Rwanda in 1994. Then, officials in U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration deliberately delayed calling the massacres of Tutsis by Hutus there "genocide" in public for fear it would spark an outcry for action they were loathe to take.
Clinton subsequently expressed regret for failing to intervene in Rwanda. Washington at the time was reluctant to avoid another risky foray into another messy African conflict after the 1993 killings in Somalia of U.S. soldiers, whose bodies were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
Although Fabius and the United Nations have warned of the risk of genocide in Central African Republic, the United States has so far avoided using the highly-charged word.
"It's a very explosive word to use after what happened in Rwanda. There is a strong resistance to invoking the ghost of Rwanda," said Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch. He added: "It's certainly a discussion worth having."
U.N. officials have said that failure to intervene could eventually lead to a genocide in the country.
Power - in her previous lower-profile post as Obama's senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights on the National Security Council - was instrumental in setting up a White House Atrocity Prevention Board. The panel, which Power chaired, is aimed mainly at detecting signs of human rights crises and driving international action to pre-empt them.
A senior U.S. administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the board had met several times already on the situation in Central African Republic.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
The country's latest cycle of killings and reprisals was triggered by an assault on the capital Bangui by Christian militia, who were retaliating against what Bouckaert called a campaign of brutality since March by the Seleka rebels, many of whom come from neighbouring Chad and Sudan.
"The Christian community is absolutely furious about what Seleka has done," Bouckaert told Reuters.
He said Seleka had conducted a "reign of terror" since March, plundering and burning villages, hunting down Christian farmers and committing atrocities, such as tying up prisoners and throwing them into rivers to drown.
"The reign of terror has now sparked a furious counter-reaction, a murderous one," from members of Central African Republic's Christian majority, Bouckaert said.
Many of these had organised themselves into self-defence militias called 'anti-balaka' which have been hunting down and killing Muslims, aided in some cases by gunmen loyal to former President Francois Bozize, who was ousted by the Seleka rebels.
"Balaka" is the local Sango word for "machete", but despite their name, the Christian militiamen and their supporters have used machetes as the weapon of choice, hacking Muslims to death in their homes and on the streets. "Seleka" means alliance.
On the streets of Bangui, residents terrorised by daily killings said the world's response had been slow in coming.
"When Seleka began seizing territories in the north last year, President Bozize pleaded with France for help. If (French President) Francois Hollande had reacted positively then to Bozize's call, we would not be in this situation today," said Victor Bambou, a farmer.
"The U.N. and France did not take preventive measures at the start of the crisis. They have a share of responsibility in what is happening in Central African Republic today," said Joseph Bella, a retired lecturer.
It is not just the international community's peacekeeping response that is coming in for criticism.
Last week, the international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres sharply upbraided U.N. humanitarian agencies for what it called their "appalling" performance" in addressing the needs of victims of violence in Central African Republic.
World Food Programme Executive Director Ertharin Cousin deflected the criticism but said up to a quarter of Central African Republic's people risked going hungry.
Human Rights Watch's Bouckaert said "a relatively small investment" by the world community could avert more slaughter. But the expanded security and humanitarian operation needed to happen quickly.
"We need action, not study trips," he said.