CNN Photos

A country spiraling out of control

Long buffeted by war and military coups, the Central African Republic is “a country where everything is broken,” photographer Michael Zumstein says.

The state has disintegrated — there’s no health care or schools, little in the way of roads, and civil servants haven’t been paid in months.

This vacuum of authority has helped create part of the country’s charm, Zumstein says, but it has also enabled its tragedy.

The French-Swiss photographer arrived there in September as the country was descending into a steep spiral of sectarian violence.

Seleka, a predominately Muslim rebel group, seized power in the capital in March. Its members’ attacks on Christian communities have provoked reprisals against Muslim communities from Christian vigilante groups.

The ensuing violence has engulfed most of the country, resulting in a widespread humanitarian crisis. The United Nations has warned that the Central African Republic, one of the world’s poorest countries, is in “free fall.”

The absence of a functioning government created the “perfect field for terror and anarchy,” said Zumstein, who has been covering African countries for about 15 years.

His photos, taken during a series of visits over recent months, document the suffering of the people caught up in the violence, as well as the casual menace of those perpetrating it.

“People are starving, people are leaving their homes,” he said by phone from the country’s capital, Bangui. “Everybody’s displaced.”

With butchery on both sides, one of the most troubling things Zumstein said he has witnessed is children who have been attacked with machetes.

At least 1,000 people have died in the violence, and some 958,000 more have been forced from their homes, according to the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR.

The appointment of a new interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, has raised hopes that the country could begin to chart a course out of the chaos and bloodshed of recent months.

But Zumstein sees little reason for optimism until security can be restored, noting that many Muslims are now fleeing the country to escape the backlash from Christian vigilante groups.

“All the Muslims are too afraid to stay here,” he said, describing the situation as a kind of “ethnic cleansing.”

Photographers and reporters have found it hard to find out what’s happening in the country outside the capital.

“We’ve been out there a few times, and it’s always a very, very bad,” Zumstein said. “Lots of people killed.”

Despite the horrors he’s witnessed, Zumstein says he feels a strong bond with the country and many of the people he’s met.

“People are incredible here,” he said. “They are used to struggling for life, but it doesn’t make them aggressive. There’s a lot of solidarity.”

He says he has hardly ever felt threatened during the time he’s spent covering the country.

“Nobody’s going to stop you from working,” he said. “They are just very happy that people are interested in their situation.”

To Zumstein, the country looks as though it’s trapped in a time warp, more like the Africa of the 1960s than the 21st century. That out-of-time feeling is part of its fascination, he says.

And he’s committed to documenting what’s happening there, no matter what lies ahead.

“I have a lot of friends here,” he said. “It’s a big part of my work now.”

- Jethro Mullen, CNN