What does it mean to be a witness?
Why is it important to bear witness
to people's suffering,
especially when those people
are isolated from us?
And what happens when we turn away?
Three years ago, I traveled
to the Central African Republic
to report on its ongoing war.
I'd heard warnings of massacres
in the country's jungles and deserts,
but no one could locate these massacres
or tell me who was killed, or when.
I drove into this war
with little information.
I witnessed scenes
that were tragic and unreal,
and only at the end did I realize
that I had witnessed
the slow preparation of ethnic cleansing.
The Central African Republic
is a country of about five million people
the size of Texas
in the center of Africa.
The country has known chronic violence
since French colonial rule ended in 1960.
The war I reported on
was between the minority
called the Seleka,
and citizen militias,
called the anti-balaka.
The first sign of the impending cleansing
was the breakdown of trust
Three days after I arrived in the country,
I watched the small city
of Gaga be abandoned.
A battle was about to break out.
And to save themselves,
many people were working
as government spies,
identifying friends and neighbors
to be killed.
Cities and towns,
any place with humans, had become unsafe.
So people moved to the jungle.
I felt strangely isolated
as pigs and livestock
moved into the empty homes.
In a war zone,
you know that you are near the killing
when people have left.
The war moved across the jungle
and reached Gaga,
and I was surrounded
by the thunder of bombs.
Government forces drove into the jungle
to attack a town sheltering a militia.
I rode on motorcycle for hours,
crossing jungle streams
and tall elephant grass,
but I only got to the town
after the government had burned it
and its people were gone.
To see if I could speak to someone,
I shouted out that I was a friend,
that I would not hurt them.
A woman in a red shirt
ran out of the forest.
Others cautiously emerged from the trees
and asked, "Est-ce les gens savent?"
"Do people know?"
The question surprised me.
Their children were hungry and sick,
but they didn't ask for food or medicine.
They asked me,
"Do people know what is happening to us?"
I felt helpless
as I wrote down their question.
And I became determined
that this moment in their lives
should not be forgotten.
In bearing witness to their crisis,
I felt a small communion
with these people.
From far away, this war had felt
like a footnote in world news.
As a witness,
the war felt like history unfolding.
The government denied
that it was committing any violence,
but I continually drove through towns
where people described
from a day or a week before.
I felt overwhelmed
and tried to calm myself.
As I reported on these massacres,
I bought and ate
seeking the familiar
comfort of their taste.
Central Africans ate these sweets
to ease their hunger,
leaving a trail of thousands
of plastic wrappers as they fled.
On the few radio stations
still operating in the country,
I mostly heard pop music.
As the war mounted,
we received less information
about the massacres.
It became easier
to feel a sense of normalcy.
I witnessed the effect
of this missing information.
Two weeks later, I slowly and anxiously
drove into an isolated
a town called PK100.
Here, Christian fighters told me
that all Muslims were foreigners,
evil and allied with the government.
They likened Muslims to animals.
Without neutral observers or media
to counter this absurd narrative,
it became the single narrative
in these camps.
The militias began to hunt down Muslims,
and emptied the capital, Bangui,
of nearly 140,000 Muslims
in just a few months.
Most of the killing and fleeing of Muslims
went unrecorded by witnesses.
I'm telling you about my reporting
in the Central African Republic,
but I still ask myself why I went there.
Why put myself at risk?
I do this work
because I feel that ignored people
in all our communities
tell us something important
about who we are.
When information is missing,
people have the power
to manipulate reality.
we would believe that those thousands
of massacred people are still alive,
that those hundreds
of burned homes are still standing.
A war zone can pass
for a mostly peaceful place
when no one is watching.
And a witness can become precious,
and their gaze most necessary,
when violence passes silently,
unseen and unheard.