Abstract

People seeking to understand the scope and scale of violence in the Central African Republic over the past two years have cited a variety of social grievances centring on the political manipulation of religion, belonging, and access to opportunities. Without denying that these factors have played a role, this article argues that the violence must be understood in the context of social practices of violence that long predate the war, especially in light of the diffuse and non-centralized mode of organization through which the ongoing war has played out. The article focuses on the prevalence of popular punishment and vengeance, which have long histories as elements of statecraft in the CAR and have become even more widespread amid the generalized insecurity and anomie that have set in over the past few decades. The article presents evidence of the workings of popular punishment from the intra-family level to that of the crowd and quartier, in both rural and urban locales. Though people have important reservations about popular punishment, they also see vengeance as an important tool for enforcing a circumscribed mode of empathy and a minimum set of standards for social behaviour. These experiences in the CAR suggest that those wishing to understand how wartime mobilization happens must consider not just fighters' grievances but also people's conceptions of the practical and symbolic efficacy of vengeance and popular punishment as elements of politics and the management of threats.

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