Central African Republic

In the Central African Republic, remote villages in the grip of crisis

 

By Suzanne Beukes

On 21 February, UNICEF launches Humanitarian Action for Children (HAC) 2014. This global appeal pulls together the combined needs for those living in the most challenging circumstances – whether large-scale emergencies making headlines around the world or less-visible but no less urgent crises that put the lives and well-being of children and women in danger.

With the aim of providing critical assistance to 85 million people, including 59 million children, the HAC 2014 is the largest humanitarian appeal ever made by UNICEF – $2.2 billion in total – reflecting the increased impact of disasters and emergencies on children around the world.

In the Central African Republic, a million people have fled their homes, and around half the population is in urgent need of assistance as a result of violence during the past year. Among the most affected are children, who have suffered increasingly from malnutrition and become targets of violence.

As recently witnessed in the country’s north-west, while efforts to protect vulnerable populations have had some success, much of the population remains in desperate need of help.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Video
Over the period of a year, according to United Nations estimates, nearly 700,000 people have been internally displaced, and some 250,000 have fled to neighbouring countries.

BAORO, Central African Republic, 21 February 2014 – The road from Bouar to Baoro, in the north-west of the Central African Republic, is a string of charred, ghostlike villages.

A woman carrying a baby stands outside the two-bedroom home where her family used to live, now a burnt shell of a place. Just a few days before, she fled with her husband and eight children into the bush and has stayed there ever since.

“The anti-balaka did this,” she says, shaking her head.

The 80-kilometre journey tells the tale of a society that has been fractured by horrific ethnic and religious violence. Over the period of a year, according to United Nations estimates, nearly 700,000 of the country’s 4.6 million people have been internally displaced and some 250,000 have fled to neighbouring countries. Another 65,000 people have been escorted out of the country by security forces to protect them from harm.

“It’s a situation that has gone from bad to grave," says Robert McCarthy, UNICEF Emergency Coordinator in the Central African Republic. “People are taking up arms. They are emotional, they are fearful, and there are terrible things being done in which children are being targeted.”

Most of the violence has taken place between a militia group known as the anti-balaka and former members of the Seleka, the rebel group that seized power in March 2013 and ruled briefly and with brutal force. As the Seleka were mainly Muslims from the country’s northern and western regions, reprisal attacks by anti-balaka have broadly targeted Muslim communities and have fostered all-out sectarian violence.

Not safe

At the Infant Jesus of Prague Catholic Church in Baoro, thousands of Christian and Muslim families sleep side by side. Their possessions are what little they could carry after clashes between ex-Seleka combatants and anti-balaka militia.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Video
An estimated 28,000 children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition, and 75,500 children will suffer from moderate acute malnutrition in 2014.

The church is guarded by MISCA, the African Union peacekeeping force. Father Renato, who has lived and worked in Baoro since 1977, says, “Now it’s not safe for them, and especially the Muslims, to leave the camp, because of the anti-balaka around town.”

Achete Isene, who is breastfeeding her 3-month-old baby in the camp, says she is not afraid of the anti-balaka, but rather she needs money to get out of the camp and go and find her four other children, who she thinks are in a nearby town. She was separated from them during the fighting.

Complex emergency

What started as a political crisis has escalated into a brutal conflict and turned into a complex humanitarian emergency.

Monique Nganga, a mother of 11 children, says, “Both communities have suffered, whether it was during the Seleka or during anti-balaka. Both Christians and Muslims have suffered the same.”

While all groups have been affected, entire Muslim communities are fleeing to neighbouring Chad and Cameroon. In the Bouar mosque, an estimated 8,000 Muslims took refuge after violence in mid-January.

Loads of bags, mattresses, pots and pans are packed on vehicles of all sizes awaiting a MISCA convoy to travel safely to the Cameroonian border, because they fear being attacked by the anti-balaka en route. Eventually the convoy arrives, and 2,000 people pile on top of overloaded trucks and cars leaving Bouar.

Those who are left hope that they can make the next trip. As evening sets in, three MISCA soldiers create a barrier using school desks to enclose the camp.

Rising malnutrition

For weeks, these families have not been able to leave the site, which has taken its toll. In a recent nutrition screening, 21 children were diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition. Those with complications were discreetly transported to the Bouar District Hospital, while those without complications were treated at the site because aid workers did not want to risk removing them from the camp. Here they are given a high-energy peanut supplement provided by UNICEF and partners.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Video
With persistent insecurity and poor infrastructure in remote areas, the situation presents numerous challenges to humanitarian groups.

“Malnutrition will be a great concern,” says Wilfried Komoyo, Director of the Bouar District Hospital. “Because people were displaced, some kids will not have treatment for malnutrition, and they will come back more sick than they were before.”

The mass displacement over the past year and the loss of agricultural lands, food shortages, and lack of access to basic services mean that an estimated 28,000 children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition, and 75,500 children will suffer from moderate acute malnutrition in 2014.

Mobile teams

The situation will prove a major challenge for humanitarian groups, especially in remote regions of the country like Bouar, where insecurity persists and poor infrastructure hinders access. While humanitarian agencies are scaling up relief efforts, UNICEF mobile teams work with partners to assess situations quickly and respond.

“We’ve been using the mobile team approach since we resumed operations in late June 2013,” says Mr. McCarthy. “And we’ve used this approach to reopen health facilities to see to the resumption of water services, support to hospitals and also to identify children who need special protection.”

As this emergency evolves on a daily basis, much more needs to be done to protect communities and assist vulnerable children and women with basic needs.


 

 

UNICEF Photography: Released from armed groups

 

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