This is what courage looks like

The Central African Republic is sliding deeper into a humanitarian crisis. Meet five local heroes determined to protect the country’s children.

by Ashley Gibertson and Harriet Dwyer
© UNICEF/UN0239532/Gilbertson VII Photo
© UNICEF/UN0239532/Gilbertson VII Photo

30 November 2018
Photographer Ash Gilbertson travelled with UNICEF to the Central African Republic, where nearly two in three children – around 1.5 million – are in urgent need of aid amid an escalating humanitarian emergency. There he met some of the Central Africans who are demonstrating remarkable bravery, resilience, and commitment to their country’s children.

 

 

Tanguy Mandakatcha: A protector of children

In the past two years, Tanguy Mandakatcha, 34, has been a foster mother to 11 children separated from their parents because of the fighting in the Central African Republic. The children live with Mandakatcha, her husband and their own three children at the family’s home in a Christian neighbourhood in the town of Bambari. They will remain until Esperance – the UNICEF-supported NGO in which Mandakatcha works as a gender-based violence specialist – can trace their families and make sure it is safe for them to return. Seydou Ousmane, 8, is the most recent arrival among the 11 foster children – and the first who is Muslim.

“I am a protector of children,” Mandakatcha says. Seydou’s mother is dead, and his father was killed in the fighting. Seydou says he walked some of the 50 kilometres from his hometown of Maloum, then was picked up by a truck driver who dropped him off at the marketplace in Bambari. He slept there with other children living on the street until an aid worker found him and brought him to Esperance. According to Mandakatcha, none of her neighbours has told her they have a problem with her hosting a Muslim child. “This is a crisis,” she says. “There are so many children who need help. He’s just a child.”

 

 

UNICEF/UN0239529/Gilbertson VII Photo
UNICEF/UN0239529/Gilbertson VII Photo

Gbiassango Kommando Alain: primary school principal  

When fighting broke out in Bambari in April 2014, Gbiassango Kommando Alain, Director of L’Ecole Application Mixte, ran through the school’s classrooms, unscrewed the wooden windows and doors, and stashed them in his home to keep them from being stolen. Everything else was looted, and dead bodies were dumped into the school well. Over the break this summer, around 80 students, many of them displaced, took part in a UNICEF-supported ‘catch-up’ session at L’Ecole Application Mixte to make up for the school days they missed.

“We need security. Once we have security, you’ll see all the schools reopen and all the children return,” Alain says. “Everything that has happened in this country is because people have had no education – so they’ve become bandits and rebels. Schools teach citizenship and rights. Social cohesion begins in schools. Where there’s social cohesion, there’s peace.”

 

 

UNICEF/UN0239457/Gilbertson VII Photo
UNICEF/UN0239457/Gilbertson VII Photo

Jacqueline Tchebemou: a doctor in the country’s only paediatric hospital

Dr. Tchebemou works at the only paediatric hospital in the Central African Republic, treating a seemingly never-ending stream of children suffering from the most severe cases of malnutrition.

“It’s really sad because it’s an illness that can be prevented. But we’re still seeing dozens of cases every day.  Sometimes children arrive here in very serious condition,” she says. “They go straight to the emergency ward and some die. It’s painful. The situation is deplorable, and it’s getting worse.” Currently, more than 43,000 children under the age of five are at an extremely elevated risk of death due to severe acute malnutrition (SAM). The number of children suffering life-threatening SAM has risen by a third since 2014.

 

 

UNICEF/UN0239520/Gilbertson VII Photo
UNICEF/UN0239520/Gilbertson VII Photo

Celestine Yaya: the neighbourhood midwife   

Celestine Yaya is a traditional midwife. She was trained by missionaries in 1985, and has delivered thousands of babies since then. Today, she says, she delivers up to ten babies per week in a spare room in her mud brick home – with no medicine or machines. The mothers who come to her often don’t have a choice – the closest hospital is about three kilometres away on a dirt road. Once there was a functioning ambulance, but today that’s used to taxi doctors to and from their homes, and women cannot afford the cost of a motorbike taxi. The hospital doesn’t charge, but the women won’t be helped unless they can pay for gloves, compresses, or medicine. “I’m working for the future, and training other women to come after me,” Yaya says.

 

 

UNICEF/UN0239558/Gilbertson VII Photo
UNICEF/UN0239558/Gilbertson VII Photo

Laurent* (name changed): a former child soldier and advocate

Laurent*, 20, spent about 18 months as a child soldier in the Central African Republic. He was released in August 2015, and then spent a year in a UNICEF-supported reintegration programme. By September 2018, he was a trained mechanic and had learned how to grow vegetables and raise animals, as well as basic literacy.

In early December 2013, Laurent recalls, he joined the anti-Balaka militia in Bangui. That was the day when Muslim and Christian communities, encouraged by armed groups, engaged in a killing rampage. “They [the Seleka] came into my neighbourhood. We were being attacked, and we were fighting back,” he says.

“Things are OK for me now,” Laurent says. “I can make my own living. But for UNICEF to really help, then we need to get all the kids out of armed groups. Go through the country and find all the children who have nothing, who sleep out in the open. Put them in school. If they don’t study, fine. But if they do, you need to help them. Many girls are forced to sell their bodies just to survive, and it shouldn’t be that way. What we need is jobs. As long as I can make enough money every day to feed myself, I will never go back.”