Time for a humanitarian surge in CAR

As one drives around the devastated town of Bossangoa in northwest Central African Republic (CAR), it immediately becomes clear how the implosion of this country is being felt by ordinary citizens.

Bossangoa is the ancestral home of CAR’s former president, François Bozizé. The local population faced brutal attacks by the Seleka rebel group when they launched an offensive that brought down Bozizé in March 2013.  

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In the months that followed, the Seleka, a coalition of mainly Muslim rebels from northeastern CAR, continued to scorch villages, pillage homes, and kill civilians throughout this region. Militias known as the anti-Balaka, who are primarily Christian, fought back against the Seleka, while also demolishing mosques and carrying out reprisal killings against Muslim citizens.

The violence forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. While many residents of Bossangoa sought safety and shelter on the grounds of a Catholic church and a local school, the vast majority of people in surrounding villages fled into the bush. Traveling by road or entering the occupied towns was too dangerous.

Now, after months of terrible violence, this small part of CAR is beginning to stabilize. To be sure, the potential for conflict remains, but many people are returning home.  After months of living in the bush, however, they are returning to destroyed villages, desperate conditions, and shockingly little help from the international community.

On Saturday, my colleague and I stopped in a small village called Bogone to speak with the local residents. Upon seeing our vehicle pull up, a man named René came running toward us. He told us that he had just moved back to his home three days ago after living in the bush for over six months. He was eager to tell us his story.

One day last fall, armed Seleka rebels showed up in Bogone and announced they would “kill all the people and all the animals, and leave nothing to survive but the dogs.” The Seleka then shot two people and began ransacking houses.

René, together with his wife and children, ran into the forest for safety. He said they would pull down large leaves from the trees and sleep on them at night. They moved from place to place every couple of days, trying to stay hidden from the Seleka. René said the family foraged for food each day since even the local manioc fields had been destroyed by Peuhl nomads aligned with the Seleka.

While in hiding, three of his children – aged 7, 5, and 2 – died from illness. He thinks that they died from malaria, but there was no chance to get them to a health clinic to be diagnosed, let alone treated.

When René got word in January that the Seleka-installed president, Michel Djotodia, had stepped down, and that the Seleka threat was reduced, he and his fellow villagers prepared to come out from the bush in anticipation of peace.

Finally, today René is home. But his village is in ruins. Multiple houses had been burned to the ground and the local health clinic had been looted. René says he does not even have seeds to plant when the rains come in April. He and his neighbors are in urgent need of very basic support to get their lives going again, and they wonder why no one has showed up to help.

It is an understatement to say that the situation in CAR is complex. In addition to the many people like René who are returning to devastated villages, tens of thousands are still living in displacement camps. Muslim communities across the country –or at least those who haven’t yet fled– are under a direct threat of anti-Balaka attacks.

There is still extreme insecurity in many areas, with former Seleka rebels continuing to attack and Christian groups carrying out reprisal killings against Muslims. Without question, there is an immediate need for a more robust and effective peacekeeping force – whether from the United Nations, African Union, or the European Union.

But not all of the country is so insecure, and there are many people like René who can be reached right now and are critically in need of assistance. According to the most recent figures, the UN has only received 17 percent of the funds that are needed to respond to the crisis in CAR. The international community failed to prevent CAR from being dragged into chaos; now we can either engage and help rebuild, or keep our backs turned and accept the consequences.

Yarnell is a senior advocate at Refugees International.