Feeble effort dooming Central African Republic, activists say

A survivor of a suspected Anti-Balaka grenade attack waits to go to hospital with the help of MISCA.
A survivor of a suspected Anti-Balaka grenade attack waits to go to hospital with the help of MISCA.
Laurence Geai/NurPhoto/Sipa USA

Extreme violence persists on a daily basis across the Central African Republic.

The inability to protect civilians affected by targeted violence is evidence that the international community is failing the Central African Republic, said humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today.

MSF says it has treated more than 3,600 people for injuries caused by gunshot, grenade, machete and more, since December 5.What little that is being done falls well below acceptable humanitarian standards.

When regular violence returned the country that has been in crisis for nearly a year, in December, people had few options for humanitarian assistance. Medical aid was the only form of assistance many people received for roughly four weeks, claimed Hurum. She described the situation in the Central African Republic as the “roughest mission” in her eight years with MSF.

“There is an exceptional situation going on. I’ve never seen such a high level of violence, in the last few years,” agreed Dr Joanne Liu, President for MSF International.

The organization called on members of the international community, including donors and UN Security Council countries, to take immediate action in order to stop fighting before it escalates further. Other aid groups expressed the same concerns recently.

“Our concern is that CAR may once again fall off the radar and slide into obscurity until the next cycle of violence jolts the country back into the news,” said International Rescue Committee (IRC) country director for the Central African Republic, Sarah Terlouw in the Guardian.

The IRC has managed to provide food support to 10,000 people, but is also struggling to meet growing needs with so few financial resources. The lack of support leaves people with very few options. In addition to the vital supplies that international actors can provide to people in the Central African Republic, they can offer protection. MSF staff have literally put themselves in front of the people they are treating to keep combatants away.

“People need to be given real choices. In view of the levels of violence in Bangui, they need to be able to choose whether to go home or stay where they feel safe. Assistance should be provided wherever they feel safest,” said Dr Liu.

Distribution Challenges

Poor humanitarian assistance makes matters worse. The response in the capital city of Bangui is “appalling,” says MSF adding that help is “practically nonexistent” elsewhere in the country. Mpoko international airport is held up as an example what is going wrong. Water and sanitation fall well below acceptable international humanitarian standards.

“The horrific conditions in Mpoko airport raise the question of whether the slow delivery of aid is a form of deliberate neglect aimed at dissuading people from staying there,” said Dr. Liu.

Fighting erupted at one United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) distribution in December, where witnesses saw tarps being thrown across a barbed wire fence into the camp.

MSF Project Coordinator Lindis Hurum said two trucks arrived at a camp located at Mpoko international airport, carrying plastic sheeting meant for shelters. The sheeting was thrown into the camp, causing fighting between residents. MSF treated three people for injuries as a result of the fighting, she said.

“I think that is an undignified and unacceptable way to respond to the crisis,” said Hurum on a press call today. “It is difficult to distribute things in the camp – I admit that – but it is not reason to take shortcuts.”

UNHCR agreed that the situation in the country is hard. It said that the full story of what happened illustrates the security challenges it faces. The distribution trucks were overwhelmed, forcing the staff to dump the supplies and evacuate, explained Ms. Dalia Al Achi, Public Information Officer/Spokesperson UNHCR in CAR. She said that supplies were not thrown over the fence by UNHCR staff.

“We are all trying here to be doing out best,” said Al Achi. “There are so many needs in all sectors and the funding is so low for this emergency.”

Earlier that day, UNHCR had most of its non-food items stolen. Food and security aid are desperately needed in the country to stabilize the situation. There is agreement between UNHCR and MSF that more international support is desperately needed.

A Brewing Genocide?

The crisis stems from the overthrow of president François Bozizé, in March 2013. The mostly Muslim coalition of rebels called Séléka helped bring Michel Djotodia to power and were soon resolved. However, fighting continued and led to the creation of Anti-balaka (anti-machete) groups, predominantly featuring Christians and Animists.

Initially formed to defend communities from the rogue Séléka groups, Anti-balaka groups began carrying out atrocities of their own. The predominantly Christian country (80.3% of the population) has witnessed increasing targeted attacks against specific groups with Muslims specifically being attacked.

Djotodia resigned the office of president in January, allowing for new leadership to take his place. Interim President Catherine Samba Panza has been tasked with returning order to the country. She told France that it’s 2,000 troops should remain in the country until early next year, when new national elections are carried out. They will be joined by 500 European Union troops, but calls persist for more security assistance.

Though the crisis is not purely along religious lines, it has led international leaders to raise concerns about the potential for genocide. Officials from the UN and France separately warned of genocide, in November. The increase in violence and targeted attacks led to greater concerns. Yesterday, the New York Times editorial board warned of a looming genocide in the country.

“Far more international peacekeepers must be deployed quickly to avert a catastrophe and to let President Samba-Panza prepare for elections by next February,” said the Times editors. “Without urgent action, the Central African Republic’s descent into chaos will soon be unstoppable. The lives of millions of people are at risk.”

MSF, for its part, does not agree with the genocide characterization. While it is distressed by the violence, it does not think that the current situation portends genocide. However, Liu and Hurum did not dismiss the possibility entirely in light of the lack of international response at the present.

Dr Liu said she was pleased when the UN made efforts to address the problem in early December. That optimism fell to the wayside when an adequate response did not materialize. Since then, fighting has continued and Muslims are fleeing the country. There are roughly 100,000 refugees in neighboring countries and roughly one-quarter of the people in the country are displaced. In total, the UN estimates that 1.6 million people are severely food insecure.

UNHCR estimated that some 9,000 people fled for Cameroon in the ten days proceeding February 7. The majority of the people were Muslim women and children running from the violence. More than 60,000 people have sought refuge in Chad since December 5, says the International Organization for Migration. Those trying to leave face challenges along the way. Troops from Chad escorted a convoy of mostly Muslims out of the country. They were attacked by Anti-balaka rebels near the town of Bouar.

“People are left with the choice of living with the fear of dying tomorrow or fleeing for their life. Most are picking their life,” said Dr Liu.

To complicate matters further, the rainy season is fast approaching. MSF says some 40% of its current patients are treated for malaria. They expect that to rise when the rain provides fertile breeding grounds for the parasite-carrying mosquitoes. UNHCR is equally concerned citing the potential for a cholera outbreak due to poor water and sanitation access.

“The rainy season is going to come and it is going to be a really traumatic situation there,” said Al Achi. “People need to get back to their neighborhoods before the rains start.”

Issuing a public call was done in the hopes that more groups will step up their response to the crisis. Al Achi hopes that “more aggressive media coverage ” can bring attention to the problems faced by the Central African Republic.

“The ongoing crusade for us is to bring attention to this problem, and we are having a lot of difficulty,” said Dr Liu.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.