"In comparison to the abuses, killings, robberies and lootings that the people have witnessed in their neighbourhoods, they feel relatively safe here. But the living conditions in the sites are very difficult. They live in tents built of waste tarpaulins that are full of holes. They sleep on mats on the ground and are exposed to mosquitoes which may carry malaria. Unless the security situation gets better, they will have to stay here in these camps."
A nervous calm prevails as the Central African Republic (CAR) awaits the final round of presidential elections due to take place in early February. Renewed outbreaks of inter-communal conflict since September are keeping the population on edge, with many fearing a flare-up of tensions at any moment.
The security situation has also diminished hopes for the nearly 450,000 people in the country who have been displaced from their homes by the violence of CAR’s ongoing sectarian crisis – as well as a similar number of refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries. It is unlikely that many of them will be returning to their homes anytime soon.
In the capital, Bangui, over 30,000 people have taken refuge in overcrowded, unsanitary makeshift camps across town, or in churches and schools. To enable access to free quality healthcare for this vulnerable population, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is providing medical care and running mobile clinics in five camps around Bangui. MSF also runs a hospital and a maternity clinic, and provides medical care once a week the central mosque in the Bangui Muslim enclave known as PK5.
Gisèle, a resident of the M'poko displaced persons camp in Bangui.
"When there is gunfire or grenades, I cannot go to school," says Stéphane, who has lived in M'poko Camp for two years. He had to flee his district after a group of men burned his house and all the possessions of his family.
At risk of continuing violence and disease
Many people in these camps have witnessed shocking scenes of violence and have had their homes pillaged and looted. Lucienne, a woman in her forties, fled her home two years ago when four of her neighbours were killed. Since then, she has been seeking safety in the makeshift camp at Bangui’s M'poko airport with her family. “Life is too difficult in the camp. It’s unsafe, dirty and the flies are everywhere,” she says as she helps her sick daughter make an appointment at the MSF hospital in the camp.
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In the Benzvi camp, located in a part of Bangui which has seen relatively less violence, some 2,000 people have sought refuge. Many of them have had to flee their homes with little or no belongings, and are sleeping in makeshift tents or out in the open. In order to have something to eat, many rely on small plots of land to grow crops.
MSF comes to Benzvi twice a week to deliver medical care. On an average day, MSF sees around 150 patients, mostly seeking care for diseases such as malaria, respiratory infections and diarrhea – many of which are a result of the deplorable conditions in the camp. In order to ensure camp residents have access to safe drinking water, MSF and partner organization run a water pumping and purifying station that delivers purified water to Benzvi and other camps in case of breakdown of the city water supply.
Meeting with patients at the MSF clinic in Fateb displaced persons camp in Bangui.
'They are too afraid'
Ethna and Nadege have been living in Benzvi since their homes in the PK5 district were attacked by armed groups. Both are single mothers with several children to feed. Their children have fallen ill with malaria several times since they moved to Benzvi, but have received free treatment from MSF’s mobile clinic. To survive, Ethna and Nadege bake cakes and sell them in the street: “We only have enough food for ourselves and our children for one meal a day,” says Ethna.
“During the day, many people return to the neighbourhood where they lived, but they are too afraid to stay there at night so they sleep here in the camps,” says Reims Pali, who works as an assistant field coordinator for MSF. As a Central African himself, he has witnessed the situation in the country descend further into lawless chaos since the last two years: “In comparison to the abuses, killings, robberies and lootings that the people have witnessed in their neighborhoods, they feel relatively safe here. But the living conditions in the sites are very difficult. They live in tents built of waste tarpaulins that are full of holes. They sleep on mats on the ground and are exposed to mosquitoes which may carry malaria. Unless the security situation gets better, they will have to stay here in these camps,” he adds.
Alima: Portrait from Central African Republic's displacement crisis
Before the outbreak of sectarian violence that has gripped Central African Republic since late 2013, Alima, a Muslim woman from Bangui, lived at the Miskin market with her family. One day, armed Christian groups surrounded the neighbourhood and killed people there. After this, she fled with her family (four boys, three girls and her little brother) to find safety at the Central Mosque of Bangui in the PK5 district. After having stayed in the camp for a few days, her little brother (Isen) wanted to return to their home to get some papers that he had not been able to take during their escape. When he arrived back home he was killed by a group of armed men. "My little brother said: 'I am not a Seleka!' But the attackers said he was a Muslim, which was enough to kill him."
Alima shows a photograph of her son, Amousa who was 23 years old at the time of his death.
Alima has never been able to retrieve the body of her little brother. She now lives in the Central Mosque under difficult conditions. She says she lost one of her sons who became ill because of the living conditions in the camp, despite having received treatment by the Red Cross. Amousa, 23, was treated at the Red Cross Centre, but it was too late. Alima is trying to cope by relying on the help of other people living with her in the camp, as she and her husband are unemployed. “We were born here, our parents and grandparents too ... and now we are treated as strangers." Last week, one of Alima’s sons won a soccer tournament. The trophy is proudly displayed in their shelter.
A photograph of Alima's father.
MSF in Central African Republic
Operating in CAR since 1996, MSF now has over 300 international and more than 2,000 Central African staff deployed in the country. In addition to its activities in Bangui (spanning from mobile clinics for IDPs, emergency surgery at the General Hospital and maternity care at Castor maternity centre), the organization runs activities in 15 locations across the country, and also provides assistance to Central African refugees in neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo.