Over the last week, the city of Bangassou in Central African Republic (CAR) has seen a surge of violence after intense fighting broke out between the UN forces and an armed group. In recent years, CAR has been devastated by a civil conflict that began in December 2013, and this recent violence is the latest indication that tensions remain at critical levels. On Tuesday, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) called on all parties to agree to a ceasefire to allow for the deployment of urgent medical aid.
MSF physician Dr. René Colgo, who is currently the deputy head of mission coordinating MSF's emergency response in Bangassou, describes the situation in the embattled region:
By René Colgo
We had known for weeks that they were getting closer … We were told they were 60 kilometres away. Two weeks ago, as we were on our weekly visit to the health centre of Yongofongo — approximately 25 kilometres from Bangassou — we came across people fleeing the village. They told us that an armed group had taken over the village and killing three civilians in the market. A fourth person who tried to flee was caught and murdered. On Monday 8, another incident happened between the same armed group of Yongofondo and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) that left five UN soldiers dead and ten wounded. On the opposite side, there was a dozen of wounded and an unknown number of deaths.
Lives at risk
So when the shooting started in Bangassou on Saturday morning around 3 a.m., I cannot say I was surprised. If we were ready? Sure, we were ready to treat the wounded. We had put in place a contingency plan at the hospital. We had set up a tent with 18 extra beds to accommodate the wounded. But how to prepare for panic and chaos? How to prepare for that feeling of hopelessness that comes over you when you know that there are people out there that need your help, but you cannot reach them without putting your life at risk? How to prepare when you know so many lives are at risk? For the fatigue that grips you as a result of the constant strain? I am not sure these are things you can ever be prepared for.
Everything happened very quickly. When gunshots started in the Tokoyo neighbourhood, the Muslim area of town, people scattered in all directions, running into the night to find shelter where they could, at a friend’s place, in the church, in the mosque, in the grounds of the hospital… A tide of people and then, nothing. The city remained empty for two days. Only armed men ventured into the streets. Not a sound, except for gunfire’s.
- Read more about Central African Republic: MSF calls for a ceasefire in Bangassou to allow delivery of urgent medical aid
'They are scared'
At the hospital we received 22 wounded on Saturday, and four more on Sunday morning. An estimated of 500 people trickled in and settled in the yard and in the corridors, hoping that the fighters would refrain from attacking a medical structure. They are scared. Some are thoroughly traumatized such as a woman in her thirties from the Toyoko neighbourhood. She came with her husband in a state of shock, her eyes still full of the violence she had witnessed: neighbours being mowed down by gunfire or machetes, houses being looted or set on fire. MSF psycho-social team offered immediate support and she eventually managed to recover a little. She is now waiting together with her family in the yard of the hospital to see what will happen next. We live in the present moment, ready to react. We are the only organization in Bangassou that is able to provide emergency medical care.
As we speak we are especially concerned by the faith of those men, women and children who sought refuge in the mosque in Tokoyo. We are assisting people who have sheltered in the hospital, the catholic mission is helping those who are in the church, but those who are now in the mosque are completely cut off. For two days they have had no access to water or food, while the temperature rises up to 30 degrees. Among them, there are wounded people as well as bodies of people who were brutally murdered on Saturday morning fight. On Sunday evening the bishop of Bangassou managed to escort a few women and children from the mosque to the church and a few others, traumatized or wounded, to the hospital.
We finally reached the mosque on Monday 15 where we were able to provide some emergency health care. Out of 25 wounded patients, we treated ten; another five needed surgery. Suddenly, the gunfire went off again all around us and we had to flee, leaving 250 refugees behind in the mosque.
The city of Bangassou is unrecognizable: armed men are shooting guns everywhere, helicopters are flying over our heads. We fear for the worst if effective long-term measures are not put into place to insure the protection of civilians.
Dr. René Colgo is deputy head of mission coordinating MSF's emergency response in Bangassou, Central African Republic