11 December 2013

Africa: Violent Clashes Limit the Reach of Humanitarian Aid in Central African Republic

Sectarian violence between the Muslim and Christian militias in the Central African Republic (CAR), has continued to escalate, resulting in a prolonged humanitarian refugee crisis.

According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), the conflict has led to over a half-million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and forced 69,800 people to flee the country since December 2012. Violence in the capital city of Bangui has displaced at least 137,000 people. While French peacekeeping troops have started disarming fighters, roads are blocked and dangerous, making it difficult for human rights organizations to deliver refugee aid.

Fighting between the armed factions--Séléka and "anti-balaka"--has resulted in at least 400 deaths since Dec. 5. Séléka is the Muslim rebel coalition behind the ousting of President Francois Bozizé in March 2013. "Anti-balaka" means "anti-machete," and refers to Christian militias formed after repeated attacks and lootings on villages by the Séléka.

"The situation really turned sour starting from last Thursday... all of us woke up with heavy shooting," UNHCR's country representative for CAR Etien Kouassi tells MediaGlobal News. "While the French are disarming, not all parties are comfortable with that... some streets are still not passable."

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reports that IDPs are hiding from militias in the bush-- exposed to malaria, without food, water, or shelter. In Bossangoa, a town near Bangui, 40,000 IDPs have chosen to stay at a Catholic church compound. Many civilians have also sought refuge at the Bangui M'Poko International Airport.

"We have a number of IDPs at the airport site-- some 15,000-- which calls for the intervention of humanitarian workers... you have women, children, infants, people sleeping in the open air in this rainy season, so we wanted to go and set up some tent spaces," Kouassi tells MediaGlobal News. "As I said earlier, access is not possible... we had to return to our base with all of the tents, because there are so many sites hosting IDPs."

On Wednesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, António Guterres, announced a 50 percent increase in internal displacement over the past 15 years, drawing attention to the vulnerability of IDPs in CAR. Guterres indicated that 2013 could be a record-breaking year for IDPs due, in particular, to conflict in CAR and Syria.

The majority of support to IDPs has been provided by MSF. MSF workers in Bangui have identified healthcare, sanitation services, shelter, and food assistance for IDPs as primary needs.

Health facilities have become hotspots of violence. Last week, executions at the Hôpital de l'Amitié in Bangui left a dozen dead bodies outside of the hospital. At the Hôpital Communautaire, patients and representatives from MSF and the Ministry of Health have received threats from armed groups.

The fighting has wounded thousands, the majority suffering from gunshot and machete wounds. Currently MSF is delivering mobile clinic services to some 14,000 people within the city.

Violence and instability in CAR has also resulted in hundreds of people crossing Oubangui River to reach the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country already burdened by refugees and armed conflict. The UNHCR is currently supplying facilities to around 800 refugees in the northwestern part of the DRC, at a school in the town of Gbala.

Currently the border between CAR and the DRC is closed. Most civilians are unable to relocate outside of CAR and, consequently, there is increasing pressure on humanitarian organizations to deliver support to the IDPs most in need, particularly children.

According to UNICEF, 2.3 million children have been affected by the crisis in CAR. Eighty percent of primary school students in CAR have stopped their studies due to the fighting. Twenty-two cases of sexual violence against children were verified in 2012, and there may be up to 6,000 children participating in armed forces.

The complexity of the problem and large number of IDPs affected has created a need for widespread inter-agency coordination and collaboration. A Crisis Cell has been formed, consisting of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and UNHCR.

OCHA's Head of Office in Bangui Amy Martin has played a large role in coordinating response efforts for IDPs. She stressed the urgent need for security within the population.

"There has been an absence of state, this is anarchy in multiple phases," Martin tells MediaGlobal News. "People need to feel safe when they go home, and they need to know that their children are safe when they go to sleep at night, and they need to be able to have free movement in the streets to have commercial activities, to go to work."

"Right now everyone is living in absolute fear," says Martin. "If there is a rumor it will provoke a panic and everyone will flee, and the population just can't continue to live like this." - MediaGlobal News

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