One year after rebels seized power in the Central African Republic (CAR), the situation in the country is marked by rising hatred between communities, deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions, and increasing fear and trauma among the population, United Nations relief officials warned today.
Since the conflict started in December 2012 following attacks from mainly Muslim Séléka rebels, thousands of people are believed to have been killed, and 2.2 million - about half the population of CAR - need humanitarian aid.
With more than 650,000 people still internally displaced, and over 290,000 having fled to neighbouring countries, the conflict has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones as mainly Christian militias known as anti-Balaka (anti-machete) have taken up arms.
Volker Turk, head of international protection for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news conference in Geneva that the situation in the capital, Bangui, has deteriorated significantly in terms of security. "What we see now is that the anti-Balaka elements are actually becoming much more militarized," said Mr. Volker, who recently visited the country.
"There is a transformation of violence that is taking place with especially the Muslim populations inside Bangui, but also in other parts of the west of Central African Republic, being increasingly threatened.
The level of hatred is extremely high." Mr. Turk travelled to Boda, a village several hours outside of Bangui, where a Muslim community is essentially "besieged," with a no-man's land between the Muslim quarter and the Christian community.
"I was quite shocked by some of the statements that I heard from this community, saying that they don't want any Muslims to stay in Boda," he said, adding that there would be a massacre were it not for Sangaris - the French military mission in CAR.
Mr. Turk had planned to visit sites for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Bangui but could not because it was too dangerous. "We could see the anti-Balaka elements roaming around the city, sometimes in an extremely unpredictable and dangerous manner."
He said that the amount of fear and trauma within the communities is "extremely high" and that the Government is "absolutely overwhelmed" and has no capacity. "I think we should not have any illusion that we are confronted here with any functioning State structure," he stated. "There's a huge burden that falls as a result on the humanitarian community.
We are in a way the life-line. But the humanitarian community cannot replace what is utterly needed in terms of making sure that this situation gets the international attention that it deserves." Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), reported that ongoing violence has reversed an otherwise positive trend of return of IDPs.
On 27 February, OCHA had reported that there were 276,000 IDPs in Bangui. Two weeks later, on 12 March, the number of IDPs in the capital had decreased by 100,000.
As of today, the number of IDPs in Bangui has again increased from 177,000 to approximately 200,000. "If the violence continues, the internally displaced will not be able to return home before the rainy season, which starts in earnest in mid-April," said Mr. Laerke.
"Violence will also limit humanitarian access and undermine our efforts to stabilize communities and support returns.
The result may be that thousands will have to stay behind in overcrowded sites." Humanitarian agencies in collaboration with the Office of the Mayor of Bangui are working to identify potential relocation sites to transfer people who cannot return home from the M'Poko airport site before the rainy season.
Some 70,000 IDPs are still at that site living in extremely difficult conditions. Lack of funding remains a major concern, Mr. Laerke said, noting that the CAR Strategic Response Plan, which requires some $551 million, is only 22 per cent funded so far.
"We are extremely worried that if we do not get the money that we need to pre-position relief, we will be looking at an even deeper humanitarian crisis in the months ahead."