Bangui, Central African Republic — I arrived in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic last week, nearly a year after Concern Worldwide opened our office there in response to the crisis that was sparked off by horrific sectarian conflict. My first stop was M’Poko, a camp that sprung up on the grounds of the city’s airport almost immediately after violence exploded on the city’s streets in late 2013. Early on, it became a symbol of the crisis, and frequently a first stop for international journalists. Now that the media spotlight has long since shifted away, I wanted to get a sense of the current scale of the suffering as part of my mission to document the ongoing humanitarian needs and response, and M’Poko seemed a good place to start.
For people in Bangui, December 5, 2013 was a day so horrific it does not need a month or year to identify it. Instead, it is referred to simply as “le cinq” or “the fifth.”
Corine, 30, remembers waking up in her home to the sounds of gunshots. It was before daybreak. Then the screaming began. She grabbed her three children and ran in the direction of the airport, hoping to find some protection there. Bullets ripped through the sky. “I saw people being killed on the way,” she says.
In the chaos, she and her husband were separated. A few days later, huddled among thousands of other displaced families and the skeletons of abandoned airplanes, she learned he had been killed. Soon after, Corine discovered she was pregnant with her fourth child.
A year and a half later, the family of four still lives on the grounds near the airport, in the camp known as M’Poko. They sleep crammed in a makeshift shelter that could barely house two people, left alone five, atop a torn tarp spread out on the hard, dirt ground.
“Peace is coming, slowly, slowly,” says Debrine, a 27-year-old man. “Christians and Muslims are now cooperating.”
Corine and her family are among hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been decimated by the past two and a half years of vicious violence. In March 2013, the predominantly Muslim Séléka paramilitary group overthrew long-term president François Bozizé and took control of the capital. The security continued to deteriorate and on December 5, 2013, Anti-Balaka, or “anti-machete,” militias, mostly Christian, ambushed the Séléka in Bangui. Anarchy ensued and people — both Christian and Muslim — were slaughtered openly in the streets.
In January 2014, Catherine Samba-Panza was named the interim president of the Central African Republic, but attacks by both the Séléka and Anti-Balaka forces on one another and civilians continued. The conflict sparked a tragic humanitarian crisis, which forced more than one million people from their homes. More than 426,000 of them are displaced within their own country.
However, there are signs that the shattered state could be turning a corner. The most notable occurred last month when armed groups signed a peace accord and agreed to disarm in what is known as the Bangui Forum. The country has also agreed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in October. Other developments have been more gradual and subtle.
One such change can be seen at the main market connecting the center of Bangui to the airport, appropriately called “Marché Combattant,” or “Fighter Market.” The market was a ghost town for months after the fighting broke on December 5th, 2013 out in Bangui. The area is now humming with people buying and selling everything from plantains to phone chargers. “You would only see a chicken walking through here,” says Jeaufa Sanga, a Bangui resident. “Seeing people on the streets is a good sign that life is returning back to normal.”
People are also now moving in and out of M’Poko camp in an effort to carve out a meager living. Louise, 40, is among the women who have returned to the fields to bring back produce like cassava leaves and flowers. “There is now peace in some areas and I can go to the field to feed my family,” she says, referring to her husband and eight children. “Before it was impossible.”
At Bangui’s Central Mosque, the site of another camp symbolic of the country’s hellish inter-community violence, people are also moving in and out of the gates, but most do not feel that they can yet move freely around the city. “Peace is coming, slowly, slowly,” says Debrine, a 27-year-old man. “Christians and Muslims are now cooperating.”
The number of people sheltering at the camps is also dwindling. There are now 18,000 people living in the M’Poko camp, down from as many as 100,000 people at the peak of the crisis. At the Central Mosque, camp leaders say that 1,500 people are living in the camp today, down from 4,000, but many of them left to live as refugees in Chad and Cameroon, rather than their original community in Bangui.
Whether Christian or Muslim, families who are still living in the camps lack financial resources to start anew after fleeing with just the clothes on their backs and losing all that they owned to the anarchy that ate the country whole.
Bienvenu, 39, a pastor in M’Poko camp, and his wife, Charlotte, 38, would like to leave the camp for their neighborhood, but lack the funds to rebuild after their home was burned to the ground in the conflict. “Those who are still living here don’t have the means to go back home,” says Bienvenu. “Peace is coming back. Many of our neighbors have joined our quarter. The only thing holding us back is finances.”
Concern Worldwide, started working in the country last year and is creating opportunities for people to earn cash to help them meet their basic needs and recover what was lost. More than 34,000 people in Bangui recently earned money by repairing roads and drainage systems and received seeds and tools to plant in time for the rains. Those who could not work, which made up about 10 percent of the group, were given cash grants.
“People cannot go back home without security or a way to earn money,” says Amadou Bocoum, Concern Worldwide’s Country Director in the Central African Republic. “Creating job opportunities is not only essential in giving people the means to start anew, but it also helps to sew together the fabric of communities that were torn apart by the conflict.”
However, for some families, money is not the only thing keeping them in the camps. While the groups agreed to put down their weapons, this is yet to become a reality and arms are easily bought and sold here, leaving some people feeling that though security has improved, it is still too fragile.
“I want all people to be disarmed,” she says, cradling her eight-month-old son in her arms. “I want the guns out of their hands.”
Kaltouma Amadou, 60, who lives with her two children and six grandchildren at the Central Mosque camp, says she would like to go home, but is not yet convinced that it is safe enough for her to do so. She said just last Sunday a group of young people from the camp returned to clean the grounds of where their houses once stood in and were threatened and chased away.
“I want to go home, but the problem is security,” Kaltouma says, sitting on the floor of a long, rectangular tent that she shares with more than a dozen women and children. “I will see that peace is here when we can go back to our land freely.”
Kaltouma is not alone in her view that Bangui is not yet enough for them to start rebuilding in their former communities. Just north in M’Poko camp, Corine says would leave if she had the funds, but not to return to the neighborhood she fled on ‘le cinq.’ “I want all people to be disarmed,” she says, cradling her eight-month-old son in her arms. “I want the guns out of their hands.”