CAR: the non-withdrawal of humanitarian problems

By Greg Nicolson 5 April 2013

Before 13 South African soldiers lost their lives in Bangui, many South Africans knew little about the Central African Republic, like that the country had continually been wracked by a cycle of conflict and poverty. South Africa is withdrawing its troops, but humanitarian workers will stay on, tackling the developmental issues that went from bad to worse when the Seleka rebels advanced to the capital. By GREG NICOLSON.

In a short but harrowing sentence, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) summed up the current situation in CAR. “The unidentified bodies of some 30 persons killed in the violence were buried by Central African Red Cross volunteers in accordance with procedures that will facilitate identification by close relatives at a later time,” it said on Thursday in a press release. The bodies are presumably those of civilians, but the Red Cross didn’t offer an explanation or express outrage.

The Red Cross is one of a number of humanitarian agencies working to bring relief to the country that was been shaken by a coup d’état two weeks ago. “Even though relative calm has returned to the city, things are nowhere near back to normal for the people who live here,” said Georgios Georgantas, head of the ICRC delegation in Bangui. “Water and electricity are now being provided on a more regular basis, but all public services have still not been completely restored.” The Red Cross has been administering first aid and is working to try and provide water and electricity to Bangui’s hospitals.

Speaking to a French news agency this week, Action Against Hunger’s regional director Alain Coutand said the coup d’état had harmed the already perilous humanitarian situation. “The looting was massive, especially in hospitals, while health care facilities are already normally grossly inadequate compared to the needs,” said Coutand. People are in need of emergency services and the battle has left many traumatised and they require counselling, he added. Action Against Hunger plans to send more staff to meet the population’s needs but the NGO took a blow during the violence when its base in Bossangoa was destroyed.

The United Nations Children Fund (Unicef) warned last week that two million children were at risk in CAR. “Children in the Central African Republic were some of the most vulnerable in Africa even before the recent upsurge in fighting,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF’s regional director. “It is imperative to have full and secure access to communities affected by the conflict. With every lost day, every thwarted delivery and every stolen supply, more children may die,” he added. The United Nations estimates that at least 4.1 million people are directly affected by the crisis, with schools temporarily closed and food shortages.

“For every day we cannot deliver aid where it’s needed, there is an increased risk of disease and epidemics,” said Souleymane Diabate, Unicef’s Central African Republic representative. “How will the Central African Republic ever move forward if essential humanitarian supplies are stolen from the people who need them the most?” Ten tonnes of emergency supplies were looted from the UN’s main warehouse, including blankets, mosquito nets, plastic sheeting, essential medicines and nutrition items meant for some of the population’s most vulnerable.

The UN Refugee Agency warned on 15 March before the attack on Bangui that the Seleka advancement had seriously harmed the position of refugees and internally displaced persons. After deploying staff to CAR’s prefectures, the agency found that “Most of the internally displaced people we spoke to reported that they were living in fear and insecurity: 88% of community members surveyed told us they do not feel safe,” said spokeswoman Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba. “In addition, 99% of the 168,000 children who went to school before the crisis are no longer in school. Even more worrying, one in five of the children out of school is believed to have been forcibly recruited by armed groups.” South African troops have been quoted as saying many of the rebel soldiers were children.

Writing on the UN Dispatch site on Wednesday, Carol Jean Gallo explained the crisis in CAR, noting, “Since December, rebel activity has led to a drastic reduction in humanitarian access and at least 175,000 internally displaced persons and 29,000 refugees. In the capital, local vigilante groups ‘began arresting anyone loosely accused of supporting the rebels’ (according to a local writer).” Years of political and military crises have caused rampant poverty, high unemployment, displacement and huge challenges to humanitarian efforts.

South African NGO Gift of the Givers, the largest relief organisation of African origin on the continent, told Daily Maverick it was worried about the situation in CAR but wouldn’t be sending relief. “We are concerned but unfortunately are caught up with a major humanitarian mission in Syria. We converted a building into an emergency hospital. That’s our primary focus for now,” said Gift of the Givers CEO and founder Imtiaz Sooliman.

In a press statement on Tuesday, the CAR coordinator from Medecins Sans Frontieres, Sylvain Groulx, described the situation on the ground. “The situation is slowly improving, although a sense of insecurity is still pervasive during the day and at night we can still hear gunfire and we know that some looting is still occurring. We also notice the fear in the population: people are still afraid to go out, to leave their homes and there is no public transport so even if people do want to get back to work, it’s difficult for them to move around and they face the same problems if the need to go to the hospitals,” said Groulx.

While much focus has been placed on Bangui, MSF is concerned about displacement across the country and the upcoming rainy season that will make parts of the country inaccessible. Water and electricity is not yet restored in Bangui, said Groulx. “People are using little wells in the neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean the water is potable. Lack of water and electricity is also a huge problem for the running of hospitals and health centers,” he added. MSF is supporting hospitals in Bangui and continuing to help the wounded and sick across the country.

MSF, like Action Against Hunger and the Red Cross, remains in Central African Republic after South Africa’s withdrawal. The latest violence is just another episode in the country’s ugly history coup d’états. This time the violence caused immense pain for South Africans and a political migraine for its leaders. But after our withdrawal, the humanitarian problem remains, whether South Africa recognises the country’s leaders or not. DM

Photo: Armed fighters from the Seleka rebel alliance patrol the streets in pickup trucks to stop looting in Bangui, March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Alain Amontchi



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