Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Africa: Fear reigns in Central African Republic and once again civilians bear the brunt

Source: European Commission Humanitarian Aid department

Suddenly, there was an eerie hush; even tiny babies stopped crying and the waiting patients lowered their eyes clutching their papers ever tightly.

A brand new pick-up with half a dozen men in clean military fatigues, armed to the hilt had screeched to a halt near the mobile clinic on the dusty main road that leads to Chad. A young leader and his entourage leaped out and barked orders.

As he spoke, there was silence amid the fifty plus Central African Republicans, most of them with young babies or toddlers. The mothers had gathered here for the EU funded tri-weekly mobile medical clinic run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Nana Outta, a village near Kaga Bandoro in the central part of the country, almost 250 kilometres from the capital Bangui.

These soldiers are part of the current Transitional authority of Central African Republic (CAR), and they were here to address an issue related to a nearby village and a dispute with the village Chief. They left after a short while. However, the reaction of the civilian population was palpable: absolute fear.

For Noelle B, who was at the clinic with her three month old baby, the reflex to run was great. “It is because ICRC are here, and the staff are present that I am still here, [waiting for health treatment] otherwise, all these people you see here, would have run into the bush again.”

The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) has been present in CAR and funding humanitarian organisations like ICRC, throughout the country for a number of years. On a recent two-day visit to CAR, the European Union’s Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, Kristalina Georgieva, expressed her grave concerns over the ongoing instability in the country.

The Commissioner highlighted the urgent need for the rule of law to be established across CAR which is essential for humanitarian organisations and civilians alike to provide and have access to much needed services. Commissioner Georgieva also announced additional humanitarian funding of €8 million, bringing the Commission’s contribution to €20 million for CAR this year.

With over 200 000 people uprooted from their homes, a collapsed health system, completely looted public facilities and a terrorised population, most of CAR’s 4.6 million people have been affected by the latest crisis with 1.6 million of those in urgent need of basic life-saving services.

The ICRC medical delegate based in Kaga Bandoro, Dr Geo Balmor, explains. “The majority of the cases we see here are malaria – which is on the increase – respiratory tract infections as well as skin and diarrhoeal diseases.” Dr Balmor adds: “By moving the medical teams closer to the population on a regular basis, we have treated almost 5 000 people in the last six weeks. Almost 60% of the patients were children under the age of five and 50% of the cases were malaria.”

For Elisabeth N, this is her second visit to the mobile clinic, her legs ache again and she cannot sleep for the pain. “I am old and I can barely walk. I live alone. My sons live in fear and are hiding in the bush because of armed men who steal from us and take our crops, livestock and everything.” She added: “I live on wild tubers and wait for the rare moments when my sons sneak into the village and share their food with me.”

Clarisse K, who feels unwell and is also worried about her six month-old, Jan, laments that most of the villages are empty and that even she has come from the ‘bush’ and will return there after the treatment. “People hide in the bush away from their villages and – babies are born there, babies die there and so do women who dare not come out because they are afraid – our lives are tough in CAR – I pray to God for peace and stability so Jan, my child, can have a different life.”

The civilian population of Central African Republic has rarely seen stability; most regime changes have come with violence and coups. The last leader was ousted in March this year when a coalition of rebel groups, SELEKA – which means ‘alliance’ in the local language, Sango - marched into Bangui, the ramshackle capital of one of the poorest countries in the world, and imposed their rule.

By Malini Morzaria, ECHO’s Regional Information Officer for Central East and Southern Africa