Open wounds in the Central African Republic

Open wounds in the Central African Republic
By Valérie Gauriat
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A year after the end of the third civil war that ravaged the Central African Republic an uneasy calm reigns in the capital, Bangui.

Despite a cease-fire deal in July, and the presence of international troops, tensions remain high.

At Bangui’s main hospital, teams from the NGO Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, are on constant alert.

Marine Monet, an emergency physician with MSF, treats a young man who says he was shot by someone with a rifle.

“Sometimes we get two or three patients at the same time,” explained Monet. “It’s been rather quiet lately. But we get this kind of patient, with firearm and machete wounds every day.”

The massacres that followed a coup in March 2013 have left open wounds.

The Seleka rebel coalition, with a strong Muslim component, and led by Michel Djotodia, carried out unprecedented atrocities against non-Muslim civilians.

Predominantly Christian self-defence militias, the Anti-Balaka, had taken over, attacking in turn the Muslim community.

What followed was a trail of horror. The conflict killed some 5,000 people and displaced more than 800,000, inside and outside the country.

Much of the Muslim community has been pushed to the east and the country’s non-Muslim majority is now concentrated in the West and in the capital.

The M’Poko camp for the displaced, near Bangui airport, took in more than 100,000 people at the height of the conflict. Many went into exile; few were able to return home. Members of Bangui’s non-Muslim communities, they fled the attacks of the former Seleka.

Bertin Botto, the M’Poko camp coordinator, said: “Houses were destroyed, burned, people were robbed. The 20,000 displaced people here at the M’Poko camp have no roof, no shelter.

“They suffer, they have nothing. That’s what prevents them from returning home, as well as the ongoing insecurity in the country.”

Frédéric Bopondo, a displaced person, said: “We can’t leave because of the insecurity. Once it’s safe and there’s disarmament, I’ll go home.”

There is great concern in the M’Poko camp, which the government wants to move. Food distributions have stopped and living conditions are harsh. The hospital set up by MSF provides rare support.

We travelled to the West, a region where 90 percent of the Muslim population was scared away by the Anti-Balaka militias, in the wake of massacres carried out by the Seleka.

Those who remain have taken refuge in rare enclaves protected by the UN force in the Central African Republic (Minusca).

In the town of Carnot some 600 Muslims shelter in a church; they have been waiting for months to be able to return home. They cannot venture too far outside, for fear of being attacked.

The Mayor of Carnot, Pierre Dotoua, strives to restore calm in the city, together with the leaders of other communities and the Anti-Balaka.

A few dozen metres from the church, the homes of displaced Muslims have been occupied; it is a precaution against looters and arsonists, says the mayor.

“We did everything to keep these buildings, with the help of the Council of Elders, and the religious leaders,” he explained. “These houses are private property, even if the owners are not there, we must protect them, always, until there is reconciliation.”

That is something many long for, with economic activity at a standstill. And the health situation has never been worse. Here, like everywhere in the country, MSF is acting as a substitute for the failing public health services.

Malaria, respiratory infections and AIDS are the daily realities of the hospital in Carnot. And child malnutrition cases are rising.

Justin Oladedji, a pediatrician with MSF, said: “During the conflict, we received less, because the parents were on the move, others were in the forest, others sought to hide. With everything that went on they were not allowed to grow their crops, so the children don’t have enough to eat. And since the lull, we receive more and more cases. “

The poverty contrasts with the mineral wealth of the region, which depended largely on the diamond industry. Despite an international embargo, the export of central African gems continues, to the benefit of all kinds of traffickers. And crime is widespread.

On the road that goes from the west to the Cameroon border, commercial and humanitarian convoys are often looted.

We arrived without incident at Berbérati, the second largest city in the Central African Republic. Here too, life is precarious and health needs are huge.

Michel Bimako, the MSF head doctor at the Berberati Regional Hospital, said: “Today people come a lot more to the hospital because we provide free healthcare. But before that, when it wasn’t free, they preferred traditional treatments at home. You see, since it’s for free, children come much more to the hospital, otherwise they wouldn’t come.”

Médecins Sans Frontières supports health centres scattered throughout the city, like here in the Potopoto neighbourhood.

There are fewer patients since the Muslim community was forced out, their homes and mosques destroyed. This was the response to the massacres carried out by the Seleka against non-Muslim civilians.

The head of the Potopoto health centre says a return to coexistence is hard to imagine.

“The people who live here now are those who did not have a home,” explained Edward Guioa. “As the former residents left, they came to occupy the houses. And others have just seized the opportunity to go on the rampage.”

We meet those who claim to be the neighborhood’s Anti-Balaka vigilantes: a group of idle youths, many with eyes blurred by alcohol and drugs.

They say the crimes committed by the ex-Seleka are unforgivable. “I will slaughter them,” said one youth, making a gesture of cutting off someone’s head.

“Me, I’m uncontrollable!” said another. “I destroyed the house of Muslims over there! “When you seek death, we give you death! If I find a Muslim, I’ll kill him!” said another youth.

The church of Berberati is where the 350 Muslims who remain in the city fled to. It is impossible for them to venture more than 200 metres from the gate as attacks are frequent.

Despite being threatened, Bishop Dennis Kofi Agbenyadzi and his team are determined to protect their guests and work hard to advocate reconciliation.

“This is a political conflict,” he said. “They used the pretext of religion as a cover up, that’s all. Before that communities never clashed. We strive to make clear that all must have the freedom to move.

“But this message has not yet been heard by some of those who control the situation. This is what pains us. But we are not discouraged, we are not discouraged. “

Fear remains high. Abdou Raman arrived in the city a few days before we met him. Hidden in the bush for months, he was attacked with machetes after he tried to go back to his decimated village.

But behind his distress, there is still hope. “We Central Africans, Christians and Muslims, we are one people,” he told us.

“We’re the same. It is the devil who came between us. We eat together, we sleep together. Muslims and Christians. It’s the politicians who do us wrong. But we will achieve reconciliation.”

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