Villages in grip of crisis in Central African Republic

In the Central African Republic, a million people have fled their homes, and around half the population is in urgent need of assistance as a result of violence during the past year. Among the most affected are children, who have suffered increasingly from malnutrition and become targets of violence.

At the Infant Jesus of Prague Catholic Church in Baoro, thousands of Christian and Muslim families sleep side by side. Their possessions are what little they could carry after clashes between ex-Seleka combatants and anti-balaka militia.

The church is guarded by MISCA, the African Union peacekeeping force. Father Renato, who has lived and worked in Baoro since 1977, says, “Now it’s not safe for them, and especially the Muslims, to leave the camp, because of the anti-balaka around town.”

Achete Isene, who is breastfeeding her 3-month-old baby in the camp, says she is not afraid of the anti-balaka, but rather she needs money to get out of the camp and go and find her four other children, who she thinks are in a nearby town. She was separated from them during the fighting.

Both communities are suffering

What started as a political crisis has escalated into a brutal conflict and turned into a complex humanitarian emergency.

Monique Nganga, a mother of 11 children, says, “Both communities have suffered, whether it was during the Seleka or during anti-balaka. Both Christians and Muslims have suffered the same.”

While all groups have been affected, entire Muslim communities are fleeing to neighbouring Chad and Cameroon. In the Bouar mosque, an estimated 8,000 Muslims took refuge after violence in mid-January.

Loads of bags, mattresses, pots and pans are packed on vehicles of all sizes awaiting a MISCA convoy to travel safely to the Cameroonian border, because they fear being attacked by the anti-balaka en route. Eventually the convoy arrives, and 2,000 people pile on top of overloaded trucks and cars leaving Bouar.

Those who are left hope that they can make the next trip. As evening sets in, three MISCA soldiers create a barrier using school desks to enclose the camp.

Rising malnutrition

For weeks, these families have not been able to leave the site, which has taken its toll. In a recent nutrition screening, 21 children were diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition. Those with complications were discreetly transported to the Bouar District Hospital, while those without complications were treated at the site because aid workers did not want to risk removing them from the camp. Here they are given a high-energy peanut supplement provided by UNICEF and partners.

Malnutrition will be a great concern,” says Wilfried Komoyo, Director of the Bouar District Hospital. “Because people were displaced, some kids will not have treatment for malnutrition, and they will come back more sick than they were before.”

The mass displacement over the past year and the loss of agricultural lands, food shortages, and lack of access to basic services mean that an estimated 28,000 children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition, and 75,500 children will suffer from moderate acute malnutrition in 2014.

A girl, seated beside her mother on a cot, eats from a package of ready-to-use therapeutic food at a malnutrition centre in Bangui Paediatric Hospital in Bangui, the capital. 

Identifying the most vulnerable

The situation will prove a major challenge for humanitarian groups, especially in remote regions of the country like Bouar, where insecurity persists and poor infrastructure hinders access. While humanitarian agencies are scaling up relief efforts, UNICEF mobile teams work with partners to assess situations quickly and respond.

We’ve been using the mobile team approach since we resumed operations in late June 2013,” says Mr. McCarthy. “And we’ve used this approach to reopen health facilities to see to the resumption of water services, support to hospitals and also to identify children who need special protection.”

As this emergency evolves on a daily basis, much more needs to be done to protect communities and assist vulnerable children and women with basic needs.