Central African Republic: ‘We have become the targets

13Jun 2018
The Guardian
Central African Republic: ‘We have become the targets

Philip Kleinfeld spent five weeks reporting from inside the peacekeeping mission in CAR. His three-part series looks at UN operations in one of the world’s most neglected and least understood conflicts, the violence that hobbles humanitarian efforts, and rape victims left to fend for themselves long

Paulin-Germain Dobot with a photo of his brother Gabriel Ole, who was executed while working with an NGO

after initial revelations of their abuse by peacekeepers faded. 

The convoy set off from Bossangoa early in the afternoon on 25 February destined for Markounda, a remote town in the northwest of the Central African Republic. Inside were three members of a local non-governmental organisation called Bangui Sans Frontières, two officials from the country’s Ministry of Education, and a consultant working for UNICEF.

They were travelling on a road that countless humanitarians had used before, on their way to perform work that should have guaranteed them safe passage: educating children displaced by conflict. But roughly 18 kilometres from their destination, they were ambushed by an armed group, marched a few hundred metres into the bush, and executed in cold blood.

“The only weapons they had were chalk, a blackboard, and a notebook,” said Paulin-Germain Dobot, brother of Gabriel Ole, the UNICEF consultant. “What did they do in order to deserve this?”

The six educators were the latest victims in a wave of violence by armed groups against humanitarian workers in CAR, a conflict-torn nation where half the population of 4.7 million is in need of assistance and one in four people is either internally displaced or living as a refugee in a neighbouring country.

Between January and September last year, 265 security incidentsinvolving NGOs were recorded, from physical attacks on personnel to looted compounds and vehicles; a total of 14 humanitarians had lost their lives by the end of December. During the first quarter of 2018, there were 63 incidents targeting aid workers, including the one that left Ole and five others dead.

“At the beginning, rebels respected humanitarian actors,” said Lewis Alexis Mbolinani, director of JUPEDEC, a leading Central African NGO. “Now, we have become the target.”

This violence against humanitarian workers is a byproduct of increased armed conflict throughout CAR, a country one and a half times the size of France. The lack of an effective, functioning state and the failure of the UN’s mission, MINUSCA, to keep the peace makes it incredibly difficult for aid workers to provide even basic services to civilians.

That task has become even harder as the conflict has spread into new, less accessible areas and the number of armed groups has proliferated. Needs have grown, even as access has shrunk.

Elections in 2016 had raised hopes of a resolution to the violence that swept through the country in 2013, when rebels from a predominantly Muslim alliance called the Séléka took power in a coup, sparking a backlash from a mostly Christian militia known as the anti-balaka.

But, in 2017, violence broke out again, with the rebels splitting into competing factions and fighting for control over CAR’s resource-rich territory. The previously clean battle line has since been replaced a dozen times over by an ever-expanding and unpredictable array of armed groups.

As the conflict has fractured, so have the lines of communication to armed groups – which can be deadly for organisations trying to deliver aid across increasingly murky zones of rival control.

“If there are only a couple of factions, it is easier for us to know who to talk to and to explain our neutrality and our impartiality to,” explained Paul Brockmann, Médecins Sans Frontières’head of mission in CAR. “But, with the constant splintering of groups, it is hard for us to find the interlocutors and establish relationships of trust.”

Hear more from Paul Brockmann from MSF.Even when NGOs have well-established contact with armed groups, regular dialogue becomes difficult in times of conflict. When violence erupted last December in Paoua, a remote town in northwestern CAR, staff with the Danish Refugee Councilfound themselves unable to move over several routes leading in and out of the city, even though the group had worked in the area since 2007.

“If [the armed groups] are there and not fighting, they are reachable,” said the NGO’s country director, Martine Villeneuve. “But when there is a conflict it becomes very difficult. If something happens, there is nobody we can call to take care of us.”

Hear more from Martine Villeneuve from the Danish Refugee Council.

“If I don’t receive treatment I will die”

As the conflict in CAR spreads, a growing number of Central Africans have been forced to take refuge in increasingly remote locations beyond the reach of humanitarian missions.

NGOs have also been forced to suspend programmes and withdraw from several heavily populated regions, aggravating an already dire humanitarian crisis.

Last November, MSF suspended its activities in Bangassou, a mid-sized town in southeast CAR that has become an epicentre of violencesince the emergence of new “self-defence” militias. MSF, which suffered 40 attacks by armed groups in CAR last year, had set up a mobile clinic in a camp for internally displaced Muslims who militias keep from accessing a community health centre.

“For a long time, we have received no medical assistance,” said the camp’s coordinator, Ali Idriss.

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