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A Sad Show of Hands

Central African Republic, August 1, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Eric Block/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Richard Jacquot, Mercy Corps Deputy Emergency Director and Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) Project Manager Photo: Eric Block/Mercy Corps

Central African Republic (CAR) is a former French colony, about the same size as Texas. Located in the heart of Africa, its neighbors are some of the continent's most unstable and violent countries: Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Although CAR itself has always been unstable, it has been further ravaged by a succession of crises starting a decade ago. These events, including coups and epidemic violence, have destroyed the little infrastructure the country once had and brought the economy to its knees. Instability is partially coming from its neighbors, including an onslaught of refugees from Sudan's Darfur region.

The crisis in CAR is what we call a forgotten complex emergency, which means it falls in between the mandates of the major institutional donors. It is neither a development affair for American or European government funding agencies, nor a traditional emergency like Iraq or Afghanistan for the emergency branches of these agencies. As a result, it gets little attention.

Despite its vast natural resources, CAR is not strategic for anyone. It has diamonds, gold and precious woods, but that is more a tragedy than a blessing, often leading to conflict over who controls and exploits them.

Unfortunately for Centrafricans, the Central African Republic continues to experience both underdevelopment and emergency. In the northeast and northwest, the population is caught in the middle of fighting between the country's armed forces and the rebels contesting the current administration in CAR's capital, Bangui. In addition, villages are raided by bandits from both within and outside its borders who kill villagers, steal their possessions and destroy their villages.

The consequences of these constant harassments are that the populations, in majority farmers, have lost their farming implements, food supplies, livestock and - indeed - dignity as they're forced to flee into the bush. They experience human rights abuses at the hands of the fighters on all sides and women and children are the most vulnerable, often surviving brutal physical and sexual abuse.

The statistics echo the grim reality of a population under severe stress: the country's average income is below $1 a day; life expectancy has fallen over the last decade to 40 years for a male and barely above 41 years for a female; and HIV/AIDS is ravaging the population. While the statistics place the percentage of the population living with HIV/AIDS around 6.5 percent, the anecdotal evidence we have from our assessment in the suburbs of Bangui indicates that, for that area, the national rate for HIV/AIDS is a gross underestimation.

Visible signs of crisis

I am here with Mercy Corps colleagues - some old, some new - on a team assessing how our agency can best help families deal with CAR's multiple crises. We are meeting with other agencies, local organizations and, most importantly, people in Bangui to have conversations that will lead to action.

While there are emergency responses going on in CAR's northeastern and western reaches where there is fighting, there is little immediate attention given to the 600,000 people living in and around Bangui. Some of the conditions we've found in the suburbs of Bangui are as dramatic as in any conflict zones in which I've worked in the past - except that, since Bangui isn't in a conflict zone, it is not getting the attention it needs.

In a recent meeting, we asked those Centrafricans gathered "how many of you have lost a family member to AIDS in the last year?" Six of them raised their hands.

"How many of you have lost a family member to AIDS in the last three years?" Ten out of 12 raised their hands.

"How many of you care for a child who lost her/his parents to AIDS?" All twelve raised their hands.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is only worsening the country's already deep, endemic poverty. Among the population, opportunities are rare due to the disappearance of businesses that did not survive the last ten years of instability and fighting. There are entire households of HIV/AIDS orphans with no assistance of any kind, because they have been stigmatized and rejected by their extended families. There is also a noticeable decline of people between the ages of 30 and 45, who are dying from HIV/AIDS at an alarming rate.

Poor families - including those living with HIV/AIDS - are unable to keep their children at home and the number of street children is rising, particularly in Bangui. One cannot walk even a short distance in town without being asked for some change by children. There is only one center for street children in the whole capital city; as a result, most children are left in the streets of Bangui to the mercy of passersby.

According to one international organization there are 5,320 orphans in Bangui alone, and recent media reports indicate more than 3,000 children sleeping on the streets of Bangui each night.

Homeless children, HIV/AIDS, continuing violence and spillover from neighboring countries' conflicts: these are just a few of the woes gripping CAR's people. We cannot do everything here, but must do something here.

I will always remember the raised hands of those who'd lost family members to HIV/AIDS. I hope you will, too, and help us act now.

Please give today to help children and others affected by HIV/AIDS, violence and deep poverty in Central African Republic.