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Staff returns to restart programs after rebel coup

Central African Republic, April 8, 2013

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  • Fighters for the Seleka rebel alliance stand guard in front of the presidential palace in Bangui, Central African Republic, March 25, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Alain Amontchi, courtesy Thomson Reuters Foudation - AlertNet
  • Mercy Corps teams evacuated Bangassou on March 22 as rebels approached the town on their way to the capital of Bangui. Photo: Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps team members are back in the Central African Republic after being evacuated in the days leading up to a rebel-led coup d'etat on March 24.

The overthrow of the president by the Seleka alliance sent the country into chaos. Families fled as rebels invaded towns during their advance on the capital; electricity and water were cut off, homes and NGO offices looted, and schools closed. Medical care and supplies are still severely limited.

Mercy Corps was forced to put all programs on hold and evacuate staff to neighboring countries — the second time in less than three months that violence halted humanitarian assistance throughout CAR.

We spoke with Alison Heyes, who manages Mercy Corps' education projects in Bangassou, 370 miles from the capital of Bangui. She returned to the country on Friday.

"Flying back into Bangui, the first thing I noticed were the sandbag huts with peepholes — makeshift gun turrets — that lined the runway. Soldiers were at the entrance to the airport surrounded by kids who should have been at school.

"We drove past the 5-star Ledger Hotel, which is now the Selaka headquarters. Next door and across the road there were large crowds of people. These were Selaka recruitment stations. Men in military are recruited hoards of young boys and children, who, faced with hopeless, jobless futures, are attracted to what currently appears to be a lucrative profession.

"There have been reports of rape and there continues to be the ever-present danger of stray bullets. Cesar, our Health Facilitator, woke up last Sunday to find a hole in his roof and a bullet in his pillow."

Despite the danger, she and other team members are eager to get Mercy Corps' programs up and running. Leaving them behind two weeks earlier was difficult.

"We had evacuated three times after hearing rumors of the rebels approaching Bangassou, but the fourth time was real. We were awakened by gunshots and mortar shells at 6 a.m. and ran for the vehicles.

"All our field activities had to be put on hold. This includes the women's small enterprise project, education and school construction programs, our gender-based violence support centers, and water rehabilitation projects. The disappointment was palpable — everyone was motivated by the progress we were making and sad to leave not knowing when we'd be able to return and help."

Now that they are back, it's clear that the needs are great. Even though Selaka leader Michel Djotodia declared himself president and outlined a new government, it remains to be seen how peacefully united the country will be.

Meanwhile, bandits are taking advantage of the chaos and sporadic looting continues, robbing vulnerable people of necessary assets. Food supplies are dwindling. Families have been separated and displaced, and violent attacks threaten women and children.

The ongoing insecurity makes getting to communities in need a challenge, but Alison says we are ready to help.

"We are making plans to go back to the Mercy Corps field offices in the next week or so, depending on security information. Mercy Corps is one of the first NGOs to be starting up again. Our offices and houses miraculously haven't been touched so we are in a good position, and we have the equipment and staff to start work straight away."

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