It’s been three months since our staff returned to the Central African Republic. After a harrowing evacuation in the midst of a rebel coup on March 24, they have been back in the capital of Bangui working to get our programs restarted.
But continued violence and insecurity has left even more people in need — and made it a challenge to reach them.
“Before the coup, the humanitarian situation in CAR was already dire. Now it’s even worse,” Mercy Corps Country Director Jean-Philippe Marcoux was quoted in news reports last week.
More than 200,000 families are still displaced after fleeing attacks, and nearly half a million people are facing food shortages. Children have been out of school for almost a year, basic services like health care and water are shut down, and the Seleka rebel coalition who overthrew the government continues sporadic violence. The entire population of the country, 4.6 million people, has been affected.
We spoke with our CAR Program Coordinator Whitney Elmer to get an inside look at how our team is helping communities through the deepening crisis.
How did the CAR team decide it was safe to return to the country after the coup?
Well, it was never really “safe” to go back in. But we knew that there were a lot of people affected and that we needed to get back respond to this emergency in whatever capacity we could.
We focused on restarting things in Bangui so we’d be operational from our country headquarters and be prepared to take advantage of even the small chances when we could get out into the field.
What is the security situation in Bangui?
Gunshots are becoming less frequent, but for the whole month of April and early May, we heard some type of gunfire just about every night. Seeing trucks filled with armed men is a regular thing. Armed men walking in the streets — and lots of them — is also very regular.
In April, an entire neighborhood was looted where some of our staff lived. They fled to go stay with other family members, and their houses were raided. One of our staff members found his entire house cleaned out when he returned.
What about elsewhere in the country?
It really depends across the country. In the west, we've been very fortunate in Bouar, which is near the border with Cameroon, that our field office was not touched and we've been able to restart our activities. But there's still no guarantee of safety in the rural areas. There have been issues with motor bike jackings, car jackings, people being harassed at the barriers set up by the Seleka rebel coalition, who are now the new government.
In the southeast, there were self-proclaimed warlords, basically, who were wreaking havoc in two of our field offices. That's there everything was looted. We couldn’t even get there to evaluate our losses and figure out what we needed to do to get working again. It was kind of like no man's land.
So what exactly are people in these communities suffering through?
The human rights violations are just shocking. There are many undisciplined elements in the Seleka. They have been illegally occupying people’s houses, there’s been mass looting and pillaging. That happened freely in the rural communities for four months leading up the coup, and then in Bangui for about two weeks during and after the coup.
Now things have become a lot more targeted. There's revenge attacks happening where Seleka members are targeting people who were associated with the former regime — not just in Bangui, but in the rural communities — kidnapping, killing.
There has also definitely been a surge in gender-based violence — both by armed men and within households. It’s such a huge problem in CAR, and with the increased stress in families facing violence and displacement, people take things out inappropriately in the home setting.
What is considered gender-based violence?
It’s physical abuse. It’s rape. We also see a lot of denial of resources: women who are abandoned to take care of an entire family and have no means of earning an income. That is our biggest caseload in CAR by far. Also psychological and emotional abuse. We also see a lot of abandonment: not just denial of resources, but kids being abandoned for whatever reason.
Mercy Corps has four counseling centers around the country for survivors of gender-based violence, but they were forced to close because of the insecurity. How have we been helping despite that?
We continue to focus very much on our protection work. But one of the challenges we realized right away was that people were scared to come to the center. So we set up these partnership agreements with health centers in different neighborhoods in Bangui. We send a staff member who can offer counseling and legal advice, and if there is a survivor of physical violence or sexual violence or rape who wants that support, we’re right there.
Our staff just became a lot more mobile. If they heard of a case, they would go to someone's home or community, or identify a neutral, safe location where the person wouldn’t be identified and they could have a confidential conversation without gaining too much attention.
Sometimes just giving people the chance to talk — we found that so helpful. People want to have someone recognize what’s happened to them, to let them know they’re not alone and we will listen.
We are adapting our protection work in the rural communities in this same way, as we slowly get our counseling centers back up and running.
Are there other programs we have been able to actively restart?
In Bouar, in the west, we were on the verge of starting construction of 80 new water points and latrines at the end of March, when the coup happened. The need is incredibly high — these will be serving communities who currently have no safe water source. Luckily, security has been relatively better in this region, so we’ve been able to restart our work bringing clean water to these families.
Is food insecurity a concern?
Food prices definitely went up because access to rural areas was cut off by violence and illegal roadblocks. Most aid in the past has been traditional food distributions. We’re now starting with cash and seed distributions so families can choose how they rebuild their food security.
It sounds like the southeast part of the country has been perhaps the hardest hit — and because it’s the most insecure, we haven’t been able to reach the communities in need. What can we do to help there?
We finally were able to do a security assessment in May. That was the first time we were able to get back since the end of March.
Based on what we’ve seen and heard, we're definitely going to have to reorient how we're working so it's more focused on emergency response. That means using some of those mobile strategies for our protection work.
We're also going to push for creating more safe spaces for children. Many have been out of school for six months or a year. We’ve been training community mentors who can be positive influences and create healthy environments for kids to just enjoy themselves. They use play activities to talk about life skills and conflict — now we need to help more kids learn skills to cope in this kind of setting.
What are you hearing from the communities we serve?
When you ask people what they want, hands down, everyone says we want our communities to be safe. We want security. They just want to feel safe and have some type of law and order maintained in their communities.
What do you think the future holds for CAR? How can we make an impact to prevent this kind of instability continuing in the future?
Unfortunately, it's a cycle that continues. That's part of why we're looking more at youth. Right now, adolescent youth in particular are targeted and recruited by rebel groups. We want to get them engaged in positive activities and feel empowered to contribute to their country. Because that is the age group that is going to make a change.
We have been doing that in the southeast because it was already a conflict zone. Now that basically everywhere is affected by the conflict, we’re focused on scaling that up and getting young people financial literacy and resources, vocational skills and job training.
We consider this work building resilience, and in this case, resilience to shocks like this conflict so people are better prepared to handle that in the future.
What have you learned from working through this conflict?
It definitely has been very challenging. But I don't think challenging in a bad way. I was just amazed by some of the people we work with. It was a great reminder of how we're all just engaged to work together, through any difficulties, to do what we can to really help communities in need.
How you can help
Your support allows our teams to get to work as quickly as possible after conflict like this in CAR. You can help us protect more women and children from violence, secure clean water, and help families rebuild stronger here and around the world. Donate today ▸