Last week, intercommunal fighting in the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, resulted in over 40 deaths and caused more than 40,000 people to flee to various displacement camps sites around the city. The violence erupted following the murder of a Muslim taxi driver, pitting armed Muslim and Christian groups against each other. The streets also filled with protesters calling for the ouster of interim president Catherine Samba-Panza, who was in New York at the time for the United Nations General Assembly.
The situation has since calmed somewhat, but multiple aid agency offices and compounds were ransacked and looted during the violence. Most worryingly, continuing insecurity is preventing full access to displaced people in need of the most basic services – like shelter and healthcare.
I last traveled to CAR in May of this year. While Bangui was relatively stable and safe at the time, it was clear that CAR was still in crisis. Since Seleka rebels over threw the CAR government in March 2013, brutal fighting engulfed various parts of country, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. Last year, the installation of Samba-Panza as interim president, the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission, and the establishment of a political reconciliation process helped quell the worst of the fighting. However, the underlying tensions remain deep, and outbursts of violence continue.
During the May visit, my colleague, Alyssa Eisenstein, and I traveled east to the town of Bambari where over 30,000 people were seeking shelter and safety at camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). South and southeast of the town, UN staff reported that entire villages that had been attacked by armed groups were now completely empty. When we drove west of Bangui to the town of Boda, we met with IDPs who told us they were fearful that if they moved more than a few miles away from camp, they would be targeted and killed. Our planned visit north to Batangafo, an area that hosts tens of thousands of IDPs, was canceled due to heightened insecurity in the region.
While policy makers and international donors were turning their attention toward early recovery programs and the planning for national elections, it was clear that many parts of CAR remained in crisis and that a robust humanitarian response needed to continue.
Now that the crisis has once again hit Bangui, it is impossible to ignore. At the UN last week, a planned meeting of high-level diplomats on the margins of the General Assembly was meant to focus on preparations for national elections (now delayed indefinitely) and the implementation of disarmament and demobilization activities. Instead, the recent violence in Bangui was front and center, as well as an emphasis on the broader humanitarian situation, including 2.7 million people throughout the country (more than half the population of CAR) in need of emergency aid. Notably, the UK and US both pledged additional humanitarian support, but the needs still far outweigh the available resources.
Humanitarian aid will not solve the complex challenges that face the people of CAR in the coming months and years. International support for the political process and a long-term commitment by development actors is essential. But we must be clear-eyed that the emergency in CAR is not over.