Periodic violence, reprisal attacks, recent displacement – the town of Bambari, almost right in the middle of the Central African Republic (CAR), is emblematic of the continuing crisis in the country. In 2013, many areas in CAR descended into intercommunal violence following the overthrow of the government by an amalgamation of rebel groups from the north known as the Séléka. Christian militia groups, known as anti-Balaka, started fighting against the Séléka (composed primarily of Muslims). The conflict quickly pitted neighbor against neighbor in a brutal cycle of attacks and reprisal attacks, even as the Séléka were disbanded and an augmentation of international peacekeepers was deployed to restore order.
While some areas of CAR have stabilized over the past year, there are currently more than 30,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Bambari, and many more dispersed throughout the surrounding rural areas, hiding miles from the main roads for safety. While conditions have improved in some other parts of the country – to the extent that many IDPs are returning home, such as in the capital, Bangui – the situation in Bambari remains volatile.
Earlier this week, my colleague Alyssa Eisenstein and I flew from Bangui to Bambari to meet with displaced populations. During much of the early part of the crisis, Bambari remained calm, with Christian and Muslim neighbors generally coexisting peacefully. Unfortunately, Bambari is now one of the most heavily armed cities in the country. Since the middle of last year, residents of Bambari have suffered from a series of attacks and counter attacks by various armed elements, enflaming tensions between Christian and Muslim communities. Today, two rival ex-Séléka factions now occupy buildings throughout the town, and anti-Balaka groups also maintain a robust presence in the city. French soldiers now provide security at the airport and UN peacekeepers (MINUSCA) are stationed throughout town. Most people we spoke to generally acknowledged that the presence of MINUSCA troops has improved security in the city.
Thousands have arrived in Bambari seeking shelter and protection. In one example, people fled their neighborhoods seeking protection next to where French troops were stationed. They now live in a camp near one of the MINUSCA bases close to the center of town. Though many of the residents of IDP camps in Bambari are only two or three kilometers from their homes, they told us that the insecurity is still too high to return to their neighborhoods. Making the return process even more difficult is the fact that many of their homes have been ransacked and destroyed. IDPs from the Christian community are spread throughout several informal camps in the city. Additionally, displaced Muslims are living in host communities in neighborhoods nearby and across a river.
In Bambari, we met a man named Alexander who told us that he had been living as an IDP since July 2014, when armed groups attacked his neighborhood. When we asked if he thought he’d be able to go home anytime soon, he said, “If I go home, where will I sleep? My home was destroyed.” Before the conflict, Alexander was working as a security guard for a private company. Now he’s jobless and dependent on emergency aid for survival.
Others, like Abel, are doing everything they can to maintain a semblance of normalcy amidst all the chaos. Abel is a tailor. Remarkably, he managed to salvage one of his two sewing machines when his home was attacked. Now he has set up his machine under a tree near his family’s makeshift shelter and continues to make clothes, which he sells to other residents in the camp. He, too, does not know when he’ll be able to return home. Even though the situation in town has been calm for the past few weeks, the violence could return at any moment.
In the capital Bangui, there is much discussion amongst politicians, UN officials, and aid workers about the need for early-recovery programs and to mobilize toward a transition from the humanitarian emergency to longer-term development projects. Indeed, there are positive indicators of increased stability and economic activity in certain parts of the country. Last week, the transitional government and multiple armed groups convened to sign political agreements and to pave the way for eventual national elections. However, for many people in CAR, like those we met in Bambari, the crisis is not over. Donor governments, the UN, and aid agencies must ensure that they have the capacity to address the devastating impact of this conflict.