In the Central African Republic (CAR), months of violence have resulted in a breakdown of law and order and a large-scale humanitarian crisis. A Muslim-dominated Seleka force took control of the country and led a transitional government from March until December 2013. But its misdeeds triggered a violent backlash led by mostly Christian anti-balaka militias that has split the country along religious lines and resulted in nearly one million people fleeing for their lives. Almost two-thirds of the displaced have sought safety in CAR and the remaining one-third has fled to neighboring countries as refugees. In early April, I traveled to Chad and then stopped in Bangui, CAR to see the situation first-hand and talk directly with refugees and displaced people.
In Chad, Muslims shared terrible stories of attacks on their neighbors and family members. One man showed me photos of the mutilated corpse of his father. A middle-class couple with five children told me they had lost everything. In the camps in southern Chad, refugees told me their children were not getting enough food. I also saw sub-standard tents at several locations and people had built rudimentary shelters made out of sticks and clothes or fabric. This type of shelter will not survive the rainy season.
Assistant Secretary Richard and Ambassador Knight visit with refugees and returnees at the Chagoua transit site in N'Djamena, temporary home to 660 Chadian returnees, CAR refugees, and TCNs. In this photo, they listen to the story of a man from Bangui. Grief-stricken, the man shares pictures of his father's body, and says that he has no idea what to do next. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
I traveled with two UN officials who had just come from Cameroon. There they had seen refugees arriving in terrible shape after trekking across CAR for days and weeks without sufficient food. Adults and children arrived malnourished and with wounds that needed medical attention. Logistics is a major challenge in CAR and across the region. Aid workers desperately need planes, vehicles, and fuel and often depend on the UN humanitarian air service sponsored by the World Food Program, to reach provincial towns.
In a meeting with Cabinet ministers in Bangui, the Minister for Rural Development begged us for help to restore order and security. Without security, she said, her program to distribute seeds would be useless. Her plea for help with public safety was repeated by UN and aid agency leaders.
In addition to formal meetings, I toured the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp adjacent to the airport and spoke to several women who were there with their children. They were Christian, but had fled nearby neighborhoods to get away from the violence. As in Chad, their camp was sub-standard, and dangerous: the walls of the temporary clinic had to be reinforced to stop bullets from occasional gunfire.
Assistant Secretary Anne C. Richard visits with Chadian returnees at the Doyaba transit site in Sarh. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
What can be done in a situation like this? How can the United States help? In addition to diplomatic efforts, State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the humanitarian offices of USAID fund food, improved shelter, medical care, and other emergency relief. U.S. contributions to humanitarian efforts so far this year total $67 million and are making a difference, supporting the work of scores of international and non-governmental organizations spread out across the country in an effort to help communities beset by violence.
Since my visit, the situation of some of the Muslims in enclaves in the CAR has worsened to the point that UNHCR has taken the extraordinary step of transporting them to safety in Chad. Creating new refugees is not the normal business of humanitarians, but this step was seen as a last resort to prevent further bloodshed.
As I despair about the tragedy unfolding in the CAR, one memory gives me hope: In the transit camp in N’djamena, Chad, a man calmly sewed dresses on a sewing machine under a tree. A tailor, he had fled the violence in CAR with his sister. In the midst of a chaotic camp, he worked his trade. He is, for me, a symbol of human resilience in the face of horrors.