CAR: Intercommunal tensions spur violence

Today, we examine the situation in the Central African Republic, where a recent wave of inter-communal violence and extreme brutality has compounded the suffering of many civilians caught up in the country's 10-month-old – and largely ignored – humanitarian crisis.

A lot of people may not know or remember that this landlocked nation – which lies smack-dab in the middle of Africa and is home to an estimated 4.4 million people – experienced a coup d'état in March, when General François Bozizé, was overthrown as president by the armed opposition.

Since then, CAR has remained extremely volatile and vulnerable. Government services have broken down and there are no health facilities or clinics outside the capital of Bangui – except for those run by humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC and MSF.

Ethnic and religious violence

In recent weeks, new armed groups have also emerged to challenge the former rebels, who are currently in charge.

The ICRC's head of delegation in Bangui, Georgios Georgantas, told Intercross that the authorities have come under real pressure for the first time since they took power, adding, "It's a point of serious concern that the most recent fighting was largely along religious and ethnic lines."

 He also points out that the new authorities seem to be having trouble controlling all of the former rebels.

"Some of them have been integrated into the regular armed forces, but others are facing the prospect of disarmament and they are unhappy about this. In theory, they're being dismantled, but in reality, they remain armed and continue to attack civilians, as we've seen in the west of the country, where inter-communal violence has forced men, women, and children to flee their villages in fear."

In a recent ICRC update, Georgios warned that tens of thousands of people were hiding in the bush and living in terror, while deprived of food, water, and medical care.

Fleeing brutality

The update also describes how volunteers from the Central African Red Cross have had the grim task of burying more than 120 bodies in the past few weeks.

Meanwhile, MSF's general director, Arjan Hehenkamp, has said that CAR is "in danger of becoming the world's latest failed state, with increasing sectarian violence sparking a humanitarian disaster."

In a harrowing online account, he describes a level of unimaginable brutality and violence.

"One of our patients was a man who had been shot four times in the back, and his head had been partially hacked off by a machete," he wrote. "The surgeon tried to sew it back on and save the patient, but sadly he died."

Speaking to Intercross, Georgios confirmed that the level of brutality was "extremely high, worrisome, and frightening". 

Solidarity and resilience

In last week's operational update, the ICRC called on all armed groups and the authorities in CAR to "protect people and refrain from harming them".

It also outlined that it had been able to distribute food, mattresses, mosquito nets, and other items to 6,200 people over the last month in Bouca – one of three towns hardest hit by the recent wave of violence.

In addition, the ICRC and the National Red Cross Society have been working together to provide first-aid training in the region, raise awareness among weapons bearers of the need to respect health facilities, reunite separated children with their parents, offer prenatal care to almost 400 women, and guarantee safe drinking water for over 10,000 people in Ndélé.

Georgios says he's heartened by the resilience that so many communities have shown, and by the solidarity demonstrated by volunteers from the National Society.

"It's encouraging to see Christian and Muslim volunteers working together in the field," says Georgios. "Especially when you consider that in most cases, they themselves come from the towns affected by the violence."

Regional ramifications

But he cautions that it's going to take a lot more than solidarity to stop the humanitarian situation from turning into a much bigger crisis with regional implications.

"Without serious international assistance, both in humanitarian and security terms, this country will not be able to get back on its feet," Georgios told Intercross.

"An unstable Central African Republic could result in the conflict affecting neighboring countries, of which a few are rather unstable themselves, or, it can become a safe heaven for radical groups, as we've seen happen elsewhere," he concluded.

By Anna Nelson, Intercross Editor and ICRC Spokesperson in WashingtonDC

View a narrated slide show from the field on icrc.org by clicking here.