It is 4pm on a February day in 2021. A woman is busy in a makeshift kitchen, nestled between a brick house and a large tent made of straw and tarpaulins. Victoire is preparing koko, a traditional Central African dish, a sort of vine stew made with smoked fish and peanut paste. This time, however, her dish only includes a little oil to accompany the vines. “I bought the ingredients with the money I was able to bring back from the Central African Republic. The person who has given us somewhere to stay also gives us food. We are preparing a meal for all of us,” explains Victoire, a slender young woman with a piercing gaze.
Victoire took refuge in Ndu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), on 3 January 2021, after fleeing her country. “On 25 December we heard rumours that the rebels were coming. On the Sunday, at around 5am, bullets could be heard everywhere. We were afraid and we fled. We took a canoe to come. Eleven of us came together, my big brother, his wife, their children and me.”
Since 2013, the Central African Republic (CAR) has never been completely at peace. The unrest began when the Séléka rebellion (Séléka means ‘coalition’ in Sango, one of CAR’s two national languages), composed mainly of Muslims (who are said to make up between 9 and 15 per cent of the population), overthrew President François Bozizé. Then, so-called self-defence militias, the ‘anti-balaka’ (whose members are a diverse mix of mostly Christians and animists, but also some Muslims), formed and retaliated, plunging the country into a state of extreme insecurity. In 2016, Faustin-Archange Touadéra was elected president of the CAR, but his state authority did not go beyond Bangui, the capital city. Almost 80 per cent of the country remains under the control of armed groups. Then, as the presidential elections of 27 December 2020 approached, tensions mounted again across the country.
“The trigger was the invalidation of the candidacy of former president François Bozizé,” explains Thierry Vircoulon, coordinator of the Southern and Central Africa Observatory, at the French Institute for International Research (IFRI). Ousted by the 2013 putsch, former President Bozizé is currently the subject of an international arrest warrant issued notably for ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘incitement to genocide’, which enabled the Central African Constitutional Council to reject his candidacy.
Faced with this situation, rebel groups, some of which are former enemies, have joined forces in recent months to form the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC). These, as well as groups combining anti-balaka supporters and Séléka Muslim movements such as the 3Rs (Return, Reclaim, Rehabilitate) or the Mouvement patriotique pour la Centrafrique (the Patriotic Movement for the Central African Republic, or MPC), are sowing terror in the country. On 3 January, these rebels attacked several localities on the border, including a military post of the regular army in the south-eastern city of Bangassou, where Victoire is from, causing a massive displacement of the population.
In less than two months, this country of five million people has seen 200,000 people flee the violence, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Of these, 92,000 arrived in the DRC as refugees, including 15,000 in Ndu.
This mass arrival has put considerable pressure on this city of 1,500 inhabitants. “The increase in population is pushing up prices in the market. Now, I spend 5,000 CFA francs a day to support my family, whereas before I spent 2,000,” says Étienne, a young father living in Ndu [editor’s note: in this border area, the Congolese commonly use the CFA franc in addition to the Congolese franc]. Even though he is hardly rolling in money, when he saw the refugees arrive, this smallholder farmer chose to offer them a place on his land. “This is not the first time that I have seen refugees in Ndu. This is the third time that I have hosted them. In 2013, in 2017 and now in 2021. I don’t get money from anyone. They are human beings, if somebody comes here, they have to be given somewhere to stay.”
He is the one hosting Victoire and her family. Eleven of them are accommodated in a large makeshift tent of about 15 m² made up of tarpaulins, straw and wood, on Etienne’s land. An unsealed makeshift shelter, under which it is stiflingly hot during the day and cold in the evening. They are not the only ones in this situation. Most newcomers are accommodated in such ‘host communities’ – some free of charge, some not – which are initiatives encouraged by the chiefs, the local community and the administrative leaders of the villages.
A humanitarian challenge
The presence of Central African refugees has led the international community to look at the daily lives – and failing infrastructure – of the inhabitants of these landlocked territories. The lack of transport infrastructure in their landlocked territory has meant that the Congolese are sometimes just as destitute as the refugees themselves. In Yakoma, a territory that is also under strong migratory pressure due to the Central African crisis, it is not uncommon for Congolese to slip into the queue during the biometric registration of refugees by UNHCR, in the hope of getting the same help as the newcomers.
This reality prompted UNHCR to adapt its response to the migration crisis. “If we provide the refugees with food and we see that the Congolese need it too, we will provide it for them as well,” Liz Ahua, the UNHCR regional representative in the DRC, tells Equal Times. She adds: “The host communities will benefit from the projects that we are putting in place, such as the schools. You can also renovate a health centre in order to improve its capacity to receive patients.”
Meanwhile, while awaiting the implementation of the various initiatives, the inhabitants of Ndu – who are not very well off themselves – can often only offer the refugees a room in their house or space on their land, all without access to running and potable water. Many Central African refugees have set up makeshift shelters, but the overcrowding, together with poor living conditions, creates a perfect breeding ground for disease.
Papy Lege is the medical director of Ndu Hospital. In the past two months, he has seen consultations at his centre triple. “There are no mosquito nets, so we treat a lot of malaria cases. We also see a lot of parasitosis because of the difficulty people have in obtaining drinking water, not to mention that they do not always have access to a toilet. We also have a lot of colds, because the fact that they sleep in tents.” In addition to these illnesses, the threat of the coronavirus pandemic looms large.
“People are living on top of one another, it is not possible to respect the safety precautions. There aren’t many places to wash their hands, hardly anyone has masks. It only takes one case for the disease to spread,” he tells Equal Times, feeling very concerned and yet not wearing a mask himself, due to the lack of stock.
To cope with this influx, he gets help from international organisations such as UNHCR and Unicef, but especially from the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) team in Bangassou. Since the situation on the other side of the border has stabilised, they cross the Mbomou river daily to supply Ndu Hospital with medicines and manpower.
They are not the only ones to make the crossing by canoe. Since 16 January, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) have regained control of the city of Bangassou. More and more Central Africans are also venturing across in the opposite direction, to get food or simply to continue working, like this Congolese nun, who has been in charge of a hospice in the Central African Republic for the last 11 years. “I left on 25 December at around 4pm. The Séléka rebels were due to come for the government, to attack Bangassou. I was afraid of being robbed, here we have no money.” For three weeks now, she has been crossing the river every day so that she can keep running the hospice. According to her, Bangassou is like a ghost town. “There aren’t many people there, the shops are closed, there is no market anymore.” It’s not the first time she’s witnessed unrest, but this time for her it’s different: “In 2013 it was the Séléka. They looted our church and because of them, we stayed in hiding for five days in the forest. In 2017, it was the anti-balaka. They also looted us. Today they are together. It makes our heads spin. We don’t know why they allied themselves so I preferred to run away.”
A proxy war, silent and devastating
If the local population has little information on the matter, it is probably because they are caught in the crossfire. Nathalia Dukhan, an expert on the Central African Republic for the American NGO The Sentry stated in a report, published before the elections, that “the greatest threats to peace and security today are not the ethnic and religious divisions which appear on the surface, but rather the proxy war – silent but devastating – fuelled by pro-French actors and pro-Russian actors.”
The Central African Republic is a country rich in diamonds, gold and uranium but it is also a former French colony. Until 2016, it retained a very strong link, linguistic, but also military and economic, with the former colonial power. However, in October 2016, France put an end to Operation Sangaris, a military stabilisation programme launched in 2013. President Touadera, feeling helpless, then turned to the Russian paramilitary group Wagner at the same time as granting mining concessions to Russian companies.
During the presidential elections on 27 December, the group reportedly sent troop reinforcements. According to The Sentry’s report, they “gave their support to armed groups accused of serious abuses against civilians.” On the other hand, the report points out, without giving details, “certain French military networks have activated regional and national actors, including armed groups, to try to prevent the re-election of Touadéra and to place political leaders favourable to French interests at the head of the government.”
These power games are far removed from the daily lives of Central African refugees, whose primary concerns are finding food and water. If the unrest were to resume in CAR, Ndu would be entirely dependent on the DRC for supplies.
While it only takes ten minutes by canoe to access the Central African Republic, from Ndu and other villages on the banks of the Mbomou, Congo’s big towns are more difficult to access. From Yakoma or Gbadolite, and the surrounding airfields, trucks must cross the equatorial forest, as well as sand, rivers and bridges made of whatever comes to hand and that threaten to collapse any moment.
Such conditions require foolproof logistics and imagination. The pick-up trucks are brought across on canoes, or the inhabitants are even asked to build a ‘one minute bridge’ with a few planks while holding their breath during the crossing. Not to mention the fact that the roads are not lit, so journeys can only be done during the day. It is also not uncommon for drivers to get stuck and to have to spend the night there, conditions that may worsen with the rainy season in mid-March. Leaky dwellings will soon be flooded, while the roads will become less and less passable, making supplies uncertain.
Even if the various United Nations agencies and international NGOs mobilise, what will happen if the refugees and the Congolese have nothing left to eat?