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Africa

Security dilemma in Central African Republic

Thousands of Christians and Muslims shelter in camps after feeling violence in one of the world's poorest countries.
Last modified: 4 Mar 2014 19:05
Tens of thousands of people have fled the country and many more live in camps [Reuters]

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon made his recommendations to the Security Council on the crisis in the Central African Republic on Monday. He wants to establish a UN force of 10,000 peacekeepers and 1,820 police personnel. He says at least 2,000 people have been killed and 700,000 displaced since December. Crucially he believes it would take six months to prepare the UN deployment. The problem is, how much damage will be done in the meantime?

Now the wider effects of the conflict are being felt. Without enough security in the capital, Bangui, armed gangs of thugs are looting at night, preventing the 60,000 people living in the city's Christian camp near the airport from going home. If they do, life is going to be harder in a country that's already one of the world's poorest.

With tens of thousands of Muslims having fled the country, the traditional trading class is gone, or selling up in preparation to leave. Goods are scarce and what is available in the markets is now more expensive. Because most civil servants haven't been paid in about five months a lot of people simply don't have any money to spend. This is fast becoming an economic crisis as well.

Another point is that, in all the time people have been living in camps, they haven't been planting in their gardens. So one of the means by which people normally feed themselves is defunct. And now that the rainy season is approaching, people living in already grim conditions are going to be faced with more misery.

We met a woman washing her clothes by a huge puddle in the airport camp. She was so angry at her situation she could barely speak. The water was lapping at the tent doors and her barefoot children stamped through the mud as she scrubbed it off their clothes. I could feel her fury.

Malaria fears

There is of course the possibility that, although many camps are in a bad state, with all of the other factors combined, people may become dependent on the aid they're receiving there - deterring them from trying to go home (security situation allowing).

MSF Belgium's Emergency Co-ordinator Laurence Sailly describes the international community's failure: "At the airport camp like in other areas of the country the response is not enough, not adequate to the needs. We are trying to respond to health issues but there are protection issues, food issues, water and sanitation issues. All this package we should be able to provide to the displaced people is not yet at the standard that it should be."

While the airport camp is close to the foreign peacekeepers, providing a sense of security, it is right beside a swamp. With all the rubbish piling up and the rains approaching, it's bound to become a cess-pit of malarial mosquitos.

Sailly emphasised her point by saying she believes the people have to be given options; either secure the city enough so that people can go home, take them to another camp that's properly equipped, or sort out the one at the airport.

Ban Ki-Moon's report also says more than 288,000 people are now living as refugees in neighbouring countries, with 15,000 Muslims sheltering in "safe" locations across the country. They're in places like PK12 in Bangui, where, if they venture outside, they risk being lynched by anti-Balaka Christian militia lurking at the edges, like lions waiting to pick off any strays.

The secretary-general acknowledges that "humanitarian actors" are facing a dilemma "between encouraging people to stay in their communities thereby endangering their lives, or assisting them to flee for their own safety, thereby indirectly contributing to the sectarian division in the country." It's like being caught between a rock and a hard place.

There are no simple answers here. That's why Ban's report, reassuringly, says pure peacekeeping is not the answer. He emphasises the need to build state structures, reboot the judicial system and reinstate law and order. But trust is easy to destroy and hard to rebuild, particularly if, as in many towns, so many Muslims have fled, there is now no one there to rebuild those relationships with.