Most mornings around 3am, Bangui wakes up to cracks of thunder; and another downpour batters the flimsy tents that house the city’s 220,000 displaced people. The rainy season began this month in Central African Republic, and displacement camps have been turned into muddy bogs.
My conversations with children living in displacement camps have recently been dominated by their hatred of rain. They can’t keep dry, and most nights they can’t sleep because of the constant stream of water coming into their tents. Melaine is 13 years old and lives in St Joseph Mukassa Displacement Camp in Bangui:
“Everything gets destroyed by the water – our clothes, our food, our matches. When it’s raining, we spend all our time sweeping the water outside. Snakes, caterpillars and scorpions come into our tents. And it’s starting to get cold. I have no clothes for the cold weather.”
The situation is even worse in the camp at the Bangui Airport, where 44,000 people are still seeking shelter and safety. This month, there’s construction everywhere as people re-build their rain-ruined shelters with sticks, cardboard, old plastic sacks, and scraps of material.
As early as February this year, a huge swamp had formed next to the runway. We asked one woman about the risk of cholera. She said bluntly that she preferred cholera to bullets. When the first heavy rain of the year came in February, people fled back to their homes. But many limped back with machete and bullet wounds. It’s not safe to go home. It’s torture to stay.
Divine’s family home is located in a neighbourhood where most violent clashes happen in Bangui. She moved to the airport in December when her brother was killed near their home. They haven’t left since. Her family of 14 people all have to stand up inside their tent until the rain stops: Hours of standing as their feet sink into the mud and the roof threatens to collapse under the weight of water.
“The thing I hate most about living here is the rain,” Divine said.
UNICEF and partners have prepared the foundations for a Cholera Treatment Centre at the airport, in preparation for an outbreak. We are also working to identify flood-proof sites where displaced people can move to if parts of the airport site become flooded and uninhabitable.
UNICEF is building latrines, delivering water and distributing soap to displaced people throughout the country. We are doing what we can. But only a return to security will release the displaced children from their watery purgatory.