Whenever I mention the Central African Republic people tend to ask “where is that? What’s happening there?”
Years ago I too asked what was happening there and I couldn’t find enough answers. Curiosity turned into fascination. Finally, in 2007, I made my way to the Central African Republic with the help of UNICEF.
I’ll be brief about that first, two-week journey through this remote country – and the subsequent one in 2008, for this is to be a blog about my fourth visit, the one I have just returned from.
But in 2007 I left the Central African Republic thinking that these are surely the most abandoned people on earth. Aid agencies, with few exceptions, were as absent as law, order and security. Marauders and militia of every kind lived by preying upon women and children who had fled by the thousands deep into the brush. It was, and is, a sphere of utter impunity. By 2008, not much had changed except that more humanitarian aid organizations had arrived. I saw that as progress.
But today violence has taken a still more sinister shape, with two armed groups – the non-Muslim anti-Balaka and the mostly Muslim ex-Selekas brutally attacking civilians and turning communities against each other. People are still hiding in the brush, people are still terrified, people are still being raped and slaughtered – and even the children are targeted.
Last November, 2013, I revisited the town of Bossangoa. The once-thriving marketplace was vacant and some 30,000 people, fleeing the attacks upon their homes, had crowded into the grounds of a church. They were surrounded by their attackers. In the same town, Muslim families, in fewer numbers, were seeking safety at a school. Neither group had sufficient food, safe water or the most meager guarantee of safety. They did not dare to leave their compounds.
I have just returned from my fourth journey to the country and people I have come to love deeply. The violence has reached levels that make it nearly impossible to get to most of the areas I visited before. Central African Republic is a country riven by violence. The capital of Bangui is no exception. Muslim families have been driven out of their neighborhoods, their homes and shops pulverized. Christians seek safety in churches. The tension is palpable.
Nearly 5 hours drive from Bangui lies the town of Boda, where French troops are suppressing the ‘explosion of violence’ I was told had torn apart the town and its residents. Two young women in parallel predicaments tell the story.
Miriam was in the one-room clinic for Christians only. Fatima waited in a separate clinic of equal proportions – but for Muslims. People that had once been friends, schoolmates, neighbors, now live in fear of each other. The town is literally partitioned. Both young women were holding malnourished babies. Both told me how their homes had been attacked and destroyed, both had seen family members and neighbors killed – by ‘men with guns, machetes and knives.’ Both had fled for their lives.
For two months, Miriam had been hiding deep in the brush. It was fear that her starving child would die, that gave her the strength and courage to walk for a day and a night, crossing a river to seek help. Fatima must now live in an enclave precisely a quarter mile by a quarter mile in size with other Muslims in the thousands. If they leave, they will probably be killed.
Since 2007, UNICEF has grown from a tiny outpost, to a large, exceptionally capable international team. They and other humanitarian workers, a long way from loved ones and the comforts of home, are risking their own lives to sustain the children of Central African Republic. But humanitarian needs have outpaced funding. Unthinkable levels of violence have driven nearly one million people from their homes into wretched makeshift camps. Schools have been looted and destroyed. Children especially suffer from malnutrition, malaria and diarrhea. They need water, food, shelter, medicines and above all, protection. UNICEF has received less than half of the money requested for this year.
Mothers here, like moms everywhere are fighting to keep their children safe and healthy, and they dream of better days ahead. In Boda’s tiny clinic, Miram told me: ‘It’s as if people have lost their minds. First the Muslims were killing, then the anti-Balaka retaliated. Now that the Muslims are gone the anti-Balaka is drinking and killing and raping us. We need help. We are really suffering in the forest. We have lost everything. I have nothing. Nothing. Thank you for listening.”
Mia Farrow has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since September 2000. Her focus is on children impacted by conflict and emergencies.