They say that in times of disaster we should “look for the helpers”. In the Central African Republic it is easy to find these helpers – they are cleaning latrines in displacement camps, teaching classes under tarpaulins and welcoming traumatised children into their homes. As my time in CAR comes to an end, I want to share their stories.
Achta Sinine was working in a transition centre in Bangui for children freed from armed groups when it was attacked in December 2013. It was too dangerous to stay in the centre, so Achta and her colleagues opened up their own homes to the traumatised children. More than a year later, Achta still has two foster children staying with her. “I want these children to know that they can be loved by other people. I am like a mother to them.”
Patricia Dougueoua knew that just 9 kilometres from the centre of CAR’s capital city, children were missing out on an education. The village of Gbabili has never had a school, and the closest school was a 4km walk for only the most dedicated students. Instead, most children worked on family farms, or fishing, or at the market. In November last year, Patricia opened a school under a tarpaulin on land donated by the local priest, and with only basic materials provided by parents. The school’s five teachers are all volunteers. Only 50 of the school’s 200 students had ever been to school before. “I was orphaned when I was very young and I only succeeded in life because of my education. I want these children to have the same opportunity as me.”
Baccardi Dambakizi (bottom right) coordinates the cleaning of latrines in one of the displacement camps in Bimbo. Three times a day, his team of 30 volunteers clean all the toilets and showers on the site. Baccardi was a student at the country’s only university when the coup happened in March 2013. His mother and father were both killed during the violence and he has been living at the displacement site with his only surviving family member – his younger brother – for more than a year.
“We used to get paid a small amount for the cleaning work, but the funding ran out in December and we’ve continued to work for free. We continue to do it for the health of the 3000 people living in the camp.”
Gypsy Koh refused to let the counselling centre where she works close because of a lack of funds. Instead, she and her two colleagues decided to continue to work without pay. For three months, they have volunteered to keep the centre open, continuing to provide counselling to children and women who have survived rape, abuse and other forms of gender-based violence. “I closed the centre for two days after the funding stopped, but my telephone didn’t stop ringing with women asking me to re-open the centre. We couldn’t close the doors on them.”
Brice Kakpayen and some of his friends started a volunteer network with their own money five years ago. Their small operation has since grown into a major national NGO, Enfants Sans Frontieres (Children Without Borders). A large part of Brice’s work is to verify violations against children in CAR – killing and maiming, sexual abuse, abductions, recruitment into armed groups, attacks against schools and hospitals and denial of humanitarian access.
After an outbreak of violence, his team are on the streets, in hospital wards, and in morgues trying to track cases of children caught in the conflict. “It is traumatising work, but it is important,” says Brice. Their reports are compiled and sent to the UN Security Council who use the information for advocacy, to increase protection for children and name and shame parties to conflict who abuse children.
CAR is so much more than a country of conflict and chronic poverty. It’s a country of helpers, whose stories are often unheard. Helpers who stoically continue their work, amidst displacement and violence. Imagine what could be achieved if we did more to help them?
Madeleine Logan has been blogging from the Central African Republic since January 2014. All photos were taken by Sebastien Rich during a reporting trip to CAR in February, 2015.