I’m often asked by friends and family: “How are things in the Democratic Republic of Congo?” I have never been to the DRC.
I live in one of its little-known neighbours, the Central African Republic, also known as CAR. A place that the International Crisis Group has called “worse than a failed state”, and which briefly claimed headlines one year ago when a UN official said the “seeds of genocide” were being sown here.
Since independence in 1960, CAR has endured five coups and seven peacekeeping missions. The country is one of the poorest in the world, and every sixth child here dies before their fifth birthday. Central Africans have learnt to be resilient. There’s a saying in the local language – kanga be – which translates to “close your heart”. A closed heart can withstand the pain.
It’s been one year since violence peaked in CAR. It all goes back to December 2012, when a coalition of armed groups called the Seleka descended from the North East of the country culminating in a coup in March 2013. In their wake they left hundreds of villages burnt and terrorised, schools and health centres looted, and thousands of families hiding in the bush. In December 2013, the Anti-Balaka armed group rose up in revenge. At the peak of fighting in the second week of December last year, an average of three people every hour were killed in the capital . As the violence again fanned out across the country, one fifth of Central Africans fled their homes to the nearest school or church or mosque, or again into the bush.
The roots of the crisis are multi-layered and complex. The conflict is often characterised as a religious one between Christians and Muslims, but it goes much deeper than that. It’s between nomadic pastoralists and farmers fighting over land use; it’s between the capital city and the chronically marginalised interior; and it is about control over the country’s riches, including its uranium, diamonds, gold and ivory.
Children have been bearing the brunt of the crisis here. Every day, UNICEF records a case of at least one child killed or maimed. At least 10,000 children have been forced into armed groups . And thousands of others have been separated from their families, mutilated, abducted, and sexually exploited .
Now, in December 2014, the world cannot afford to close its heart ‘kanga be’. Funding for Central African Republic has been pitiful in 2014, with UNICEF receiving less than half of the funds we needed to run emergency programs and help rebuild basic social services like hospitals, schools, and water treatment centres pillaged in the violence.
I guess I’m writing this to try to open some hearts. Because people don’t know Central Africa, and they certainly don’t know Central Africans. In the past year, local nurses have set up mobile bush clinics for families who are in hiding; truck drivers have delivered water to displacement sites after braving streets barricaded by armed men; and female community leaders have negotiated with armed groups to release children from within their ranks.
In January this year, we met 17-year-old Petula Bokandi in one of Bangui’s largest displacement camps. A few weeks later, we visited her home after her family returned to rebuild. She told us that she and her 11 brothers and sisters didn’t have enough to eat, but her main concern was that she was missing out on school. “We have to stop the fighting and get back to school in our country,” she said.
We haven’t been able to contact Petula for months – her phone doesn’t connect. Maybe she’s now one of the 400,000 Central African refugees in neighbouring countries. Or maybe it’s something worse.
Most stories here don’t have neat, happy endings. But when faced with suffering in a distant country, the answer is not to “kanga be”. Organisations like UNICEF can help build back better in CAR, and make sure that children grow up in peace. One year on, we need your help.
UNICEF is working to provide emergency response and re-build basic social services in Central African Republic. For more information, visit: http://www.unicef.org/appeals/car.html