As the air in her village became acrid with smoke from 3000 burning houses, Veronique Nem gathered her 11 children, grabbed her stock of food, and ran into the bush. The sound of gunfire and the shouts of armed men faded the further she ran – ending up at her family’s small farming plot, where they grow manioc.
What she didn’t know then, was that her family would remain “hiding in the bush” for six months, in a shelter made from tree branches, eating wild vegetables and fruits, and drinking swamp water.
During these months of scarcity, her children kept on getting sick. By the time Veronique walked back into town six months later, she had lost one of her children. The child had fallen sick and she could not get treatment in time to save her.
Town at centre of conflict
Bohong, Veronique’s hometown, had been an established community in the west of Central African Republic – with a large clinic, schools and a population of more than 20,000 people. But in 2013, it became the scene of heavy fighting after which 15,000 people fled. Bohong was almost a ghost town for six months.
After the rebel withdrawal in March this year, people started returning to their homes to re-build and re-start their lives.
UNICEF was there to play its part in supporting this return. In partnership with the Lutheran World Federation, UNICEF restored 11 boreholes in Bohong, as well as distributed jerry cans and soap. Plastic toilets bases (sanitation platforms) were given to households, who then dug their own latrines.
Looking towards tomorrow
In the west of Central African Republic, families who had been hiding in the bush are increasingly returning to their destroyed homes and villages. In these areas, UNICEF is changing its focus from emergency response to rehabilitating basic social services.
You can still see the burnt houses as you drive into Bohong. And the town still has a feeling of emptiness. Veronique’s house was burned so she’s living in the home of another family who have fled the violence and haven’t returned since.
We ask her what her hopes are for tomorrow. Her list covers the essentials: “I want the school to reopen, I want free health care, and I want peace.”
Madeleine Logan is a communications specialist who has been reporting from CAR since January this year.