Africa

Victims of forgotten conflict

Stephanie Hancock

A series of devastating attacks in which armed men loot homes, kill unarmed civilians and burn down villages has pushed an entire population into hiding in remote areas of the north-western Central African Republic. Villagers have fled their homes and taken to the bush, living in the forests to avoid further attacks.

Jacques Bissari is 70 and nearly crippled. Every day he lives in fear that attackers will come to kill him, but he cannot leave his home because he is too frail. “Most people are in the bush but I stayed,” says Bissari. “When the military come they mock me and ask why I am still here.”

Bissari’s village of Bedaya is one of dozens that lie empty in this part of the Central African Republic (CAR).

A series of devastating attacks in which armed men loot homes, kill unarmed civilians and burn down villages has pushed an entire population into hiding in this remote north-western area of the CAR. Villagers have fled their homes and taken to the bush, living in the forests to avoid further attacks.

For the past two years a low-level war between rebels and CAR President Francois Bozize’s army has created widespread instability and lawlessness.

The United Nations refugee agency says more than 265 000 people have fled their homes since 2005; most are now camped out in the bush, fearing for their lives.

Village after village lies empty and abandoned and roads are deserted; it is possible to drive for several days without seeing a single car.

Aid workers say most attacks have been carried out by government forces, often Bozize’s own presidential guard.

The attacks are thought to be punishment meted out by the armed forces for civilians’ perceived support of rebels in the area.

While rebels are present in some villages, the local population often has little choice.

“The rebels use civilians as human shields,” an observer told the Mail & Guardian in Paoua. “Civilians don’t really want the rebels in their villages, but they also don’t want to tell the army where the rebels are hiding.

“Civilians trust neither the [national] army nor the rebels. They have to stay in the bush to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.”

For their part, the rebels—who are no closer to forcing Bozize from power than when they started their battle two years ago—blame the government for attacking innocent civilians.

Observers say the rebels have ­little hope of taking power, especially with dwindling financial support, and aim simply to make the country ungovernable.

At this, they have largely succeeded. Vast areas of the northern CAR are now a virtual no-man’s-land.

The government still controls key towns, but the bush has become a lawless security vacuum, with rebels and aid workers the only people still moving around.

The local population is faced with a grim set of choices. Civilians can either stay in their empty or partially destroyed villages, risking death if the army attacks, or they must live in the bush, miles from proper food and water supplies.

“I think what’s hardest for these people is that they are still afraid,” said Nicolas Rost, of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Bangui.

“Many people are terrified—they are worried every day that another attack might occur. They have been attacked several times and many have even been attacked in the bush where they are hiding.”

Aid workers call the CAR Africa’s “forgotten conflict”, but it is also a hidden crisis: those in need of humanitarian assistance are hard to find and often frightened when strangers try to help.

“We are still scared maybe the rebels or the military might come to find us,” says Andre Ndjikinde, who fled his home when troops attacked the town of Paoua early last year, killing more than 100 people.

“Since we’ve been here the children don’t go to school and there is no doctor. If we fall ill we will stay like this and die.”

Ndjikinde, who has been living in a makeshift bush settlement for the past 18 months, says he cannot go home even if he wanted to. “We are homeless. Most of our houses were burnt by rockets or destroyed by the fighting.”

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