A bloodbath is taking place in the Central African Republic (CAR) but few outsiders seem to be aware of the scale of the carnage.
Every day dozens of civilians are slaughtered by militias, their mutilated bodies left in plain sight — a vivid warning intended to terrorise an already panicked people.
“Our teams have witnessed summary executions and have found mutilated bodies left exposed to terrorise populations. Civilians are traumatised and many have fled to the bush where they are surviving on whatever they can find,” says René Colgo, Doctors Without Borders’s (MSF) deputy head of mission. He has been leading the team providing medical care in the areas of Bakouma and Nzako since March 26.
In the past few months, infighting among parties from the 2014–2015 conflict has resulted in splinter groups and has triggered a conflict for control of territory and resources, especially in the centre and east of the country in the Ouaka, Haute-Kotto, Basse-Kotto and Mbomou prefectures.
When cities change hands, civilians are the first to suffer. In the MSF paediatric hospital in Bria, for example, MSF teams have treated 168 people for violence-related injuries since November.
“During the weekend of 24 to 26 March, our paediatric ward received around 24 badly injured people. Among them was a three-year-old girl who had a gunshot wound.
“It was chaos, and I remember having to leave one wounded man because I needed to urgently focus on another who just arrived with his intestines hanging out. We had limited technical equipment, but our surgeon managed to save his life,” says Dr Katie Treble, who was working in the hospital at the time.
The conflict is spreading to areas that had been considered relatively stable for the past two years.
In Bakouma and Nzako in Mbomou province, towns and mining areas are being contested by rival armed groups, with devastating consequences for the civilian population.
“What was already one of the most acute humanitarian crises in the world is worsening. The Central African Republic is spiralling into levels of violence that have not been seen since the peak of the conflict in 2014,” says Emmanuel Lampaert, MSF’s representative in the CAR.
In recent months there has also been an increase in the number of targeted attacks by armed groups on specific communities, which in turn leads to retaliation and a quick escalation of violence.
“The nature of the conflict is evolving and traumatised and helpless civilians find themselves trapped in the crossfire, kicked out of their homes, and cut off from their fields and livelihoods. At the very least, all parties need to stop attacking noncombatants and allow a minimum of assistance to reach those in desperate need,” says Caroline Ducarme, the head of mission in CAR.
One of the world’s poorest nations, the country is struggling to recover from a three-year civil war between the Muslim and Christian militias that started in 2013.
President Faustin-Archange Touadéra took office in March 2016 with a mandate to lead a transition to peace, but much of the country remains under the control of armed groups.
Deadly clashes between rival factions have regularly broken out near the central town of Bambari, where a contingent of the United Nations peacekeeping force is based.
The fighting is linked to the control of lucrative mines in the mineral-rich country and racketeering.
An independent UN expert on Central Africa, Thérèse Keita-Bocoum, in February said “armed groups have taken over more than 60% of the country”.
Last year, the CAR organised general elections and settled into an uneasy peace, punctuated by sporadic but often localised violence.
Since the 2014–2015 war between the Séléka and anti-Balaka, the eastern half of the country has remained out of government control, but a precarious status quo allowed some normalcy for the civilian population.
But, in the past few months, the ex-Séléka and anti-Balaka have splintered into different and loosely affiliated armed factions.
According to the UN Office of Co-ordination for Humanitarian Affairs, half the 4.6-million people living in the CAR rely on humanitarian assistance.
An additional 100 000 people were displaced between September last year and February this year because of the renewed fighting, bringing the total number of people internally displaced to more than 400 000 and the total number of registered refugees to more than 460 000. So far only 5.4% of the funds needed in the UN humanitarian response plan have been pledged.