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Central African Republic: getting through the hard times

12-10-2011 Feature

For several years, south-east Central African Republic (CAR) has been plagued by armed attacks driving people to flee their homes. Ewan Watson, an ICRC delegate in CAR, tells the story of Denise, a displaced woman who, in spite of the hardships she faces, gets involved for her community.

Sitting in the slender pocket of shade provided by her straw hut in the Agoumar camp for displaced people, Denise delivers an extraordinary challenge in a voice that commands attention: "You try sleeping rough in the bush when you're six-months pregnant!" The women gathered around to hear her story, many of them her neighbours, appear to collectively draw their breath.

Sensing that she has them in her thrall, Denise presses on: "And make sure you go during the rainy season – we slept beside a river one night but it flooded its banks and nearly swept us away! On top of that, there are panthers out there, not to mention boa constrictors and mambas. You have nothing to eat but a few wild yams and fruits. Could you survive that?"

20,000 have fled their homes since increase in attacks

Denise may be a natural storyteller, but this is no joke. The fretful journey from her home village of Mbiro into the bush, prompted by the abduction of her elder brother during an attack attributed to the Lord's Resistance Army, will resonate with many in south-east CAR. Since such attacks intensified here in 2009, an estimated 20,000 people have abandoned their villages, eventually grouping together for safety in larger towns. Modernity has yet to reach this vast, sparsely populated region plumb in the centre of Africa. With mobile phones a pipe dream for most, news here becomes fragmented and infused with rumour, fuelling an ever-present sense of foreboding.

Located at the limits of the market town of Rafaï, Agoumar is built on an uninviting expanse of bushland reclaimed little more than six months ago by Denise and others fleeing their homes. The camp, which houses about a quarter of the 4,000 displaced people in the town, lies encircled by bursting greenery that would no doubt hungrily engulf it given the chance. As Denise concedes, starting afresh has been a difficult business.

"When I left my village, I left my land, my house, everything behind. I could only bring a few pots and pans with me. The land here belongs to the residents so we cannot grow our crops. They resented us sharing their drinking water: it was a real problem until the ICRC put in more supply points. We do whatever we can to get by. But until it is safe to go home, we will not be returning."

Creative survival tactics abound

Agoumar is rich with signs of people's creativity in making the most of a hard situation. Hélène, one of Denise's neighbours, makes soap by boiling and sieving wood ash, selling each bar for 50 CFA (under 10 euro cents). Vegetable patches have sprung up in impossibly cramped spaces around the camp. Some in Agoumar have found casual work tending the fields for Rafaï residents, often receiving basic foodstuffs such as manioc leaves in return, but this is irregular work without guarantees.

Becoming a Red Cross volunteer and community leader

Denise has embraced the challenges facing Agoumar, actively supporting the new community as it struggles to find its feet. After being inspired by Red Cross volunteers tending to the injured after an attack on the nearby town of Zemio, she joined the local branch and is now part of a team of volunteers who help organize ICRC food distributions. She is also the Mothers and Childrens representative for Agoumar camp, responsible for registering sick children for treatment and raising welfare matters with the local authorities.

And there is no shortage of those: "There is not enough space in the school for all the new children in town: they have to stand up during class. How can those kids learn a thing conditions like that? And women in the camp sometimes only have a few leaves to sleep on, which creates problems during pregnancy. Wherever you look, there's work to be done."

Denise has also taken on new responsibilities of a more personal nature. Gazing at the baby girl snuggling into the crook of her arm, her ordeal in the bush comes rushing back: "I'd heard stories of women having miscarriages living rough like that. When I was running through the bush just after my brother was taken, I started bleeding and I was so scared I would lose my child. I was lucky. Many others are not." She takes a moment to swallow her emotions. "Something beautiful came out that time. Although, just look at her – she's going to be a little rascal, isn't she?" She unleashes her rich laugh, which sends the assembled women into fits of giggles.


Photos

Agoumar, Central African Republic. Denise in her new Red Cross volunteer outfit, holding her baby girl. 

Agoumar, Central African Republic. Denise in her new Red Cross volunteer outfit, holding her baby girl.
© ICRC / E. Watson

Agoumar. Denise surrounded by her fellow camp inhabitants. Denise is also the Mothers and Childrens representative for the camp. 

Agoumar. Denise surrounded by her fellow camp inhabitants. Denise is also the Mothers and Childrens representative for the camp.
© ICRC / E. Watson

A glimpse of the Agoumar camp for displaced people. 

A glimpse of the Agoumar camp for displaced people.
© ICRC / E. Watson

Agoumar. A makeshift latrine, testament to the creativity that is typical of the inhabitants of the camp. 

Agoumar. A makeshift latrine, testament to the creativity that is typical of the inhabitants of the camp.
© ICRC / E. Watson