Central African Republic: "We're passionately humanitarian"

22-04-2014 Interview

For many long months, the Central African Red Cross Society has been doing everything it can to assist victims of the conflict and other deadly violence in the country. The work is hard and dangerous, and requires tremendous courage. Antoine Mbao-Bogo, the society's president, explains.

Central African Red Cross volunteers and ICRC employees recovering bodies from the streets of Bangui. ©ICRC / Annibale Greco

How do you manage to work amid such tension and polarization?

Antoine Mbao-Bogo, President of the Central African Red Cross Society 

Antoine Mbao-Bogo, President of the Central African Red Cross Society
© Croix-Rouge centrafricaine

Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have had to work in a difficult security situation, with shooting in the streets for example. That's our mission – to relieve suffering as far as possible among the people least able to help themselves. We're passionately humanitarian, and very experienced in such situations. On 24 March and 5 December of last year, we were the first and only organization in the streets; there wasn't any other national or international institution, nor any government or ministry. We were alone in the streets with the people who had seized power at the time. Our 250 volunteers cared for the injured and evacuated them, and they recovered bodies, took them to the mortuary and proceeded with burials.

On just two days, 11 and 12 December 2013, we collected and buried 470 bodies. We managed to do that with support from the authorities but also, especially, thanks to our cooperation, our partnership, with the ICRC.

Our country is experiencing a tragedy, and the Central African Red Cross needs the trust and support of all, including the authorities, to perform its tasks. Our emergency and disaster management work is still going on now, as are the water, food, sanitation, community health, HIV/Aids prevention, and food security activities we carry out for thousands of displaced people and others in the country.

What measures need to be taken to guarantee neutrality and impartiality?

Foresight is what is needed. It's essential to be proactive, in other words not to wait for a situation to arise and then try to get ready. We carry out our work for all victims without any discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex or political viewpoint.

Staff and members of our organization must themselves be non-political; otherwise, there would be problems in terms of neutrality. Within our organization we have volunteers and members of the executive committee from all parts of the country and of all faiths. And we all manage to work together. Our common strength, now as ever, lies in the idea that inspired Henry Dunant, our founder, when he found himself on that battlefield in Solferino, Italy, more than 150 years ago.

The fundamental principles of the Red Cross – humanity, voluntary service, neutrality, unity, universality, impartiality and, above all, independence – guide the Central African Red Cross in its work. We buried all the bodies without discrimination. It's true that at the beginning of the crisis the Central African Red Cross was provoked, slandered and maligned. But we worked hard to explain to people that we don't belong to any particular group and that we work for everyone. I think the people who were vilifying us finally understood, and so far they've decided to let us work unhindered.

What is the situation of Red Cross branches in the rest of the country?

Despite the lack of security, the branches do exist and they are carrying out their work in the provinces. It's important to point out that components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (the ICRC and the International Federation in particular) and all Central African Red Cross personnel are at work in Bangui. So it's easier to get things done in Bangui. In the provinces it's a little more difficult, but the volunteers still manage to bring aid to the people who need it most.

On 8 April, for example, there was fighting in Dékoa, north of Bangui. The local branch in Dékoa quickly buried the dead bodies despite the difficult situation. Local committees in M'baiki, Boda, Batangafo, Bozoum and Amadagaza, to mention only a few, have been doing outstanding work in the provinces. They never let up, they continue to come to the aid of the injured. They have never stopped working.

There's something that I can't quite comprehend: it's almost as if the name "Red Cross" carried within itself a stimulant that causes people to go out and work despite the absence of security. But conditions are really very difficult. One day when we were transporting an injured person in a pick-up truck, we were stopped and the patient was finished off in our vehicle after being stabbed a number of times. That kind of thing is completely unacceptable. Patients and emergency workers absolutely must be protected.

What we have so far managed to do and what we continue to do every day with few resources and hardly any security borders on the miraculous. If we hadn't been able to collect and bury the corpses in the city of Bangui, the dignity of the deceased would not have been preserved, and we would have had to fear major consequences for public health.

Central African Red Cross volunteers and ICRC employees recovering bodies from the streets of Bangui. ©ICRC / Annibale Greco