Central African Republic: ICRC increases staff to help the displaced
Loukas Petridis has just come back from the Central African Republic, where he served as the ICRC's head of mission. In this interview he outlines the organization's activities to help the civilian population in a country plagued by armed conflict and chronic underdevelopment.
Not much is known about what is happening in the Central African Republic…
The Central African Republic is a country that has been forgotten by the international community for many years. Over the past decade it has been going through a political and military crisis that has affected the capital, Bangui, and had an even greater impact on various provinces that suffer from chronic underdevelopment, the absence of any real political authority and the lack of essential public services such as health care or education. The road network is inadequate and whatever trade existed before the crisis has virtually come to a halt.
There was a brief period of optimism during the 2005 elections, but renewed fighting between government troops and rebels soon dashed any hopes of peace. Security concerns drove thousands of people in the north of the country from their homes. Some of them crossed the border into Chad, but most sought refuge in the bush, often near their homes, but away from the main roads used by government and rebel forces.
The most serious humanitarian problems today are those that affect the civilian population and displaced persons, who often live in extremely precarious conditions, especially as regards shelter and access to drinking water, and are in need of protection and assistance. That is why the ICRC is increasing its staff in the country.
How is the ICRC responding to the crisis?
Before the cr isis worsened in late 2005, we had been carrying out water and sanitation programmes in the country for many years. We opened an office in Poua, in the north, in April 2006 and another one in Kaga-Bandoro, in the east, in January 2007. Now we are working in conflict-affected areas to implement aid and protection programmes for people affected by the fighting and general insecurity.
As we do elsewhere, we make sure that people arrested in connection with the conflict are detained in acceptable conditions. At present, our efforts are focused mainly on making representations to the political authorities, with whom we discuss respect for international humanitarian law and the most serious violations affecting civilians.
As regards our aid activities, we continue to facilitate access to drinking water for numerous conflict victims and in 2006 we distributed essential items to more than 50,000 people. We plan to conduct a similar operation for 80,000 people before the start of the rainy season in May.
What do civilians have to contend with?
People flee the military operations conducted by government troops and rebel forces. But they also flee organized bands of highwaymen without political motivation who take advantage of the chaos to commit acts of banditry. Many are those whose villages have been burned down, whose homes have been looted or whose relatives have been arrested or even killed before their eyes. These people flee to places where they feel safe, build rudimentary shelters and grow what food they can for their survival. But in the absence of trade, life is very hard for them and they couldn't get by without international aid.
What does the ICRC plan to do in 2007?
We shall of course carry on with our protection and aid activities. We also plan to launch agricultural and fishing programmes with a view to promoting development and kick-starting the economy. We will rely on the Central African Red Cross to implement some of our projects. Until recently the National Society was crippled by the crisis but now it has become the leading humanitarian organization in the country. We helped to set it back on its feet and now its branch offices in conflict areas have been reactivated and new leaders and volunteers have been recruited and trained. With their assistance, we would like to help people return to their villages, but this will be impossible until security conditions improve. It is up to the authorities to ensure that they do.