In CAR, you’re on your own
Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox
IN A CAMP for internally displaced people outside Kabo, in the Central African Republic (CAR), I meet a group of Muslims displaced from their homes for the past two years. The camp, home to some 2 600 people, mostly Muslims chased from various parts of the country, is in a horrific state. One of the camp’s elders, Ousmane Bouda, a thin man in a white kurta, says everyone here has a similar story. Their homes ransacked and occupied, their families beaten, their cows stolen. Bouda’s son was murdered in 2014. He left behind a five-bedroom house to live in a wooden hut made of sticks and dried leaves. When it rains, he and the camp’s other inhabitants stand up, and wait for the water to pass.
The crisis in the CAR has taken a sharp turn towards the dangerous; an accelerating emergency that shows no signs of abating. Whatever gains might have been made after the elections of 2016 have long dissipated. Bouda’s story is fast becoming the norm.
The CAR plunged into crisis when Muslim-led Séléka rebels took the country in a coup in 2013. The Muslim community in the CAR were seen as accomplices to their crimes and so when a Christian militia formed to take on the Séléka, the community came under attack. The level of violence was so grotesque that in 2015 human rights groups warned of the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the western half of the country. When Muslims were pushed out or expelled from their homes, local leaders promptly had their homes destroyed or their land sold to Christians. Even if the Muslims were to come back from an internally displaced person (IDP) camp, or from Chad or Cameroon where they had ventured as refugees, this ensured they would have no home to return to.
On the one hand, this has become a conflict between a minority-Muslim and majority-Christian population. On the other, the religious dimension is one that has clearly been exploited by politicians in a country that has no history of animosity between the two communities.
The fight here remains one over land and timber, gold, diamonds and uranium. The CAR is the 12th largest diamond exporter in the world, but you wouldn’t know it walking around. Very little of the country’s resources have benefited the country’s people. For instance, in the town of Bria, where much of the diamonds are found, there is no electricity.
Today, more than half of the country is dependent on aid and in need of food. The people at this camp try to grow their own food, but many are from the city; cultivating a wild terrain is not the same as minding a pot plant. There is also no work in the surrounding areas. Outside the camp, militia roam freely. They leech on the poor, collecting taxes and looting their little belongings or wares, and bully. This is a country of no jobs. Leaving the camp is not just unhelpful, it can be dangerous.
As of June, the UN’s humanitarian plan for CAR in 2017 is only 30% funded. John Ging, head of operations at the UN humanitarian agency, said it is “clear that the international community at the political level have lost their humanity”.
“They’re not prioritising humanitarian financing for the people here who desperately need life-saving support.”
Ging is right. Humanitarian aid is often strategic. And as of now, there is no strategic interest in this country. Everyone is pretty happy for CAR to remain a dumping ground for its neighbours; a release valve for Chad, Sudan and South Sudan. But the lack of aid means there simply isn’t enough to protect this population. If you are in especially far-flung areas like Kabo or in between Bria and Bakouma, you have only yourself to depend on. Whether aid agencies provide or don’t provide food, or if UN peacekeepers respond to pleas for help and protection or not, no one really knows. You are on your own.
When we are done detailing the current predicament at the camp in Kabo and documenting their stories, the Imam at the Kabo camp, Daoud Abdoulaye, says he had a question for me. Why had the world’s Muslims not come forward to help them more? Why hadn’t Arabs in particular come forward to help their black Muslim brothers and sisters struggling here? The questions catch me off-guard. I let him know what I think. A few men, sitting in the shade of the wooden shed, nod their heads.
The people of CAR are caught between continued exploitation of the Western world, incompetence of their African neighbours and racism of the Arab world. They are just poor black people after all. “It is okay. We will pray for them anyway,” the Imam says.
THE FORGOTTEN ONES: Struggling to survive, day by day… more than half of the country’s people are dependent on aid and in need of food.