In CAR, you’re on your own

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - AZAD ESSA

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.

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