The worst place to be a child

In­fant mor­tal­ity in Cen­tral African Re­pub­lic the high­est in the world

Daily Dispatch - - World News -

The line of par­ents wait­ing to see doc­tors stretches back out­side the hospi­tal into the dusty court­yard. Moms and dads car­ry­ing weak, starv­ing chil­dren. Many hang­ing limply in their arms like half empty sacks of rice.

The scene at the pae­di­atric com­plex in Ban­gui, cap­i­tal of Cen­tral African Re­pub­lic, is not dis­sim­i­lar to a war zone. And as con­flict tears through the coun­try, peo­ple des­per­ately fight an­other deadly foe: hunger.

In a door­way, a young girl stands with the round shape of her belly pro­trud­ing out above her skinny legs. A few me­tres away an­other mal­nour­ished girl sits bare­foot, joints pro­trud­ing, with shoul­der blades poking out of her skin, a baggy top the only cloth­ing to cling to her per­ished frame.

“The CAR is one of the most dif­fi­cult coun­tries to be a child,” said Don­aig Le Dru, Unicef spokesper­son in CAR. The statis­tics un­der­line the hor­rors that stalk child­hood in the coun­try.

In­fant mor­tal­ity in CAR is the high­est in the world. One in 24 chil­dren die in the first 28 days of life. The num­ber of chil­dren with se­vere or acute mal­nu­tri­tion rose from about 32,000 to 43,000 be­tween 2014 and the end of 2018.

And two out of three – 1.5mil­lion young­sters in to­tal – are in need of hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance.

The UN’s World Food Pro­gramme warned last month that CAR was fac­ing the worst sit­u­a­tion of food in­se­cu­rity in four years, with nearly 2-mil­lion peo­ple in ur­gent need of food aid.

Civil un­rest has lac­er­ated this im­pov­er­ished but min­eral-rich coun­try for years, leav­ing the econ­omy in tat­ters and caus­ing mis­ery for those caught in the vi­o­lence. In a re­port re­leased last month, the UN ex­pressed alarm over a “sharp in­crease in fight­ing” and said “life may be even harder and more dan­ger­ous for chil­dren” than it was at the last civil war five years ago.

One of the world’s poor­est coun­tries, the CAR spi­ralled into blood­shed after long­time leader Fran­cois Boz­ize was over­thrown in 2013 by a pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim rebel al­liance called the Seleka. Nom­i­nally Chris­tian mili­tias called the anti-Bal­aka emerged in re­sponse, ac­cel­er­at­ing a cy­cle of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence.

France in­ter­vened mil­i­tar­ily from 2013 to 2016 to push out the Seleka, wind­ing down the op­er­a­tion after FaustinAr­change Touadera was elected pres­i­dent.

Touadera gov­erns to­day with the sup­port of a large UN peace­keep­ing op­er­a­tion. But most of the coun­try is con­trolled by exrebels and mili­tias, many of them claim­ing to act as guardians for the Mus­lim or Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties. The Ban­gui hospi­tal is just a few kilo­me­tres from the mainly Mus­lim PK5 district – an area that has be­come a flash­point in the trou­bled coun­try.

But just five pae­di­a­tri­cians work here, strug­gling with lim­ited equip­ment or sup­port eked out of the creak­ing health­care sys­tem.

In­side the hospi­tal, a group of par­ents and chil­dren stare at a mal­nour­ished girl cry­ing dur­ing what has be­come a daily rou­tine – be­ing weighed on scales in a large blue bucket.

One by one, the chil­dren are lifted onto the scales as other ema­ci­ated in­fants and par­ents look on, wait­ing their turn.

In the over­crowded hospi­tal grounds, a fa­ther called Theodore hugs his young daugh­ter who is suf­fer­ing from mal­nu­tri­tion.

His wife is in hospi­tal after hav­ing a ner­vous break­down, he says, after the cou­ple’s first child died. He strug­gles to earn enough money to buy food.

In gen­eral, chil­dren are hos­pi­talised for a lit­tle over a week un­til their weight re­cov­ers.

But not all sur­vive, with some los­ing the fight against se­vere mal­nu­tri­tion or dis­ease – the last­ing con­se­quences of vi­o­lence and poverty in a na­tion wracked by con­flict. —

The Cen­tral African Re­pub­lic is a most dif­fi­cult coun­try to be a child

Pic­ture: FLORENT VERGNES / AFP

HARSH RE­AL­ITY: A mother and her child wait in the cor­ri­dors of the Ban­gui pae­di­atric hospi­tal.

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