Aid worker diary: Seeking safety from the violence of the Central African Republic
Months of violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. Over 90,000 people have crossed into Chad where they have found support from local authorities and aid groups in a series of transit centres. Last month, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund released US$3.2 million to help aid groups provide these people with basic, critical support.
OCHA's Philippe Kropf visited Doyaba, one of the largest transit sites and home to about 11,000 returnees and refugees.
Habsita is about 14 years old. She carries a young boy on her hip. “We gave him the name Sans Soucis,” she tells me, matter-of-factly. Sans Soucis is French for ‘Carefree’. It is a remarkable name for a boy whose young life has been anything but.
Habsita, Sans Soucis and a few dozen other children all arrived at the Doyaba transit site alone, without their parents or family. All of them had horrific tales to tell. One 15 year old told me that he saw his father beaten to death by militia, pulled from their car on the road north to Chad.
Another recalled how one of their parents – they were too distraught to explain which one – fell off the back of a military truck that was ferrying them across the border. The truck didn’t stop. Some of the kids bear the scars of machete slashes on their heads, necks and legs – a testimony to the violence that drove them and tens of thousands of others to flee CAR since last December.
"We try to keep them occupied"
Doyaba, on the outskirts of the city of Sarh, is a sprawling home to more than 11,000 returned Chadian migrants and CAR refugees. There are almost 100 children here who, like Habsita and Sans Sousis, arrived without parents and families, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The unaccompanied children all live together in one corner of the site. Lydi Bele, a woman in her forties from Sarh, is one of the volunteers who looks after the children.
"They are traumatized,” she says. “We need to take care of them.”
Every morning she rides her motorbike the five kilometres from the city to Doyaba. "We try to keep them occupied but there is nothing to do on the site and the only soccer ball we have is falling apart."
Aid groups and volunteers are doing what they can to people here find some sense of normalcy amidst the distress and chaos. They are building latrine blocks (segregated by gender) and they are doing what they can to make sure that the food they distribute is as close to the food that people ate in CAR. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is organizing recreational activities to help the kids and adults deal with the stress of living in such an extreme situation.
Prayer spaces and tin can cars
But most of the work carving out a niche of normality in Doyaba is being done by the women, men, girls and boys who for the time being call this site home. Some men have marked a prayer space with sticks and string in the shade of a tree. Women fetch water at the fountains and cook food on improvised stoves. Children poke ripening mangoes with long sticks, trying to make them fall, and they turn empty sardine cans or plastic bottles into toys.
Some people have even set up small businesses. Many of those who fled CAR were traders, and a veritable market has grown at the main gate. Cooked food is sold and small generators charge mobile phones for a small fee.
Some have been able to re-establish their old professions. I met Souleiman Mahamat Sallet, a 34 year old tailor from Bangui who managed to bring his sewing machine on his exodus. He now spends each day sitting under a sun shade attached to his tent, fixing clothes. "I can make 1,500 to 2,000 CFA (Central African francs - between US$3 - 4) per day,” he explains to me. “That allows me to buy extra food."
The special vulnerability of nomadic tribes
But not everyone has adapted to life in Doyaba. The Fulani, a nomadic tribe with peoples spread across many West and Central African countries, were forced to leave their cattle behind in CAR. They have chosen to build their own tents from sticks, tarps and mosquito nets in a corner of the site. They keep to themselves and rarely request services that are provided by the government and the humanitarian community.
Saïa, a two year old girl from the Fulani community died less than three days after falling ill. Her father sits on the back of a Red Cross pickup truck, the small body of his daughter packed in white cloth according to Muslim customs.
I meet Bob Lobe, a doctor with the International Rescue Committee, an NGO. Bob has only been here in Doyaba for a few days but he already looks exhausted. “We treat an average of 120 patients a day,” he says by way of an explanation.
He explains that the Fulani rarely come to his clinic, and that he never saw young Saia before she died. "They rarely come to the health station," he explains. “It is difficult to reach them.”