CAR: “We want peace so we can return home”
Father of seven Robert Demba is living with his family at the foot of the Bangui International Airport runway. They live in three, small adjoined shelters that they built out of sticks and bed sheets.
The Dembas have been living at the airport – in the largest displacement site in the country – since fighting broke out in the Central African Republic (CAR) on 5 December. It is now home to an estimated 100,000 people. Across the country, more than 800,000 have been forced from their homes by the fighting.
Life here is tough, says Robert. Every day is a struggle. Aid groups are providing some support, and the closest water source is on the other side of the runway – a journey that is periodically interrupted by the arrival of commercial and military aircraft.
“People wait in the trees”
Robert and his family were not always in such a dire predicament: “I had a house on the other side [of the airport],” he says. “But I lost my house to a grenade.”
The destruction of their home puts the Dembas among the worst-affected by the violence. When asked if he wants to leave the squalid airport camp and begin to rebuild his home, Robert is cautious. His reply echoes what 99 per cent of people told the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in a recent survey. He wants to return, but not before security can be guaranteed.
“We want peace so we can return home”, Robert says. But right now, in his neighbourhood, “people wait in trees to attack us.”
Improved security is critical
There are about 5,400 African Union troops in CAR, supported by 1,600 French troops, responsible for securing safety for people like Robert and his family. Five hundred more troops are coming, as promised by the international community at a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers that was held in Brussels in late January.
Abdou Dieng, the Senior Humanitarian Coordinator to CAR, said improved security is vital to ensure that civilians are protected and that aid groups can reach all those affected by the violence. This message, he said, was at the heart of his advocacy at a High-Level Meeting on Humanitarian Action in CAR that was held in Brussels on the same day as the meeting of Foreign Ministers.
“I took with me the message of peace and security to Brussels,” he said. “The international community responded with generous pledges in humanitarian, security, and early recovery assistance.”
Aid stocks running dangerously low
The international community pledged USD$200 million at the Brussels meeting to support humanitarian activities, responding to the pleas of Dieng and other senior humanitarian officials. To date, $127 million has been received, with $60 million going to projects that fall under the Strategic Response Plan.
The money received has allowed for daily food distributions, anti-measles vaccination activities, and clean water for the Dembas and other families camped at the airport.
However, new supplies of aid have been delayed by the closure of the border with Cameroon. Commercial transporters are also increasingly unwilling to travel to CAR because of the insecurity and attacks on aid convoys.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that food stocks are running low, announcing on 4 February that they only have enough food in Bangui for a week. The agency is set to begin airlifting food from Cameroon, despite the fact that doing so will cost five times as much as transporting food by road.
Escorts are now being provided by MISCA – the African-led International Support Mission to CAR – in an effort to secure the route from Douala in Cameroon to Bangui.
For the Dembas, assistance cannot come fast enough. The first downpours of the approaching rainy season have arrived, making the situation at the airport even more difficult.