Central African Republic: Will Bambari be next?

‘Will Bambari be next?’ This is the question on everyone’s lips in Central African Republic’s second city and commercial hub. Its residents worry that the violence engulfing the cities of Bangassou and Bria since early May – in the form of brutal massacres – could soon spread to Bambari, a repetition of the bloodshed of the 2013-2014 war.

The Ouaka River splits the city in two, with one part predominantly Christian and the other mainly Muslim. Bambari has been calm over recent months, its numerous ethnic and religious groups living relatively peacefully, side by side. In February, the UN stabilisation mission, MINUSCA, declared Bambari a “city without arms”, strengthening the perception of it as a safe area for those fleeing violence elsewhere in the country.

Currently, 50 per cent of Bambari’s residents have been displaced from their homes in other parts of Central African Republic. Of the 55,869 displaced people, 10,300 have arrived in Bambari since mid-March. Most are living in nine camps that ring the city. These are improvised settlements without running water, electricity or basic health services – conditions which raise the risk of epidemics.

The displaced people, along with Bambari’s long-term residents, rely on the city’s hospital for medical care. The hospital is supported by an Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team, and another MSF team supports two health centres in the city.

Bambari’s calm has recently been shaken by events nearby. On 8 May, a massacre took place in Alindao, a town 120 kilometres away, during which 133 people were killed and entire neighbourhoods were burned to the ground. This triggered a resurgence of violence in Alindao and forced people to flee for Bambari.

MSF teams in Bambari treated 22 people for violence-related injuries in May – in contrast to just eight people in April – including four children. One of the children, just three years old, had been shot in the face. “He lost most of his lower lip due to a gunshot and has a severe infection,” says MSF medical referent Nicole Hart.

Most of those injured in Alindao had gunshot wounds, but some had knife injuries and burns. “I attended a man whose throat had been cut,” says Hart. “He had spent two days in the forest near Alindao before being brought to Bambari. The look on his face was full of panic. We operated on him and he is now slowly recovering.”

Speaking from his hospital bed, the patient, Anga, describes the attack: “As I was lying on the ground, protecting myself from the shooting, a man approached me, lifted my head and cut my throat with a knife. I thought I had died, but it seems that a part of my throat was saved and I continued breathing.”

“Another young girl had most of her body burned,” says Hart. “She was locked up with her family in her house and they set the house on fire. Sadly, she passed away some days ago.”

With the influx of displaced people, MSF teams are also seeing increasing numbers of sick patients. “The health centre in the Muslim area of the city is located next to a field where displaced Fulani people [a Muslim group] are living, and currently we are providing 120 consultations each morning,” says MSF outreach nurse Andrea Blas. “We are seeing a considerable increase in cases of malnutrition, diarrhoea and malaria.”

The number of people with severe acute malnutrition seen by MSF teams in Elevage health centre, in the Muslim area of the city, increased from three new cases in January to 17 cases in May, while patients with moderate malnutrition increased from 36 in January to 126 in May.

Bambari may be peaceful at present, but no one knows how long it will last. “After the incidents in Alindao, people are increasingly worried,” says MSF project coordinator Cédric Chapon. “Instability has already affected most of the major cities, with the exception of Bambari. But people are afraid. Even if it’s peaceful between the two communities at present, there’s the risk that any small criminal incident could be interpreted as an act of provocation, which could ignite a wave of violence between the communities in Bambari.”