Those forced to flee tell of torched villages, extortion and indiscriminate attacks.
Members of Revolution and Justice (RJ) and fighters belonging to the Movement for the Liberation of the Central African Republic People (MNLC) have been engaged in violent clashes in the Paoua region, close to the border with Chad, since 27 December 2017. Around 30,000 people have fled the fighting to take refuge in the town of Paoua. The situation remains extremely tense.
All the peripheral health centres are closed and very few wounded casualties have reached the hospital in Paoua.
The team from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) at the hospital have treated 13 victims of the fighting and attacks.
“This is very little, taking into account the number of displaced people who reached Paoua and the extreme violence they report to our teams,” says Gwenola François, MSF head of mission.
“Many tell of men on horseback shooting at anything that moves, of dead and wounded people left behind in the bush. We are very concerned by the situation there.”
Léonard Gangbe, a 33-year-old farmer, was one of the wounded who made it to the hospital in Paoua. When the fighting broke out, he and several neighbours fled their village to a house in the forest. He was shot in the left cheek as he tried to stop armed men stealing the cattle he had taken with him. The bullet tore through his nose and top lip.
Because of the fighting, our teams have had to suspend their work in the seven health centres in outlying districts of Paoua where they provide assistance. Three of these centres have reportedly been looted.
A region made vulnerable by persistent violence
The region of Paoua was relatively spared from the fighting and escalation of violence throughout the past year. Yet even in relatively safe parts of the country, people are subjected to pervasive and sustained violence.
The violence is not only characterised by fighting between armed groups, targeted attacks against the population and the numbers of people left dead or wounded; it is fostered by the incapacity of state authority to provide security in much of the country and the proliferation of armed men who live off people’s backs. These men use any excuse to impose a tax – happening to be on a particular road, owning cattle, or even living in one’s own home.
Josianne Wankian is 37 and mother to nine children. Her story is one such example.
Josianne, who is now living in Paoua, is from Betokomia, a village a few kilometres away. At five in the morning on 28 December 2017, she heard gunshots near her home. Her husband and 13-year-old son ran off because it was rumoured that, although women wouldn’t be hurt, the men would be killed immediately.
She was alone with her children when armed men came demanding food and money. Josianne borrowed 12,000 francs CFA (18 euros) from a goat trader so that she and her children could seek refuge with her older sister who lives in Paoua.
This was not the first time armed men had demanded money from Josianne and her family. In August 2017, they even torched her home.
“My husband’s a farmer, so we were able to grow more and sell our produce to increase our income,” explains Josianne.
“When armed men see a decent house, they demand food, cattle or money. They ordered us to pay a tax of 50,000 francs (76 euros) for our four cattle and 120,000 francs (183 euros) just to carry on living in our home. We don’t have that kind of money.”
Josianne gave them 25,000 francs (38 euros), which was everything she had.
“As the house didn’t yet have a roof, they said they’d come back when it was finished,” she continues.
“But it didn’t stop them stealing our belongings and setting the house on fire. After that, my eight children and I spent several months living out in the fields. We’d just started rebuilding our house in Betokomia when the fighting flared up again a few days ago.”
Like Josianne, 30,000 people or more in the Paoua region have fled neighbouring villages and sought refuge with family in the town, which is becoming increasingly dangerous. Each local household often hosts more than 40 displaced people, and the provision of sufficient water and food will soon become an issue.
MSF has been working in Paoua since 2006. We support the emergency room and paediatric ward of Paoua hospital and ensure that children and pregnant women have access to primary healthcare in seven peripheral health centres. We now provide medical aid to populations in Bria, Bambari, Alindao, Batangafo, Kabo, Bossangoa, Boguila, Paoua, Carnot and Bangui. Since the escalation of armed conflict at the beginning of 2017, we have had to adapt several of our programmes to respond to the urgent needs of populations directly affected by the violence.