The young woman had walked for days to reach a pillaged hospital in Kaga Bandoro, a tiny poor town in the middle of the Central African Republic (CAR). She arrived just in time to give birth to a miraculously healthy baby boy – in a place with no electricity, no medicines, no mattresses, no food.
“I’m hungry,” she said when I asked her how she was feeling. And she is not the only one – the killings, looting and rapes over the last months have dramatically increased the hardship in a country that has suffered from decades of instability. One in three people in CAR do not know where their next meal will come from.
The fear experienced by ordinary people as a result of recent fighting is still palpable. Even in the best of times CAR has been a dysfunctional state, unable to provide stable governance and a framework of law and order for its 4.6 million citizens. But at this moment in time it’s as if the state has ceased to exist at all and a vacuum looms, into which armed gangs have rushed to occupy the space.
The Catholic bishop of the province, Mgr Albert Vanbuel, told me that in a region of 130,000 people, more than half had fled into the bush to escape the marauding gangs who raped, assaulted and looted. “Many are still hiding in the forests, they come back and forth but they don’t have any trust in normality returning,” he said.
“Everyone is afraid, there are barely any services because everything’s been stolen. There were dozens of schools before but now they are all closed. In my 20 years in the country this has been the most violent period and there is no authority. It’s an enormous problem.”
Some courageous humanitarians, among them the Red Cross, never left Kaga Bandoro, a provincial capital with only 26,000 residents which resembles a village of mud huts. Others are now returning. This gives the local population some confidence that order will also return.
With Valerie Amos, the UN Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, I visited a United Nations compound which was looted and then trashed after all the staff were evacuated because of the conflict. Around half a million dollars of food and life-saving medicines and equipment vanished and it will take a lot of money and time to restore the facility.
The needs of Central African Republic are huge but they are not insurmountable. It is a country with a relatively small population which sadly has been ignored for far too long, filed in the “forgotten crises” category. In my meetings with the transitional president, the prime minister and government ministers I found an eagerness to turn CAR’s fortunes around. They have gained support from their neighbours, worried that a collapse in CAR will spread trouble through a volatile region.
It is crucial that the international community steps up attention and assistance to CAR – without it the local determination to create change for the benefit of everyone may not last and may not succeed. The European Union is doing its part – while I was there I announced a 150% increase in humanitarian aid. It’s now up to others to roll up their sleeves too. We must not let the Central African Republic slip from the world’s attention again – for the sake of its people, and for the stability of the region.