Starting over, over and over again
Life has resumed in Bambari. This is at least the impression one gets when driving through the dusty streets. The latest delivery of trading goods from Sudan adds colour to the shops along the main street, carpenters saw up what will become furniture and motorcycles whizz past pedestrians.
Nothing as it used to be
But life is not as it used to be for everyone. The town in the heart of the Central African Republic is just emerging from its latest crisis. Two days lasted the combats in mid-February that seem momentarily forgotten in the centre of the city.
Not so for Fatima, sitting on a stool at the Elevage site, her home for the past four years and home for 8,500 other internally displaced persons. The site was the scene of fighting for 48 hours. When Fatima heard the first gunshots, the young woman grabbed her children and ran to a nearby building that used to house the local livestock authority. Made of concrete, it promised better protection than Fatima’s makeshift shelter made entirely of straw. The family stayed there for three full days. Children, the elderly, women and men, all crowded close together. « There were many of us, so many… », Fatima closes her eyes as she tries to recount how many families had gathered in the bare building and eventually becomes silent. The youngest were crying because they were hungry. The mothers were crying because they could not give them anything to eat, as the fighting was felt right up to their doorstep.
What little they had
A rocket-propelled projectile hit the roof of their refuge but fortunately did not explode. But the smell of smoke indicated that not everything was in order. Hours after the last footsteps were heard outside their hideout, Fatima stepped into the sunlight and saw the destruction. Her home was gone, burned to the ground, with only a circle of ashes left. So were her neighbours’ huts. In the middle of the battlefield, they probably caught fire from falling projectiles. Of what little they had, everything was gone – blankets, clothes and food supplies – with only a carbonized pot left behind. Left with no more than their lives, Fatima and her children were taken in by neighbours who now share what little they have.
A heavy price to pay
Clashes in Bambari on 15 and 16 February took the lives of more than 10 people. Another 36, including eight women and nine children, the youngest just over a year old, sustained gunshot wounds. They received surgery and care at the local hospital supported by Médecins Sans Frontières. A health clinic at the entrance of the Elevage site for the displaced that serves about thousand people was severely damaged by the fighting and had to close for days, further compromising the already precarious access to health care. Three other health facilities in Bambari suffered heavily from the recent clashes; one was also damaged, and two others looted.
Fatima’s children are running around her as she sits on her stool. The family has been spared from visible injuries. But the fresh experience weighs heavily, particularly on the children. They have been out of school since last December. Violence related to the general elections has since kept schools closed across the region – even across the country, where one in two children is out of school. In Bambari, four schools were vandalized – furniture used as firewood and doors and windows stolen – two schools were even occupied by armed groups. But there is hope for the young ones in Bambari with the planned reopening of schools in March. UNICEF and other humanitarian partners support the local school board in identifying what is needed ahead of the opening, now that the town is relatively calm and armed groups have vacated the schools. The clashes in Bambari also halted the work of humanitarians. As the situation calms, they are now able to assess people’s needs and assist them accordingly.
When the abnormal becomes normal
Not everyone found refuge from the recent clashes in Bambari in the vicinity of their homes, like Fatima did. Thousands of people are thought to have fled into the surrounding bushes, found protection at the hospital, near the UN peacekeepers or with relatives or strangers in other parts of town. Since the situation has become calmer, most of the displaced have returned.
Already before this latest crisis, Bambari was home to over 15,000 internally displaced persons from the region or other parts of the country. The prefecture, Ouaka, is the fourth most affected by internal displacement with 74,000 displaced women, men and children. Displacement is part of life for so many Central Africans. Preventive, pendular or long-term displacement, each time an interruption of life. One in four Central Africans is currently displaced, either within the country or as a refugee abroad. Since mid-December of last year, the surge in violence related to the elections has newly displaced over 276,000 people within the country and pushed over 45,000 across the borders, according to registrations by the UN Refugee Agency. Over half of the internally displaced have since returned home. A return to a, often, shattered life, to gathering pieces of what remains.
Perpetual new beginning
Starting from scratch after each displacement requires energy. Building a new home, saving to buy household items, replanting gardens and fields. Fatima has done this before. Looking at her children chasing each other around the muddy ground, she knows why she has no other choice. « If it wasn’t for my children, I wouldn’t know where to take the energy from », says the young mother and looks wistfully into the direction of where her home used to be.