Humanitarians are still facing major challenges in Batangafo
For years, people in Batangafo, Ouham Prefecture, in the northwest of the Central African Republic have been living under constant threats from armed groups that commit abuses including arbitrary arrests, robberies and assaults. As if this wasn’t enough, each year, the seasonal migration of nomad stockbreeders (transhumance) disrupts the entire sub-prefecture because of conflicts between resident farmers and nomad stockbreeders. When cattle in search of pasture destroy fields, farmers often retaliate by killing them, which degenerates into clashes with the cattle owners. This insecurity leads to a restriction of movements which has serious consequences for the people who are deprived of access to fields, markets and places of trade where they earn a living. It also renders access to health facilities, schools and humanitarian assistance difficult or even impossible. Access for humanitarian organizations to people in need has also often been interrupted in recent years. As a result, Batangafo residents face pressing needs across all sectors, despite the efforts of humanitarians. The COVID-19 pandemic has further deteriorated an already precarious humanitarian situation. Among those most affected by this crisis are some 35,600 internally displaced people (IDP) in the Batangafo Sub-prefecture.
Response to major humanitarian issues
Access to drinking water and poor hygiene and sanitation remain among the major challenges in Batangafo, particularly at an IDP site where almost 10,000 people live in promiscuity. Physical distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 remain very difficult to implement in these overcrowded conditions, aggravated by limited access to water and soap. However, humanitarian partners are continuing efforts to improve the situation – especially during the current health crisis. Since July, the NGO Oxfam has increased the capacity of water available to the population in Batangafo. In addition to a water tower, 12 standpipes have been installed in neighborhoods where previously displaced people had returned and at IDP sites. The amount of water available has thus increased from 195 to 225 m3 per day, enabling each person to consume on average 10 liters a day. Despite this improvement, the quantity of water available remains well below the standard minimum consumption of 15 liters in emergency situations. To ensure better hygiene and prevent diseases, the NGOs Oxfam and Danish Refugee Council (DRC) have built 390 semi-durable latrines at the different IDP sites. However, a gap of 282 latrines remains before the needs are met. Garbage collection at the IDP sites is another challenge. The NGOs Oxfam, DRC and Aide d'urgence pour le développement socio-économique de la Centrafrique (AUDESEC) organize regular garbage disposal to avoid that drainages are blocked and cause flooding, to prevent the spread of diseases and to create a clean and livable environment.
The lack of adequate shelter at the IDP sites remains also a problem. The last distribution of tarpaulins, which helped to improve shelters and prevent leakages, dates back to October 2018. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does not currently have any available resources for a distribution. This situation is pushing the IDPs to build semi-durable shelters. The lack of shelter not only exposes people to inhumane living conditions and protection risks, but also to diseases, especially during the rainy season from April to October.
Survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) can receive medical care from the NGO Médecins sans frontières (MSF) and psycho-social assistance from the NGO DRC. Between January and July, 47 people in Batangafo, mainly women and girls, became victims of GBV according to statistics from the NGO INTERSOS, which monitors protection incidents and refers victims to appropriate support services. However, this is likely an underestimation as many GBV victims do not file a report because of fear of reprisals, shame or because they are not aware of support services. The Association des femmes évangéliques de Bossangoa (AFEB) supports the community on child protection. During August, the NGO reunited 40 children between the age of 4 and 17 who were separated from their families due to the crisis, and reintegrated into the community 186 children previously associated with armed forces or armed groups.
Humanitarian partners in Batangafo also joined forces to prevent COVID-19 and treat patients. Thanks to the set-up of an isolation center in May, the first COVID-19 case diagnosed in Batangafo on 14 August was treated according to the Ministry of Health and Population protocol. The patient's contacts are being monitored to prevent a further spread of the virus. Humanitarian partners are also sensitizing the population on preventive measures, for example through radio spots that are broadcast in French, Arabic, the national language Sango and the local language Foufouldé. Humanitarian organizations have also installed over 300 handwashing facilities at IDP sites and schools.
The security of humanitarians put to a test
Insecurity in and around Batangafo impacts not only the population but also humanitarian assistance. From January to August 2020, 19 incidents directly affecting humanitarian personnel or property were recorded. On 5 August, the only humanitarian actor supporting the hospital in the Batangafo-Kabo health district had to reduce its activities to emergency interventions only following threats against its personnel. This reduction had a major impact on the population, including 35,600 IDPs, as the NGO is the only partner supporting the Batangafo hospital and offering a referral service for those living within a 100 km radius. On 19 August, the NGO resumed its activities at the hospital to the great relief of the population.
Despite daily patrols that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) conducts in Batangafo town and on the three peripheral axes, the protection of civilians remains fragile. In addition, the armed groups do not respect the civilian character of the IDP sites and use them as a base for criminal activities, putting the safety of civilians at risk. The armed elements commit abuses against IDPs, including arbitrary arrests and killings. The weak presence of the state authority and the absence of a judicial system further promote impunity. In addition to the persistent insecurity coupled with financial constraints that humanitarian actors face, the deterioration of roads leading to Kabo, Bouca and Ouandago makes physical access and the delivery of humanitarian assistance even more difficult, particularly during the rainy season from April to October.