From the air, the camp at Bria looks like a small town, with warrens of metal shacks glinting amid the dusty red clay. And in many ways it is, an enforced sanctuary for 65,000 people desperate to escape the militias that roam this part of the Central African Republic (CAR).
People have fled to this camp from surrounding villages to escape an epidemic of murder and rape fueled by sectarian and ethnic hatred. They represent just a fraction of a humanitarian crisis that threatens to overwhelm the country.
Six years of fighting, involving a bewildering array of rebel groups, have left 1.2 million people displaced, nearly a quarter of the national population. Just under half of CAR’s people are food insecure, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). The latest UN Development Index ranked CAR 188 out of 189 countries, above only Niger.
This African crisis is on a par with those in Yemen and Syria but gets much less attention than either – perhaps because CAR, a landlocked country of abject poverty, has never seemed as geopolitically significant as those other cases.
Bria is a two-hour flight from the capital, Bangui, over an endless canopy of rain forest and snaking rivers. CNN visited the camp on what the WFP’s country director, Gian Carlo Cirri, described as “a good day.” An aid convoy had just arrived, ensuring that for the next week at least people would have enough to eat. It had taken five weeks to reach Bria from the capital.
Hundreds queued in the broiling midday heat for their ration of rice and oil, watched over by a handful of Zambian soldiers who are in CAR as part of the UN peacekeeping presence known as MINUSCA.
“We rely on armed escorts to bring in our food,” said Cirri. More than half the tracks across CAR (there are only a handful of metaled roads) are unsafe; there were 396 attacks on aid workers in 2018. In a country that has just a few hundred trained soldiers and where the government controls about a quarter of the territory, aid convoys must be protected by the UN peacekeepers. But they too are overstretched – there are 13,000 UN “blue helmets,” as the troops are known, in a country the size of Texas.
“There is an additional difficulty with the terrain,” Cirri said. “We are entering the rainy season. So some parts of the country won’t be accessible with our trucks.”
The majority of people in the Bria camp are women and children. Many of the men in this part of the country have been killed; some have joined one or another rebel faction just to earn a pittance.
Lavender Clemence appears to be in her late 30s. Surrounded by her children, she produces a photograph of her husband. He was beaten to death by one of the rebel groups, for whom arbitrary killing is a stock-in-trade.
Lavender says the camp is more like a prison than a refuge. “I am always suffering. I even had to sell some of my peas and rice to have some spending money,” she told CNN.
“As soon as I can go home I will,” she said. “I cannot suffer here any longer.”
But many thousands of the camp’s residents have been hoping to return home for three years. And they know it’s unlikely anytime soon. Just a few weeks previously, a woman who had gone just over a mile from the camp was raped and murdered.
The conditions may be a notch above destitute, but beyond the berms that surround the camp lies the very real prospect of being killed.
The lack of security and accessibility, inadequate funding and the proliferation of weapons are just a few of the overlapping crises in CAR, making the delivery of aid a constant headache for aid agencies. This is a life support mission; development seems like a pipe dream.