Last week intense fighting broke out when UN peacekeepers opposed armed groups targeting civilian populations in Bangassou, a south-eastern town in the Central African Republic. Thousands of people are now seeking refuge at the central hospital, the mosque, and the local cathedral. Cordaid has a humanitarian program in the country and a health program in the Bangassou area where we are currently hosting a team of international organizations that will play a pivotal role in the response to the ongoing crisis. Furthermore, we will offer free medicines to respond to the needs of the displaced population.
On May 13 armed groups attacked the UN MINUSCA base with heavy weaponry and attacked civilians overnight, targeting Muslims in particular.
Our colleague Dr Firmin Kamayengue, head of our small Cordaid team in Bangassou, reports: “Our local staff, in their homes at the time of the fighting during the weekend, saw the atrocities committed by the armed groups. Some were at risk as their homes were hit by bullets.”
Thousands hiding in mosque and cathedral
Bangassou being cut off at the moment, our staff in the capital of Bangui is better informed about the situation. Sosthène Hicuburundi, Cordaid’s country Director in the Central African Republic and based in Bangui, explains: “The situation in Bangassou is catastrophic. Roads and bridges to the town have been blocked. Hundreds of houses were burnt down. It’s impossible to access the town over land. We do not know how many people have been killed, but at least 7000 people have fled. Many of them are now hiding in the catholic church, in the mosque, in the hospital. This number could well increase in the coming days.”
Some colleagues were at risk as their homes were hit by bullets.
Dr Firmin Kamayenge, Cordaid team leader in Bangassou
Most urgent needs: food, water, medical assistance
The UN and other international agencies who have resources or staff on the ground, including Cordaid, are quickly aligning humanitarian response plans. Hicuburundi: “To minimize risks IDPs will be accommodated in one site. This allows for better protection. Thousands of displaced people, among them many women and young children, haven’t properly eaten for days. They urgently need food, safe drinking water, hygiene items and medical assistance.”
Our staff in Bangassou, closely working together with rural health structures in and around Bangassou, stresses the need for drug supplies. Hicuburundi: “Health structures cannot cope with the situation. They urgently need additional medicines.”
Saving lives comes with taking risks
To respond to the crisis in Bangassou, Cordaid will use part of the medicine stock of its health program which is funded by the European Union through the Fonds Bêkou. “It takes months to buy and ship large amounts of medicines and stock them safely in a place like Bangassou”, Hicuburundi explains. “Luckily, we have a good medicine stock in Bangui so we can transport them quickly by air and distribute them for free in Bangassou hospitals. We have resources, we have people on the ground. This means we can act fast. But it demands flexibility, also of our own back donors. In this case we requested the EU for the flexibility to use part of the Fonds Békou differently than planned.”
Thousands of displaced people haven’t properly eaten for days. They need food, safe drinking water, hygiene items and medical assistance.
Sosthène Hicuburundi, Cordaid Country Director in Bangui
“Saving lives in crisis situations, especially in volatile and insecure settings, comes with taking financial risks”, adds Annelies Claessens, Cordaid’s Humanitarian Aid director. “Globally, humanitarian responses are severely underfunded. So we need to be inventive with whatever financial means we have, without compromising our accountability towards our donors. In the case of Bangassou, we will cover expenses for free medicines to displaced families with our own private donor funds if needed.”
In addition to supplying medicines, Cordaid is providing logistical support to other humanitarian organisations in and around Bangassou. Through the UNOCHA mechanism we are also contributing to the overall coordination of the response at Bangui level.
We need to be inventive with whatever financial means we have, without compromising our accountability towards our donors.
Annelies Claessens, Cordaid Director Humanitarian Aid
Situation remains worrying
At the moment the situation in Bangassou seems to have de-escalated. Dr Kamayengue: “Local radio stations ask people to remain calm and resume their daily activities. UN peacekeepers from the MINUSCA mission have taken control again of the town, after UN reinforcements were sent to protect us. But the situation remains extremely precarious.”
The Catholic church, in the person of Cardinal Nzapalainga who comes from the Bangassou area himself, played an important role in diminishing tensions. Nzapailinga reportedly even spent a night in the mosque, negotiating free passage for trapped Muslim civilians. The fact that until now only women and children were allowed to safely leave the mosque, illustrates how worrying the situation remains.
Hicuburundi: “As to the safety of our staff, we are constantly evaluating with Cordaid headquarters in The Hague, whether the security situation allows us to continue our field activities.”
Cardinal Nzapalainga reportedly even spent a night in the mosque, negotiating free passage for trapped Muslim civilians.
Cordaid in the Central African Republic
Cordaid has had an active and direct presence in the Central African Republic since 2008. Through subsequent crises, the organization and its staff have remained committed to supporting the people of the Central African Republic through their moments of greatest need. Cordaid leadership at The Hague as well as the country team remain committed to supporting all government and donor efforts to rebuild a stronger and more stable country through well-designed programs that respond to short term and long term needs.